Exploring the art of prose


The Novel, The Map by Hannah Grieco

Image is a color photograph of a yellow toy ambulance; title card for the new creative nonfiction essay, "The Novel, The Map," by Hannah Grieco.

In her creative nonfiction essay “The Novel, The Map,” Hannah Grieco writes about the challenges of raising a son with severe mental illness. “Motherhood, in its most complicated form, can be torture,” the narrator says. “The Novel, The Map” is a braided essay—moving in turns from the son’s story to that of the narrator as mother and as writer. Woven into these strands is background on post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as research on the healing properties of expressive writing.

Grieco writes of the literal trauma of parenting a seriously ill child, and of the negative fallout that the writer is exposed to for writing honestly and publicly about her life. “A good mother would never make her child’s experiences about herself,” critics tell her. And yet, what is a nonfiction writer to do? A writer may devote twenty or more years of her life to raising children. Should these years be forbidden or censored as a literary topic? If so, how do other parents learn they are not alone, find comfort and solidarity? The narrator of “The Novel, The Map” brackets her essay with news of a novel she is writing. Perhaps fiction is a safer, more socially sanctioned, way of sharing her experience. Her son is supportive, even offers to read it.

In her book, A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form, Brenda Miller writes that the braided essay offers a “form of armor when venturing into dangerous or risky material.” As in Hannah Grieco’s novel, the braided essay may protect the narrator from her would-be critics, making it clear that the essay is about the narrator’s complicated reaction to the difficult events in her life. “The Novel, The Map” uses a braided structure to form a kind of map of two lives, mother’s and son’s, on the journey through the intertwined worlds of mental health and illness, parenting and creative writing.  —CRAFT


Content Warning—suicidal ideation in a child


Right after my forty-sixth birthday, I begin writing a novel. It’s about a mother who loses all sense of personal identity while taking care of her very ill son. A mother who makes the wrong choices and almost loses him, along with herself.

“Good,” my fourteen-year-old says, when he finds out that I’m finally doing this. He hates to read, but he loves to tell everyone that I’m a writer. He’s doing well right now, going to school, and we’re seeing some promise with a new medicine.

“I’ll read your book,” he says. “If you want me to.”

It was unique, controversial even, when the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, because it focused on the outside events that impacted mental health, rather than an internal mental weakness of the human experiencing it. The Vietnam War brought this conversation to medical conferences and doctors’ offices across the United States, but PTSD had already been observed and written about for centuries. Early doctors diagnosed soldiers with maladies such as “irritable heart” and “battle fatigue.” And thousands of years earlier, Hippocrates himself described the frightening battle dreams that many soldiers experienced after coming home from war.

Wars, natural disasters, violence, loss: these are human experiences. Guilt, shame, fear: these are understandable, even humanity-defining, reactions to trauma.

Some factors that increase risk for PTSD include:

  • Living through dangerous events
  • Getting hurt or seeing another person hurt
  • Having little or no social support after a traumatic event
  • Dealing with extra stress after the event, such as pain and injury, or loss of a job or home

See also:

  • Your four-year-old begging you to kill him
  • Four years later, the plan he tells you about, like a secret, at three in the morning
  • A 911 call, then more 911 calls, clouds of police in your living room, cruiser after cruiser pulling up with lights flashing
  • Holding your son tight to keep his skin from flying apart/never crying in front of him/thanking the security guard as you get wanded/reassuring friends and family that yes, of course he’ll be better soon/threatening legal action when the doctors won’t let you bring food he’ll actually eat/explaining the med list again for the fifth time that morning/promising to buy him the new Zelda game when he comes home
  • Not having your child at home. He should be at home. You are his home.

My son experiences a new, profound mental-health crisis shortly after he turns fifteen. He has a post-traumatic stress response to a medical trauma—dystonia of the throat—and stops eating. Every breath is labored. His symptoms escalate, meshing with obsessive thoughts and a series of somatic indicators of psychosis until he has lost nearly forty pounds in two months. Until he sleeps next to me every night, but only after fighting it for hours, finally slipping against his will into smooth, quiet breaths that I listen to like a starving woman myself. I inch closer to his much-longer body, place my ear against his chest, exhausted but desperate. I remind myself: He’s alive.

