Author, Speaker, and Child and Mental-health Advocate
By Sharing Her Story, She’s Turned Her Tragic Youth into an Impactful Life
Lisa Zarcone brought a book to her interview with BusinessWest, called The Unspoken Truth. It’s a memoir she wrote several years ago.
More importantly — and tragically — she also lived it. And it’s a rough read.
“The Unspoken Truth is my story, of the abuse I went through,” she said. “I was silent for years about it and never spoke of it, and it was so damaging to me. But as an adult, I was finally able to break free and share my story.”
“I tell anybody who reads my book, ‘be prepared.’ It’s a very raw, real look at what abuse is like through the eyes of a child,” she added. “When you read stories of other abuse survivors, they take the point of view of the adult looking back. But I took the child’s perspective, right in the moment. I wanted people to understand what the child really goes through.”
But Zarcone’s story since that childhood — in which she was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused for the better part of a decade — has been truly inspiring. It’s a story of coming to terms with a horrific past, of learning to trust others with that story, of surprising depths of empathy.
It’s a story of bravery and vulnerability. It’s the story of a Woman of Impact.
And it starts with her mother. In fact, Zarcone’s current advocacy work around mental health is rooted in her complicated relationship with her mother, who has struggled with mental illness her entire life.
“My mom never got the proper help and support that she needed,” said Zarcone. “And because of that, we both fell through the cracks. Again, the abuse was horrific. And it went on for years. It wasn’t like it just happened in a short period of time, and we were able to move forward from it. This went on for years.”
“I buried my past. I took it all and said, ‘I’m not going to speak of it, I’m not going to think of it.’ And I fought every single day of my life not to bring it up, not to focus on that pain. I was driven by that.”
When Zarcone was 6, her brother died of leukemia, and that’s when her mother’s world — and her own life — fell apart. “My mom never recovered. My dad said the day my brother died was the day she died, and on many levels, that’s the truth, because she couldn’t recover from it. And back then, in the ’70s, mental health was not talked about; it was frowned upon.”
As her mother deteriorated, “the stigma was horrendous. People treated my mother very poorly because she was sick. And nobody wanted to deal with her,” Zarcone recalled. “And because of that, I was left home alone with my mom. My dad buried himself in work and activities, and he was barely around.”
Her father eventually left, and her mother’s abuse, which started verbally, eventually became physical. Meanwhile, she started bringing unsafe people into their home.
“She loved to pick people up off the street, homeless people, hitchhikers — she’d bring them home and wanted it to be like a party at all times; she rode that roller coaster of the highs and lows and the mania.”
When she was only 12, a troubled older boy from the neighborhood claimed Zarcone as his girlfriend, and her mother encouraged the coercive, sexually abusive ‘relationship,’ which lasted a year and a half.
“Neighbors saw, family saw, the school saw, and nobody stepped in,” she said. “My mother did not hide her mental illness. We never knew what was going to happen next.”
At age 14 — after eight years of this hell — she was able to free herself from the abuse when her grandparents took her in. But there was alcoholism and general chaos in that home, and her mother remained a part of her life. Finally, she rebelled, in a purposeful, even positive sort of way.
“At age 15 or 16, I started thinking a little differently, and I wanted to figure out how to get out. So I engrossed myself in school, and I went from an F student to an A student because I decided I needed to do something to help myself. I worked three jobs while I was in high school. I did anything I could not to be home. And I did whatever I could to get out.”
Eventually, she did. “And I buried my past. I took it all and said, ‘I’m not going to speak of it, I’m not going to think of it.’ And I fought every single day of my life not to bring it up, not to focus on that pain. I was driven by that. I was driven to succeed. And I did.”
Since then, Zarcone has lived a life of purpose. She’s worked with disabled children and adults teaching life skills and writing, and served as a mentor to young women in a locked-down facility teaching journaling, poetry, and art therapy.
She has also done plenty of work advocating for suicide prevention and PTSD awareness, and she’s currently Massachusetts’ national ambassador for the National Assoc. of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, traveling all over to raise awareness and promote change in a system where too many children still fall through the cracks.
Moment of Truth
But she wouldn’t find full healing from her past, and the ability to help others overcome their own trauma, until she began talking about it — to the surprise of her loving, and completely blindsided, husband.
