Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, inspired by the experience of raising her son, Matthew. Her debut memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived was released by Apprentice House Press in May 2023. Karen’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Huff Post, Today.com, Newsweek.com, and others. A happy empty-nester, Karen lives in upstate New York with her husband of forty years. You can see more of her work at www.karendebonis.com.
Bio—Long but not boring
Pittsburgh, PA native Karen DeBonis (nee Rampolla) honed her childcare skills babysitting her younger siblings and neighborhood children. She attended Catholic grade school and public high school, then left home for the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she met her future husband Michael. She knew from the start he was “a keeper.”
In 1980, Karen graduated with a BA in psychology, Michael with a BS in architecture. They married and moved to Troy, NY, where they raised their sons Matthew and Stephen.
Karen later earned her masters degree in health education from Russell Sage College and spent her career working with children and adults. Despite not being a writer, she felt compelled to capture the medical mystery that had befallen her family. She knew from the beginning that what drove the story was her people-pleasing.
Like many aspiring writers, after several years, Karen quit. A decade passed before she picked up her pen again. This time, she finished.
Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived was released in May 2023 by Apprentice House Press. It’s the story of a woman’s naive expectations of motherhood and inability to assert herself, even when her son’s survival depended on it.
Karen’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Huff Post, Today.com, Newsweek.com and others. She and Michael, married for 40 years, relish their empty nest almost as much as they treasure their relationships with their adult sons. Learn more at www.karendebonis.com
Who I am:
- A recovering people-pleaser and aspiring bad-ass.
- An introvert and occasional extrovert wannabe.
- An empath. I don’t feel the world’s pain as deeply as John Coffey, the prisoner in The Green Mile, but I empathize with his burden.
- An HSP—Highly Sensitive Person—otherwise known as “leaky faucet,” per my son Stephen.
- A good listener (a lost art).
- A garden artist. Not that I paint gardens, but I create visually enjoyable tapestries of plants, hardscaping, and accessories. (I quit gardening in protest several years ago due to the over appreciation of my work by ravenous deer.)
- A writer.
- A person-in-process, unsure what I want to be when I grow up, after my book is released and marketed to death.
- An over-thinker. Can you tell?
- All the usual: mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. These are important roles, but I prefer to define myself independent of others.
What I believe:
- Admitting our faults takes tremendous courage.
- Every emotion is valid, even the “bad” ones.
- Sometimes the weak are stronger than the strong
- People-pleasing is much harder to overcome than many people understand.
- Children must be taught at a young age how to speak up for themselves.
- “I’m open to the possibility” (my life philosophy)
What I love
- Being home
- Personal growth
- Public speaking (in spite of being an introvert).
- Having adult children
- Drinking chardonnay on a patio in springtime
- A clean house when someone else made it that way
- Being married to my college sweetheart
When did your writing journey begin?
I took my first memoir-writing class around 1999 at an arts center in Troy, NY. I wasn’t a writer, in fact, the most creative thing I’d written since 8th grade was a resume,* but I knew I had a story to tell. My writing was awful. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
*Actually, I did write a “book” for Matthew when he was a toddler. “Mommy Goes on a Trip.”
It took you over 20 years to write Growth?
Not exactly. I took classes, joined writer’s groups, and worked on my book for about five years. Then, little by little, I lost my drive. In 2006, we moved across town and our old dinosaur of a computer with my files on it got stashed in the attic. I didn’t write again until 2016.
I developed some health issues that made it impossible for me to continue working. I was sad to leave my career, but I knew the universe had given me a gift—time to finish my book.
Can you clarify the names you use for family members?
In real life, I call my husband Michael. But acquaintances and even people we didn’t know have always mixed-up his name with Matthew, assuming “Michael” was my son and “Matthew” was my husband. Don’t ask me why. “Mike” sounds to me more like an adult’s name, so that’s what I use in the book to avoid confusion. Also in real life, Matthew asked to be called “Matt” starting in 5th grade. I thought it would be too confusing for the reader to make that transition at that part of the story, but I made the switch toward the end of the book. (Also in real life, Stephen became “Steve” in 5th grade, but since he’s a minor character in the book, I kept his name constant.)
What were some of the highlights in your writing journey?
I wrote an op-ed for my local paper in 2016, at the very beginning of my reignited writing journey. It wasn’t related to my book, but I had an idea I thought readers might enjoy. When the editor wrote back to accept it, I was less excited by his acceptance and more by his words: “This is a fine piece.” That told me I was capable of becoming a "real" writer. I ran in to tell Michael, blubbering so much, he had no idea what I was saying.
Then, of course, there was my first acceptance in a literary journal, and my two New York Times Tiny Love Story. Once I got my book deal, the highlights came faster and faster until by early 2023, a few months before my release, I was numb, exhausted, overjoyed, and surprisingly craving more. Writing is fraught with rejection, but getting a book published is a real ego-trip. I look forward to returning to my quiet life soon.
How does it feel to share your personal story so deeply?
Scary. But I knew it would be that way, and my belief that others’ will be helped by my story gives me the courage to continue.
What about your family? What about Matt? How do they feel about being in the public eye?
Matthew has been supportive since day one. He and I are both nervous about sharing our story, but in his words, “It’s time to rip off the bandage.” When Stephen first read the manuscript a couple of years before I got my book deal, he said, “I’m so proud of you, Mom.” He was just coming out of his extended ornery teen phase, and I nearly melted. Michael has been my biggest cheerleader all along. It’s not his nature to share personal information, so it’s been hard for him, but he’s quick to tell others’ about my book and hand them my book business card. I call him my "marketing manager.”
Did you even wonder if you might not finish your book?
I had moments of doubt, but I really felt the universe intended for me to finish it, that it was my life’s work. I couldn’t argue with that feeling—it didn’t allow me to quit.