Léonie Rosenstiel’s nonfiction work has been featured in The New York Review of Books, Los Angeles Times, Albuquerque Journal, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and more. In her newest release, Protecting Mama: Surviving the Legal Guardianship Swamp (Calumet Editions, November 2021), she tells her personal battle against court-appointed guardianship. One reviewer says of the book: “Leonie follows leads like a detective, which is why the book was so difficult for me to put down. The end result is unspeakably heart-breaking, yet she rises above it.” You’ll find all of Léonie’s books on her Amazon author page.
What do you hope readers will take away from Protecting Mama?
I want people to understand how emotionally and physically challenging it is to try to protect someone who is unable to act independently. And how pathetically easy it is for some people to tell destructive lies when they believe that what they’ve done will never be discovered. Was it the power they were given in secret that corrupted them? Maybe.
Above all, I want people to realize that what happened to my mother and me is a very frequent event in the United States. We want to believe that these things can’t happen to us because we are organized and have all our legal papers in order. I’m here to say that anyone might—at an entirely random time of the universe’s choosing—be faced with a situation similar to mine.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
It hurt. Deeply. I had to go back and relive a desperate and painful period in my life. I resisted it for months before I managed to sit down to write.
When did you know you wanted to share your mother’s story? What prompted the push to begin the project?
Mama had written a number of books herself. She had threatened to tell the story for decades. When she realized that she would never be free to write it herself, from her point of view, she asked me to vow that I’d write it from mine.
Between then and when I began to write, a judge issued an order threatening that if I made any public statements, spoke to legislators, spoke to the press, or published anything mentioning my mother, he would feel justified in putting me in jail or fining me, or both. Finally, my attorney and the Albuquerque Journal intervened and induced him to lift the gag order. I started working several months after I was released from the gag order in 2017. (Before I started, I also had to arrange the 40,000 documents from the case in some sort of order and get the family archives out of storage.)
How did the book come together?
This book is part of a longer manuscript that my editor at Calumet divided into two parts—Protecting Mama and a prequel that doesn’t have a name yet. I’ve actually structured Protecting Mama like a series of novellas strung together. I’ve done quite a few flash-forwards because they really do illuminate things I couldn’t possibly have known about at the time and only discovered in retrospect. Some insane events really made a certain amount of sense when viewed through the lens of documents I had no ability to see at the time. There are hooks at the end of each section.
It took me several months to recover, emotionally, from the 14 years I had spent being tortured by various parts of the court system, before I tackled the writing. The manuscript went through several versions before the death of the attorney to whom the book is dedicated. He generously read all of them. Except the last part (about his death) that had to be read by someone else. There was an embryonic version based—it turned out—almost entirely on family myth in the material about earlier decades. I wrote that in 2018. It didn’t satisfy me, so I did more historical research. That led to Version 2. And so on.
I decided to go with a hybrid publisher because—after all this waiting—I wanted the book to come out sooner. I’d had other books published by conventional publishers (Macmillan, W.W. Norton and Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) and wanted to try a different route this time.
Do you have a favorite quote from Protecting Mama that you’d like to share?
“Finally, she left the law to write fiction full time.”
What was the expected, or unexpected, result of writing the book?
I started with no specific expectation for myself, except that I was using this book to fulfill a vow I’d made to my mother when everyone around me told me that she had, at most, two weeks left to live. (Fortunately, they were wrong; she survived almost four years longer.)
In tracing back frequently-told family stories, I often discovered huge fictions that had become magnified over time (sometimes a couple of centuries) that prevented honest communication in later generations. I had never expected this to happen! What I learned forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about my family and the people in it, as well as how I wanted to relate to those people.
After the book was published, people started recommending me as a consultant and coach to others suffering through the same process I’d endured. That was equally unexpected.
What was the most rewarding aspect of working on this project?
There are two answers. The first answer is that some reform of the system has already happened. The legal system in this area (in my opinion) needs quite a bit more, but change is difficult for us all. And it frequently brings with it the unintended consequences you asked about in the previous question.
The second answer: I’ve also heard from people who say that I’ve faithfully depicted their own difficult emotional journeys as well. That feels good. Some have completed this journey and find the book I’ve written gives them closure; others tell me that having me coach them gives them hope. Both of these statements make me feel equally good.
If you ever felt you were revealing too much about you or your family while writing Protecting Mama, how did you move forward?
I tried to reveal only what was necessary to move the story forward. Sometimes I cried thinking about what I was planning to write. Sometimes I went back over it—to do some editing—and had the same thing happen. I must admit to engaging in prayer and meditation to help me through. They have always worked.
The secrets of my parents, and their parents and grandparents, sort of “belonged” to me. I’d inherited them. I don’t have siblings, and so I didn’t air anything brothers and sisters might have found sensitive. I avoided going too far into secrets from other branches of the family that didn’t directly impinge directly on the flowering of my little twig of the family tree.
When you tackle a nonfiction project, do you think of it as storytelling?
Absolutely. No one wants to hear, “And then they did this. And then they did that.” They want to see things happen. And hear things happen. And watch people reacting to their experiences. The fact that those things happened means nothing if you don’t establish an emotional context.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Probably when I was ten. I’d been to Washington, DC and was asked to write about the experience when I got back. I don’t think I even have a copy of that essay anymore.
Who are your favorite authors, and what do you admire most about their writing?
I love so many different writers—for so many different reasons—that I could write a book to answer this question. With some it’s atmosphere or a sense of place—like Conrad and W.H. Hudson. Sometimes it’s a sense of the absurd. I’m thinking Kafka here. While the action of Protecting Mama was happening, I thought I was living in one of Kafka’s novels. With still other writers, I admire the way they reveal character. Rarely does any writer have everything. This gives me permission to do the best I can and hope others will also be forgiving of my shortcomings.
Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I’m very glad that I didn’t know how hard it was to be a writer. And how emotionally exposed a writer feels when telling the truth. Maybe I’d have been discouraged from trying if I’d known. I’m one of those people who “just does” things. I’m usually more than halfway through a project when some kind soul informs me that they want to save me the trouble of failing. They assure me that no one can even hope to start such a project. I’ve had this happen any number of times during my life.
What is the best encouragement or advice you’ve received in your writing journey?
The most supportive treatment I’ve received since 2007 (when my late husband, who was a literary agent, died) was from my late—and still much-lamented—attorney. He was phenomenally literate (he seemed to have read critically almost every major book written during the last 40 years, and many written earlier). He generously offered to read anything I wrote, over a period of years when the court didn’t allow me to write about my mother or myself or my family, and so I was just practicing my craft.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m now working on the still-untitled prequel to Protecting Mama. I’m in the final stages of finishing an online course and a summit on the various problems that attend our social policies surrounding people who are aging. Another project is still under wraps right now.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
Legal documents (powers of attorney and trusts, to use two examples) are often torn up by a court. People with dementia are extremely easily “misinformed” by manipulative individuals who believe that they have something to gain. Vulnerable individuals can easily be influenced to act against their own best interests. The results can be devastating to all concerned.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.