San Geronimo Valley author tackles the afterlife in his debut novel

Barbara Graham thought the story Self magazine gave her about past-life regression therapy would be just another in a long line of articles she wrote as a journalist. This was not the case. In fact, when she immersed herself in therapy, which was gaining popularity in the 1990s, it brought up emotions and questions she had felt from a young age about our existence.

After meeting privately with Jungian psychologist Roger Woolger, “I had a pretty powerful session with a dark and disturbing memory of the Holocaust,” she says.

The San Geronimo Valley resident saw herself in Europe during the Holocaust and then her death at the hands of the Nazis. “But I’m a journalist and I thought, ‘This is really fascinating, but what does this mean?’ I didn’t know what to do with it. Was it fantasy?

Shortly after, a friend gave her a copy of Ian Stevenson’s book, “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.” Stevenson, a psychiatrist, had done research on children who spontaneously remembered a past life.

“Kids start talking unsolicited, like, ‘You’re not my real mother.’ “It’s not my real home.” “I want to come home,” she said. “And the most surprising thing is that most of these children described how they died and most cases have been sudden and violent…. There was the Self magazine article, then I came across Stevenson’s work, which blew my mind, and I was doing a lot of meditation practice and attending many many lectures by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist teachers who talk about past and future lives.very simply, it’s part of their belief system, so all of these things just kind of mixed together in a kind of stew in my head.

It all culminated one day while she was walking around New York with the idea of ​​a novel that fused all of these experiences together. And though it took time – after writing non-fiction books and magazine articles – his idea came to fruition this week with the release of “What Jonah Knew” (Harper Paperbacks, $17.99) , his first psychological thriller about a 7-year-old boy who inexplicably recalls memories of a missing 22-year-old musician as well as the fierce love between mother and son across lifetimes.

Graham will discuss his book at 6 p.m. Friday online through Copperfield’s Books and in person at 4 p.m. Sunday at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

History has “possessed” her

“This book means a lot,” says Graham, a New York Times bestselling author. “There’s a cartoon I’ve had on my desk for about 20 years of a doctor saying, ‘I’m afraid that novel in you has got to come out. That’s what I felt. It is a book that has possessed me. This story possessed me.

Sausalito author Amy Tan calls it “a haunting literary thriller filled with psychological suspense and deep questions about motherhood, trauma, and how death illuminates life.”

Graham, who had her son, Clay, at 23, drew on her motherhood experiences for the story.

“I always knew motherhood was going to be a big part of it,” says Graham, who has written about motherhood often in other books. “The story is by no means my story with my own son but certainly my emotional attachment – my fear, my worry, my maternal worry – absolutely played a part in how I wrote the characters in Hélène and Lucie. I would say that being a mother was the most profound experience of my life, and it certainly influenced the way I wrote the book.

young dreams

Graham always knew she wanted to be a writer. She still remembers having this awareness on her way to school around 5 or 6 years old, and the first play in which she played was produced and staged for the parents of her friends a few years ago. later.

A lover of theater and acting, she would take the train alone at age 12 from Westchester to Manhattan, where she attended drama school, then race across town to see a performance.

“It was heaven for me,” she says. “I was very lucky, I spent those amazing years exploring what I loved. What I learned from a young age was to do what you love and it doesn’t pay off. always great financial rewards but do what you love I kind of learned that early and forgot about it for a while in my twenties and got it back.

A taboo subject

After traveling around in a Volkswagen van and doing “the hippie thing, to the umpteenth, umpteenth, umpteenth degree,” she told Fab Over Fifty, she ended up in San Francisco, where she studied acting at San Francisco State University and has written plays that have been produced Off-Broadway and in theaters across the country. One, “Camp Paradox,” tackled the taboo subject of sexual abuse, something she knows personally.

“The experience of being sexually abused by my camp counselor took me many, many years to unpack,” she says. “When I wrote the play, I hadn’t unpacked it yet. I think all my work is about trying to find the truth of things, whatever it is, and sometimes it takes a while to get there, not that you ever get there, but the questions become more refined.

In 2014, she wrote a memoir of the same name, which details how she was sexually abused by her camp counselor at an all-girls summer camp when she was 14. It was powerful to write about this and close this chapter of his life.

“Usually what you hear are stories of men abusing girls or women, and men abusing young boys, and very rarely, almost never, of women sexually abusing other women. a bit taboo. For a moment I thought, can I really write about this? Because it’s such a busy topic and yet, I had to do it. For me, writing is about finding my way through things and writing this memoir in particular was a way to sort through what had been very painful but I had repressed, not the memories themselves but what they meant, and therapy was also very helpful for unravel what really happened.

Graham, who is already looking forward to writing her next novel about murder and metaphysics, hopes people will take a little something from “What Jonah Knew” they carry into their lives.

“Maybe just a glimmer that life is a little bigger than we imagine, that it’s more expansive,” she says. “It really changes the perspective if you take a longer view.”


What: Barbara Graham discusses “What Jonah Knew” with Sylvia Boorstein

Where: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free


After: She also talks about her book with Lee Kravetz at 6 p.m. Friday online via Copperfield’s Books. Register at

Comments are closed.