Early on, I thought of calling my novel True Confessions, since much of it is couched as confession to my fictional monk, Fabianus. Now I confess that part of the impetus behind writing The Eagle and the Swan—to give voice to a misunderstood woman, Empress Theodora of sixth-century Constantinople—derived from an autobiographical source.

Theodora began life as the circus bear-keeper’s daughter. She became an actress, stripper, and prostitute, the lowest of the low in Late Roman society. What drew me inexorably to her story was my own mother’s horrific childhood. She was born on a dirt-poor farm in the rural South, not even in a town but between the two hamlets of Andalusia and Opp, Alabama. Dirt-poor doesn’t begin to describe it, for there was no rich, black soil but hardscrabble red clay. It’s the kind of clay that’s impenetrable to the plow but sucks up rainfall, eroding in deep gulleys that leach away freshly planted seeds and all hope for bettering one’s life.

When I visited the farm as a child, I didn’t see the soul-choking struggle imposed by poverty. It was like going to a particularly primitive camp, mysterious because so alien to my usual life in suburban New Orleans.

Gathering eggs in the henhouse was a scary adventure. I’d pinch my nose to shut out the acrid smell of guano, then I’d dart my hand quickly under the hens’ soft feather breasts, scratching my fingers on the straw nests. If I was brave enough to persevere despite the hens’ scolding, I’d emerge with a reddish-brown egg (still warm from the hens’ bodies) to nestle on a folded cloth in my tin bucket.

I was equally inept when it came to milking a cow. My grandmother, in a shapeless cotton dress with her long gray hair in a single braid streaming down her back, wrenched and squeezed a teat like an automaton. The stream of milk squirted into the pail in a gush of white liquid. But when I sat on the low stool, my head leaning against the cow’s velvety flank, and tentatively squeezed and pulled, nothing happened except the cow turning to look at me with a baleful eye.

Toilet facilities on the farm were a falling-down wooden outhouse that smelled to high heaven. A plank had two side-by-side holes cut into the wood grain. Wiping was accomplished with a denuded corncob or the proverbial pages from a Sears & Roebuck catalogue, the kind country folk called the “Wish Book”.

Bathing was a public event. First you went to the well to draw pails of water that came clack-clacking up as you turned the crank. Then you heated water in the kitchen on a coal-black wood stove. Next you hauled the sloshing water out past the front porch to the dooryard in front of the two-room, wooden farmhouse and splashed it into a big, oval tin tub. There, before an audience of family members, you could scrub off the clay dust.

The farm seemed strange to me, a city girl, when we visited. I liked sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair and shelling peas straight from the garden. Or sitting under the scuppernong arbor and picking the grape-like fruit, sucking its sweet-sour flesh before spitting out the pit.

It was like an exotic vacation before we headed back in the station wagon to our big, well-appointed house in a green suburb with all the comforts of air conditioning, television and stereo playing Elvis.

Childhood hadn’t been playful for Mother, the oldest daughter of seven surviving children. Her parents—I remember their wiry bodies and weathered faces—jerked her out of school at thirteen, as soon as the law allowed. From that tender age, she was virtually enslaved to the household, doing all the cooking and much of the chores and childcare. Since her parents were uneducated, they had no desire for their daughter to learn. What were girls good for, but to bear children and take care of the family?

I knew nothing of this background. I only knew my mother and father met during World War II, when she worked in a factory making uniforms for soldiers. Daddy was a surgeon and took out her appendix before they started courting. Through the years of growing up in a secure, comfortable home, I never heard anything about Mother being mistreated. Yet I knew there were skeletons in her family attic.

I’d heard whispers about Uncle Clayton, who hung himself in a closet. Uncle Claude was a drunk, and we took in his daughter Betty to live with us. Uncle Hampton also lived with us while he dried out. (A master carpenter, he crafted a beautiful highboy secretary in my father’s workshop.)  Only Mother’s youngest brother, red-haired Uncle Leon, a former Master Sergeant in the Army, was in her good graces. When we visited his farm in Georgia, he taught me how to gig frogs in the swamp at night. Watch out for poisonous water moccasins attracted to the lantern, he said. Be sure the trident is sharp before you spear them.

Of my two aunts, Lula was said to have been a great beauty in her youth. She admonished me to always wear clean underpants in case of being whisked to the hospital without time to prepare. (As if the worst outcome for an ER visit would be the discovery of dingy underwear.) Aunt Lula had lost a twin, burned by scalding water when a toddler, so I guess she came by her expertise on accidents through hard experience.

Aunt Myrtis Lee was a sadder case. Born at home, her head had been warped in the birth canal by the too-forceful application of forceps. Her twin had not survived the ordeal, but Myrtis Lee lived, though disabled. She talked haltingly and was said to be simple-minded, although she boasted of having read the entire Bible. She dragged one leg and one wrist was permanently skewed, with the hand turned inward toward her body. We used to visit her in the cruelly named Home for Incurables where she resided. When she came to our house for Sunday dinner, Myrtis Lee always cried when we took her back.

I remember when my Girl Scout troop sang Christmas carols at the Home. I studiously avoided looking at the patients’ faces for fear of encountering my aunt’s gaze. I doubt any other chorister has serenaded the unfortunate with “Angels We Have Heard on High” while staring fixedly at the ground.