We go back to the hospital, where my son has a surprisingly good inpatient experience. The medical team listens to him and invites him into the treatment process. He doesn’t call me every hour, this time, begging to come home. Instead, he makes friends and practices eating small bites of more and more foods. He spends my visits describing the absurdity of the required group classes. Yoga, where their awkward white social worker closes her eyes and hums Namaste over and over as everyone tries not to laugh. Art class, where his favorite friend stencils out an elaborate Fuck This Place, then discreetly folds the paper and passes it to my son while pretending to pay attention.

He begins to feel like a real person again.

On his second to last day, the doctor discusses my son’s diagnosis of PTSD. A phrase that has never come up before in over a decade of treatment. He then turns to me with the softest face I’ve ever seen on a psychiatrist.

“He’s been through a long series of traumas. Schizophrenia itself is traumatic. And you, you have PTSD, too. You’ve had it for ten years, but this was a rough patch, I know. Nobody thinks about the mothers or fathers of the kids on this unit. Nobody talks about the grief and ambiguous loss related to caregiving PTSD.”

Grief, I think? My son is alive. My son is okay.

Later, I’ll Google ambiguous loss. Later, I’ll discover the phrase grief limbo. Later, I’ll ask my husband, “What is this, a poetry class?”

“Thank you,” I tell the doctor.

I bring home my son, celebrating his smiles, his newly alert conversations. The nibbles of food that turn into full bites. The plans for school. The laughter from his bedroom as he plays video games with a friend who missed him these past two months.

I bring home my son and now I will be able to write, to finally finish my novel, to thaw what’s been frozen for months. I couldn’t write before, not this novel about a fictional mother with a fictional schizophrenic child. Not when my actual child woke up every morning next to me and whispered, “I want to die.”

But now he is home. Now he asks to go to Home Depot and get hot dogs at Mario’s for lunch. Now he walks the dog and empties the dishwasher and I sit at my desk and stare at the page. Sometimes I write two words and begin to cry. Sometimes I write fuckyoufuckyoufuckyouyoulazycunt. Sometimes I write Please, don’t screw this up. Just write. Mostly, I don’t write at all.

What is there to say? How do I say it? How have I said it before now?

I began writing late, compared to many. I was in my forties, practically ancient compared to most emerging writers. I wrote my first essay five years ago, about my son’s hospitalization for suicidality at the age of eight. I wrote it because it was rotting inside me. I wrote it in hopes of purging, as an act of confession, and it ended up published in The Washington Post. From there, I realized a few new facts about myself and this world:

  • It helped, writing this essay. Not to heal my decaying life, but to slow the breakdown.
  • I was not alone in these parenting experiences that had seemed so unusual and horrific.
  • My child was not alone in these life experiences that seemed so unusual and horrific.
  • Many people now thought I was a terrible person for sharing this story, which they believed should have stayed private.

But private sometimes means secret. Private almost always means hidden.

In 1986 social psychologist James Pennebaker copublished a research study about the benefits of expressive writing in trauma recovery. His research involved university students writing about specific traumatic experiences for fifteen minutes a day on four consecutive days. The results were astonishing. The students who wrote their stories visited the campus student health center 50% less over the next six months compared to the students in the control group. “Many students came out of their writing rooms in tears,” Pennebaker writes, “but they kept coming back. And, by the last day of the experiment, most reported that the experience had been profoundly important for them.”

At the time, Pennebaker was focused on physical symptoms. And follow-up studies pointed to improved health as a result of this confessional-style writing. There seemed to be indicators that expressive writing could encourage healing in the therapeutic environment.

In 1997, Pennebaker  published “Writing about Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process,” in which he discusses the natural inclination of humans to tell their stories after an emotional upheaval. He notes that keeping secrets interfered with sleep, health, relationships, and performance at work or school.

Hundreds of studies confirmed Pennebaker’s work over the following decades, including one that suggested that trauma actively damages the brain—but “when people translate their emotional experience into words, they may be changing the way it is organized in the brain.”

I wake up one morning, reach for my phone before facing the day, and there she is. An essayist whose writing I love, whom I aspire to emulate. A simple hot take on social media about how parents should never write about their children. There is an immediate clenching in my stomach, an immediate wave of shame that floods me.

This comment feels much larger and more meaningful than a mere post. This is my literary community, a collection of writers that has become my only friend group in an increasingly isolated parenting experience. This is not a comment from a stranger underneath an article I’ve written or hate mail in my inbox. After two years of freelance writing, I withdrew from the more public world of writing essays for newspapers. No more complaints from parents that a child like mine was ruining their children’s classroom experiences. No more threats from people I’d never met because of an op-ed piece about inclusion in the classroom or disability acceptance.