“Lisa has worked hard to overcome her past abuse and turned her pain into purpose,” John Zarcone said in nominating Lisa as a Woman of Impact. “I admire her immensely for stepping up and saving herself, our marriage, and family. We have raised three children together, and she is an incredible mother. It comes naturally for her, caring for others and making sure everyone is safe, loved, and thriving.”
That’s a remarkable quality, considering her youthful trauma — which she kept hidden away from John for more than a decade of marriage.
“After I had my third child, things changed,” she said. “I started having flashbacks and nightmares, and they were horrific. I was living in two worlds at once every single day, and I couldn’t do it anymore. So I went to therapy, and I finally shared what happened to me. At that point, I didn’t share absolutely everything. I couldn’t. But I was able to break the silence by saying I was sexually abused, and I started to work through those things.”
Then came the harder part — when she finally told her husband, too.
“He knew my mom had mental illness. He knew I went through a lot of things, but he didn’t know the depth of what happened to me, especially the sexual-abuse piece. And I blew his mind,” she said.
“I was able to find healing and forgiveness because I put myself in their shoes to understand the best I could.”
“He always knew that I was scarred. And he knew my mom was severely mentally ill; even as an adult, my mother was very damaging toward me. But when I shared my truth with him, he was blown away. Basically, he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know who you are.’ That was so hurtful to me … but I got it. I knew why he was saying that.”
But they overcame it — Lisa’s unearthed trauma and John’s shock — and eventually grew stronger as a family.
“John is my biggest fan, and he’s been my biggest supporter through this whole process and writing this book,” she said, noting that it took six years to write, and no publisher wanted to touch a memoir by a first-time author telling this extremely raw story in an unusual way. So Zarcone self-published and learned how to market it on her own.
The transition from writer to speaker came naturally, she said, after an author talk in her hometown of West Haven, Conn. after the book was released. About 60 people showed up, and she was nervous, but afterward, it felt … right.
“My husband and my daughter were like, ‘well, I guess a public speaker is born.’ And from that point forward, that’s what I decided,” she said. “I really wanted to get the word out there, to talk about these subjects that nobody wants to talk about.”
As part of her work in the mental-health realm, she became an advocate for her mother, who passed away in 2014. This month, she is releasing her second book, which tells her mother’s life story.
“I started looking through my parents’ eyes, looking at their journey, why they acted the way they did, why things happened the way they did,” she said. “I was able to find healing and forgiveness because I put myself in their shoes to understand the best I could.”
Zarcone understands this level of empathy surprises people.
“It took a long time to get there. For years, I hated my mother. And I feel bad when I say that now, because I didn’t truly hate her, but in that timeframe, I hated what she did to me, allowing these bad people to come into my world and hurt me the way they did.
“But as I grew older, I learned what mental illness really was, and I did a lot of studying and talking to people and understanding what mental illness does to somebody. Every time she would get locked up or every time something else would happen, it was painful to watch, because I did have love and empathy for my mother.”
And as she healed, she was able to separate her abuser from the once-loving mother crushed by mental illness.
“I always feel like a sense of loss because I lost my mother to mental illness,” she went on. “And she lost out, too. She lost out on being a wonderful mother, a wonderful wife, a wonderful grandmother. Those are the things she aspired to be. Family was everything to her. But when she was sick, you wouldn’t even know who she was. It was just mind-blowing to watch.”
The Story Continues
“Embrace the journey.”
That’s one of Zarcone’s personal mantras, and it’s a moving one, considering where that journey has taken her.
But across 37 years of marriage, and especially since she finally opened up to her husband — and the world — about her past, she has found healing by finding her voice: as a writer, a speaker, a blogger, a talk-radio host, and a national spokesperson for survivors of child abuse. In 2021, she received an award from the Mass. Commission on the Status of Women, and The Unspoken Truth won the Hope Pyx Global International Book Award in the category of child abuse.
The road has been long, and healing didn’t come all at once. But it began by telling a very difficult story.
“The healing process comes in stages,” Zarcone said. “People will say, ‘once you share your story, it’s better.’ No, no … that’s when the work really begins. You have to take it piece by piece, and when it gets too heavy, you put it down.
“And then you pick it back up.”