What I didn’t know about my mother could have filled a book. I was living in my college town, just turned twenty-one, when Mother summoned me to New Orleans one weekend. What was so urgent? Why did I have to go when I had plans? She accepted no excuse, so I went home.

Mother stuck by my side the whole weekend. Her main intent seemed to be to hold my hand, smooth my hair and hold me close. She took me with her to the Texaco station, where some customer-incentive program was going on. Each time she bought gas, she got a stamp to put on a grid that looked like a bingo card. If you filled up the card, you’d win some gigantic prize.

Mother was obsessed with this game, which she called a “puzzle”. She urged me to use the car and then zoom to the gas station for a gallon of gas and the precious stamp. Bitterly, she speculated that the game must be rigged, since she’d been trying to fill her cards for so long. One stamp, intended to be glued to a big hole smack in the middle of the card, remained elusive.

Mother had never been irrational before. I didn’t know what to make of this fixation. The previous summer, she’d had an episode where she lay in a hospital bed unable to speak, her Willoware blue eyes staring straight ahead without acknowledging anyone’s existence. The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” was unknown. My father was a Latin-quoting neurosurgeon, but he had no idea how to handle her shutdown.

At least she was talking now, although what she said seemed crazy. I remember when she took me back to the airport, she drove so slowly I thought I’d miss the flight. Before each traffic light she slowed to a crawl, hoping, she explained, for a red light. That way she could stop and then safely venture forth with a “fresh, green light”. She wanted to avoid the dread of having to speed through a yellow light—neither here nor there, neither stop nor go—maddeningly ambiguous.

Mother stood so close to me at the airport, pulling me into line when I tried to put some distance between us, hissing that I’d lose my place. Her eyes never left my face, and she was in tears when I boarded the plane.

She phoned soon after and cried on the other end of the line, saying, “I can’t take it any more”. She had excruciating back pain, stomach ailments and Lord only knows what else.

Soon after that, barely fifty-six years old, she was gone. Shot through the heart by her own hand after working for days to clean the house, waxing the oak floors to a high shine, polishing the silver. Momma shot herself in bed, then got up to put the bloody sheet in the bathtub so it wouldn’t stain the mattress. On the way back to bed, she collapsed, breaking a windowpane with her head. She slumped to the floor, no longer breathing. Chips of glass rested on her cheeks like solidified tears.

I later heard she’d practiced with the pistol. She shot the gun in the bathroom one day to see how it worked. Only our maid Louise was home to hear it. “They never let me shoot when I was a girl,” Mother told Louise when she came running. “They taught the boys but not me. But now I know.” Mother put a band-aid over the burned hole in the wall, leaking plaster. “As long as the band-aid is there to cover the hole, it’s alright,” she told Louise.

Mother left a suicide note, typed on our Selectric typewriter since her hands shook too much to write legibly. It was in the cardboard shoebox with all the stamps and half-filled cards from the gas-station game. Addressed to me, the note (with misspellings that show her disordered mind) read: “No autoopsy is necessary. I have cilled myself. Carol, please take care of Daddy and the boys. These stamps are for you. If you can put them together right, you can finish the puzzle and win the prize.”

My father sat my brothers and me down. He wanted to explain the inexplicable. Mother had bad memories, he said. She married young to escape her family, but her first husband was vicious. When she got pregnant he beat and kicked her, shoving her down the stairs, until she miscarried. She’d so wanted children, my father said. That was why she’d had me and my two brothers, bang, bang, bang: three babies in four years.

But the worst, Daddy confessed, was that her father and older brother had raped her. He didn’t say more. Only that she escaped the abuse as soon as she could.

How had I never suspected? Why had I been so humiliated at her lack of education, her lapses into bad grammar, her corny pronunciation that reeked of rural roots?

As an adult, I’m drawn to tales of women who never had a voice, who were exploited, abused, misrepresented or overshadowed by men. Telling Theodora’s story—another victim of early poverty and child abuse—has taken years of work. If I can make this woman’s suffering and determination visible, it’s small compensation for not hearing what my mother couldn’t say.

Of course, I have memories that aren’t painful. Before the demons she’d been running from caught up with her, Mother created a happy, loving home. I remember paddling joyfully in the shallow Gulf of Mexico waters when I was a toddler. I remember the identical mother-daughter outfits we wore when I was a little girl. There was my big birthday party—complete with a pony—when I was five.

Then there were the shopping expeditions at the fanciest stores when I was a teenager. Mother bought me dozens of pairs of shoes and more dresses than I could possibly wear. I didn’t know—but she couldn’t forget—the homemade, patched dresses she’d worn, made from a flour sack. And her dusty feet stained red from working barefoot in the field.

Mostly I remember snuggling in her arms and the back-and-forth motion of the big rocking chair. To lull me to sleep she sang this song: “See the train go ‘round the bend, good-bye, my lover, good-bye. Loaded down with boys and girls, good-bye my lover, good-bye”. It ended, “Bye-bye, my baby, baby-o. What makes you cry so, my baby, baby-o”?

When I sang the song to my own baby daughters decades later, I couldn’t bear the final sentiment to be farewell. I added the words, “I’ll see you again some day”.