I turned toward literary essays and short stories, instead, though many of my themes remained the same: loneliness, identity, a plea for connection. Motherhood, in its most complicated form, can be torture. What you love the most is what wears you down, deprives you of sleep, and complicates your relationships with other humans and your perception of reality.

Even with the animal need to protect and care for your child, even feeling a love larger than any you’ve ever felt before—you are still a human experiencing a loss of self. And that’s before you see the signs that something might be wrong. That’s when you’re still part of the club, one of the regular lonely moms, able to read articles and see some semblance of your life on the page.

Isolation changes you. When you haven’t hugged a friend in months or even left your house in a week, the lens gets blurry. What’s real? A constant anxiety settles in, a physical strain—these are truths about caregiving, and they are also their own source of deep shame. A good mother, a good caregiver, wouldn’t complain out loud, would they?

I respond to the post as gently as I can. This essayist does not have children herself, and so I whisper: I need to tell stories for connection. I whisper: Motherhood can be so lonely. Then I delete these responses. I can’t beg one more stranger for grace. Instead, I point out that caregiving can be written about in respectful, thoughtful ways that elevate and celebrate our children even through very difficult experiences.

The resulting back-and-forth snowballs, a large group of strangers entering the conversation, many also without children.

A mother has no right to tell her child’s story, they say. Write your own story, or better yet—don’t mention your children at all. This attention-seeking is embarrassing and problematic, at best. It’s harmful, even dangerous, at worst.

A good mother would never make her child’s experiences about herself, they say.

I begin writing a novel about a mother with a schizophrenic son because I am a mother with a schizophrenic son and I don’t know how to keep writing essays without saying what’s true: I am watching my child suffer and I am suffering alongside him. We are so alone.

I don’t know any of the research at the time. No doctor has mentioned PTSD for him, and certainly not to me about my parenting experience. The very idea seems self-seeking, even narcissistic.

But when I first wrote essays about this lived experience, many people read and liked them. Many people told me that my stories helped them understand or feel understood. And writing these words down, sharing them, helped me reenter the world I lived in. Helped me let go of panic, push through exhaustion, and sit for hours beside my child on the floor, in a closet, in a hospital bed.

Then the name-calling: selfish. The accusation: a child abuser who mines her child’s experiences for a byline. Emails and comments that were daily occurrences from extremists, but then somehow wrapped around and became enmeshed with the words of nonextremists. With the words of fellow writers. Of friends, even.

What is your story, as a mother? What is your story, as a caregiver who often spends twenty-four seven giving that care?

I stop writing essays and begin a novel.

Before I got pregnant with my son, I wasn’t sure I was capable of giving or receiving the kind of love the people around me seemed able to give and receive. I was adopted, and my adoptive family was as genetically complicated as my biological one. I learned to swim, both in utero and out, in an ocean of mental illness and neurodivergence, of outsized emotions and deeply rooted fears.

But the moment I saw my son’s face, the moment I held him, I recognized his eyes, his nose—his features that mimicked mine. The moment he latched on to the nipple and wrapped his miniature fingers around my thumb. Love. Long before I lost sleep listing symptoms, I lost sleep kissing my child’s face over and over. He is mine.

Now, he’s too old to allow me such luxuries. Now I wait until the house is quiet, until his breathing is quiet, and I stare at him. I am full of words. Let him sleep all night, I’d write, if I wasn’t afraid the tapping of the keyboard would wake him. Let him dream of Zelda. Let me delight in his occasional leg twitch or surprise smile, like when he was a baby in my arms. Let me write a poem, a fable, a mommy blog entry, something normal and happy and relatable to other mothers.

Tonight, my son fell asleep peacefully, I’d write. Maybe tomorrow I’ll make him pancakes. He used to love pancakes, back when he used to eat, I’d write. See? There it is, where the “normal” slips. Where the words get bigger and uglier and everyone wants me to stop saying them.

Back when he used to eat. When the medicines made him eat too much. (Stop writing.) When he gained weight and we worried about his blood sugar levels. (Stop writing.) Lay off the carbs, the doctor reminded me, but a thousand years ago, when he still ate, I’d make him pancakes because the medicines were taking years off his life, anyway. (Stop writing.) If the pills were strong enough to save him, they were strong enough to harm his liver, his heart, his kidneys, his muscles. The medicines both gave and took, and if he wanted pancakes, I’d make him pancakes. The medicines, those fucking medicines. The ones that gave him dystonia of the throat.

He stops eating again a week after he gets home from the hospital.

