A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE GLOBE & MAIL:
In the New York Times recently, there was a review of a new memoir which is probably going to cause some controversy — Julie Myerson’s Lost Child: A Mother’s Story. In case you missed the firestorm in England when this book was first published there, the reviewer tells us that Ms. Myerson was “pilloried in her home country this spring as cruel, selfish and manipulative for writing about her teenage son’s descent into drug addiction.” Ms. Myersons’s son, Jake, the subject of the book, “denounced his mother as insane and obscene for exploiting and exaggerating the drug trouble that eventually led his parents to throw him out when he was seventeen.” Jake rejects that addict label, saying he simply enjoys smoking cannabis. He says, “Today my drug use is frequent and enjoyable.” He says his mother has exaggerated and distorted the facts. (Well, most addicts I know insist their drug use isn’t really a problem, that it’s all just fun and games… but that’s another blog.)
Ms. Myerson says she is “cautiously optimistic that Americans won’t rush in and judge me.” After all, Americans are much more accustomed to flapping our dirty laundry out in the public breeze.
But the questions remains — should we?
A question I frequently get from students is whether or not they should write a memoir that includes negative details about other people’s lives. Some people shout a resounding yes to this, being in accord with Susan Cheever, John Cheever’s daughter. “I strongly believe everybody has the right to their own story.” John Cheever’s work was famously autobiographical, and so his daughter’s had an oar off both sides of the boat — she wrote about her father in Home Before Dark and about her own children in a newspaper column. (Not to mention that memoir about her sex addiction.)
Certainly, many writers, myself included, mine our lives for the elements of our work, sometimes fictionalized, sometimes in memoir, sometimes in essay form. At the request of my parents, I wrote about the suicide deaths of my brothers, and although I received a vast number of emails from people thanking me for talking about it, I also received one highly vitriolic email from a woman I don’t know saying I was exploiting my family for the sake of my career.
Great art has resulted from this style of writing. (Consider, for example, Richard Yates’s, autobiographical Revolutionary Road.) But there is no doubt it can come at a cost. As writers we can’t escape that, and I believe we need to be accountable. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. I’m saying if you’re going to do it, you have to know why you’re doing it, and you have to be prepared to live with the consequences.
On either side of the question there are good points. In the case of abuse, one of the tools abusers use is the silencing of the victim. Therefore, it’s clear the victim has the right to speak their truth — loudly and with an unbowed spine. In fact, speaking the truth in this case may be deeply therapeutic, and an adjunct to justice.
But when we speak of ‘the truth’ I believe we must be cautious. It may be a far more fluid thing than it appears at first glance. And just as there is no such thing as The Lie, there may be no such thing as The Truth, particularly when we are talking about telling our life stories. (And no, I’m not speaking of relativism here, so please don’t send me nasty notes.) For example, my experience has been that memory is often at the service of the present. By this I mean that, psychologically speaking, where I am today will influence my perception not only of the present but of the past. In other words, I remember the things that confirm and support my present perceptions. If I’m infuriated by X today, chances are I’ll remember the time she stole ten bucks from my purse, and not the time she paid for my dinner. Relating the story of the theft may well be true, but it’s not the whole truth.
So it is possible that I ‘change’ the story to reinforce the self.
But the opposite is also true: the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, in his analysis of analysis, Healing Fiction, posits that by changing the stories we tell, we can change the self. When talking of a deeply troubled patient, he says,
“The story needed to be doctored, not her: it needed reimagining. So I put her years of wastage into another fiction; she knew the psyche because she had been immersed in its depths. Hospital had been her finishing school, her initiation rites, her religious confirmation, her rape, and her apprenticeship with psychological realities. Her pedigree to survival and diploma was her soul’s endurance through, and masochistic enjoyment of, these psychological horrors. She was indeed a victim, of her history, but also of the story she had put into her story.”
As a writer I am interested in getting at the truth of a situation, at the kernel of universality at the core of the human experience. I am trying to make sense of my world, and my experience of the world.
As a person concerned with how my actions affect others, I am interested in doing that without inflicting collateral damage.
And perhaps that is why I shrink from the memoir form. Many’s the time I’ve been told I should write about my life (but then, who hasn’t? Snort.) Suicide, addiction, mental illness, and violence aren’t prerequisites for a writer, but they do give you a plethora of subject matter… However I have resisted that advice for a couple of reasons: first, I’m not sure anyone really wants to read another such tale of woe, even with the redemptive finish; second, I don’t want to hurt those whose story I must also tell in order to tell my own. That’s a personal choice. When I wrote the essay about my brothers, I did so at the urging of my family, who hoped it would help others, and with their support. In other words, no one was harmed in the writing of this article. But were I to write a memoir, I’m not so sure that would be the case. I wouldn’t mean to harm anyone, but it might be unavoidable. Thus, I chose not to do it. Were I the only person left alive from my clan; would I write about it then? Possibly. But It’d still have to be convinced it was the best way of getting at the truth and making sense of it.
The bottom line is that I often feel the best way of getting at the truth and making sense of it
is not to address the facts, but to compose a fiction. For one thing, it liberates me from literalism, and my nagging fears of hurting someone, which can be crippling. In the near future I will begin writing a book that takes as its theme something from my own life and it may even seem, to the untrained eye, as though I am writing from purely personal experience, since some of the details will be culled from my life. But drawing such a conclusion will be an error. Believe me, by the time I get through churning the facts through my own subconscious, any resemblance to the living will be purely coincidental, and if you think that’s you on page 146, well… it isn’t.
I remember a book from a few years back (and no, I’m not going to name it), wherein the author wrote stories about her ex-lovers, every one in an unflattering, if humorous light. It was, at first, an entertaining read, but I quickly found myself uncomfortable with her revenge tactics. It seemed cheap. I lost respect for her, sadly.
Apart from the issue of abuse-survivors, which is too psychologically complex a subject for me to tackle here — the question becomes, which is more important: the book or the person (other than the author) written about?
In some cases, blunt-force honesty may be called for. The work of holocaust survivors for example, books like Night, by Elie Weisel, or Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, among others. Survivors of these unspeakable acts of genocide and inhumanity have a responsibility to the world to help us remember, so that we might fight against a recurrence. This is doubtless true for certain child-abuse memoirs, and addiction memoirs as well. And I happen to think the world is a better place for Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which was written with so much compassion and humor, and so little judgment, that it deserves the attention it garnered. The same goes for The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, whose mother (a talented artist with mental illness) lives on the streets and who, when Ms. Walls asked her what she should tell people, said, “Tell them the truth.” Ms. Walls did so, with elegance, compassion, love and grace.. and also with her mother’s encouragement.
I suppose this question of not only what we are allowed to write about, but what she ought to write about enters into spiritual territory, as does so much of writing. My belief is that we have a responsibility to other people, that they matter as much as we do, and that I have no right to inflict pain on someone else, certainly not for the sake of ‘literature.’ It’s not always easy, but it’s possible to find a way to tell our stories without dragging other people onto the page.
And, although no one who’s struggling to get published ever really believes this — there are things far more important than publishing a book — like kindness, like love, like character. Although Susan Cheever may be correct in saying we all have the right to tell our stories, our story is never just ours alone — we are connected, tightly woven together, and we affect each other and in affecting others, we affect ourselves. Full circle. The web of creation, of humanity.
If, having considered all the consequences, you believe you simply must write that tell-all memoir, then by all means do so, although you certainly don’t need my permission. But do so with your eyes wide open — there is a price to be paid for every book we write (some more private than others). If you are willing to pay it, then pick up that pen, you’ve made an informed choice, and it may well be worth it, for all of us.