Someone has to drive him to the doctor. Someone has to call the insurance company over and over. Someone has to hold up the perfect yellow banana, to dig a fingernail into the stem, to pull one small bit of yellow peel away from the fruit so he snatches it from me and peels the rest himself and maybe, maybe, takes a bite. Someone has to say, “The world needs you. Eat.” This is a profound truth about life: the world needs my son. And a profound truth about me: my son has changed me into someone who gives and gives. I used to only take.

Another profound truth: giving too much empties you. I write to remember how to take a little back, just enough to still exist. Just enough to look at this true story of my life and see myself within it. Aren’t I within it?

I write so I can keep taking care of my child. I want to live another year, many years, without bleeding ulcers, a fatty liver, high blood pressure, and an escalating risk of early-onset dementia because I need sleep to think, I need sleep to recover, I need sleep to live. And I can’t sleep with this life locked inside me, in private, in secret. I’ve read the studies, and I’ve read my own lab reports.

Friend, I might have replied back to that essayist, if only I’d known how. Did you know that almost half of all caregivers have at least two chronic health conditions? That some of those conditions include chronic insomnia, chronic fear responses—chronic as in every day, all day? Always shoved back down. Always shushed. Friend, how long can a person stay down and shushed?

I finish my novel, chapter after chapter about what is hard and dark and terrible, and I begin to see my son in new ways. This novel is a story about a mother who isn’t me and a son who isn’t my son, but we seep onto the page and it’s less hard and dark and terrible than I expected. The woman in this story loses her child. Her nightmare turned real. She loses her real child, not the one she imagined he might be. And facing that truth she begins to miss herself, her real self, not the one she or anyone else imagined she might be. She faces these profound losses, and she takes a breath, takes a walk, and lets go of expectation.

Her walk becomes a run, becomes a search, becomes a map.

Her son, in the distance. “Took you a lifetime to find me!” he calls.

Her son, a giant X on the map.

 Friend, the writing is my map.

“I’ll read your book,” my real son says. “If you want me to.”


HANNAH GRIECO is a writer in Washington, DC. She edits novels and prose collections for Alan Squire Publishing, where her anthology Already Gone published in 2023. Her own work can be read in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Rumpus, Brevity, Poet Lore, Fairy Tale Review, Passages North, and more. Find her online @writesloud.


Featured image by Zhen H, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

“An essay about adoptee narratives in fiction!” Yes, that was the essay I wanted to write. I was revising my novel about a mom navigating identity, both as an adoptee and as a caregiver, and it was a topic I wanted to explore. I had the piece all planned out, was working with a mentor in my MFA program, and even had interviews scheduled with some amazing authors.

Just as I dove into my research, my family went into crisis. I didn’t write for months. I didn’t sleep for months. And I was pretty sure I was going to have to drop out of school.

But in very dark times, creating art can save you. I began to look into my new diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, a chronic condition related to caregiving—a series of traumas I wasn’t going to magically stop experiencing. Traumatic experiences that didn’t have a sense of finality and loss, but instead the potential for finality and loss. Fear had become a pervasive constant in my life, accompanied by guilt and shame and too many emotions to hold inside.

The more research I did, the more I realized writing was the only path forward. It was the key to forgiving myself, to loving my child more holistically, and to becoming a person who might not just withstand these hard experiences but grow and evolve through them. With a little nudge from my mentor, I began to write this essay, “The Novel, The Map.”

Is it hyperbolic to say that creating art can save you? I don’t think so, not anymore. As I researched and wrote, as I shared my drafts with generous beta readers, I slept a little better. I smiled a little more. I kissed my husband and read a good book and met a friend for coffee. I panicked a little less. I was still afraid, of course. Some things never stop scaring you. But I healed, too. I also finished my MFA, a personal triumph amidst a roller coaster of a year.

I’m so grateful I didn’t write that essay about adoptee narratives in fiction. (Though I still want to!) I’m so proud of myself for following what felt true and necessary into my own darkness. This essay is about expressive writing and why it matters, especially for parents. Especially for hurting parents. Especially for parents so filled with love and fear and pain they could burst into a thousand pieces. It’s not hyperbolic to say that storytelling stitches us back together again.


HANNAH GRIECO is a writer in Washington, DC. She edits novels and prose collections for Alan Squire Publishing, where her anthology Already Gone published in 2023. Her own work can be read in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Rumpus, Brevity, Poet Lore, Fairy Tale Review, Passages North, and more. Find her online @writesloud.