Vicarious Experience: Reading Memoirs

I often reserve a slew of books all at once after reading reviews or articles, so when I began reading The Rules of the Tunnel: My Brief Period of Madness by Ned Zeman, I mistook it for another book I’d reserved that was fiction.

After several chapters, I concluded that it wasn’t a very good novel.  When I put it down one day and saw the call number, I realized my error, which made the reading more palatable, but still a little disappointing.  This was a story of someone who had a mental illness and received electroshock treatment—two big draws for me. It was touted as being brutally funny — the only thing I find funnier than funny is when it’s brutal. It was a memoir, my favorite genre. So what did I find lacking in this book? While I was preparing to present a program about memoirs, I asked myself, what makes a good memoir?  What I realized was that a good memoir reads like fiction.  It has dialogue, uses sensory images, has a setting, plot, and well developed characters.  It often has at least two voices, the voice of the younger, innocent self and the wiser, mature self.  Zeman’s book tells an interesting story, but it doesn’t read like fiction, and it, oddly, tells the story in third person which further distances the reader from the author.

In his article from the New York Times, Neil Genzlinger writes on what makes a good memoir, “it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.” (“The Problem with Memoirs,” New York Times, 1/28/11)  In his blog ( Eric Forbes writes that “A successful memoir brings about an intimacy or affinity between two perfect strangers: the reader and the memoirist.”  One of my college professors said that good writing was about “atonement,” and he wrote the word on the board as “at one ment,”suggesting that it is to be at one with something.  So the reader and memoirist meet as one in the process of sharing the experience. In a stricter sense of the meaning of atonement, the memoirist is making amends or reparation for a wrong or injury (  I can’t think of a single, compelling memoir where this isn’t true.  A wrong or injury is the impetus for memoir writing.  Who wants to read about someone who hasn’t encountered conflict or adversity?  That’s what often makes reading about celebrities so vacuous and what makes reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids such a treat. Smith writes about the struggle of living for your art and her backdrop of New York is the 1960’s offers a rich slice of a uniquely creative period.

The accuracy of memoirs has been questioned.  If you have a sibling, you have, no doubt, realized that memories of a single event can differ greatly among individuals.  Andre Maurois said that “Memory is a great artist. For every man and for every woman it makes the recollection of his or her life a work of art and an unfaithful record.”  Memoirs certainly are works of art and are as reliable or unreliable as memories can be.  In some sense, accuracy doesn’t matter as much as honesty.  The memoirist makes a commitment to be honest in his or her recollections.  Critics of the memoir often question how the writer can reproduce conversations that happened decades ago.  Literary license is earned through readability and art.  In defense of memoirists, I would also argue, that the experience of writing about the past opens the mind to it in greater detail.  Having attempted to write my own memoir, I found that my recall improved exponentially in the process.  The outlines took on color and feeling.  I remembered that my sister had told me that Santa Claus wasn’t real before I was ready to know.  That was my complete memory, but in writing about it, I recalled not only the fact, but also that we were in our garage, it was chilly and gray, it was a Saturday because we were doing our Saturday chores, and my sister had meant to hurt me.   I also recalled that it was the first time I uttered the word, “Bitch,” and she told on me.

What draws a reader to memoir? Andrew O’Hagan wrote “sometimes (just sometimes) people might want to read about a life whose values are not like theirs,” (“What Makes a Good Memoir,” The Telegraph, August 6, 2005).  So the reader might experience vicariously a life very different from his or her own.   A reader may want to find out what it’s like to be a young upper middle class Smith graduate who briefly falls in with bad company and lands in federal prison
for 13 months, so I will put Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison in her hands.  For a read-alike, I might suggest Jack Gantos’ Hole in My Life about the period of his life when he got busted for smuggling drugs and developed his writing chops in prison.  It’s interesting to read about what one will never experience.  If you’ve wondered what it’s like to be out of a job and home and living in a Walmart parking lot, read blogger Brianna Karp’s The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, which also chronicles her first big lesson in the disaster known as love.

Conversely, I wasn’t initially drawn to memoirs because they described experiences that I would never have, but because they described lives and families in which I could find some resonance — the distant, mentally ill mother; parental relationships fraught with inappropriate confidences and expectations; negligence, abuse, secrets, and blame couched behind false exteriors.  This was bibliotherapy at its best; I wasn’t the only one with ambivalent feelings about my family and shame about my past, and like the authors I discovered, I, too, could survive and thrive.  In Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace and Jacki Lyden’s Daughter of the Queen of Sheba daughters deal with madly unpredictable mothers. In Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle , Wendy Burden’s Dead End Gene Pool, and Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors we find narcissistic parents too wrapped up in their own grandiosity to take much of an interest in their offspring.  Alcoholism can be cruel and kind as revealed by the unreliable and flamboyant fathers found in Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Kambri Crews’ Burn Down the Ground.

Doubters are another of my favorite categories of memoir, those raised in cultures whose values and practices our narrators begin to question. How can we deny that we are sick with chicken pox wonders young Lucia Greenhouse in her book Fathermothergod: My Journey out of Christian Science; later when her mother’s cancer is met with hymns and prayer Greenhouse suffers a conflict of conscience. A young Donna M. Johnson begins to question the double standard she discovers in the tent revival preacher her mother has chosen to follow in Holy Ghost Girl. A hunger for reading and a quietly growing outrage at the second class treatment of women in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn informs Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: the Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Sometimes though, returning to the fold (just for a visit) can be comforting, as Rhoda Janzen finds when her husband leaves her for a man, and she is injured in a car accident; her story is Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home.

If wordy tomes are intimidating, I recommend one of the excellent recent memoirs of the graphic kind.  In Stitches, David Small’s combination of pictures and captions tell the harrowing story of his childhood cancer induced by “healing” x-rays administered by his physician father. (For another childhood cancer memoir, read Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face.) In her memoir, The Imposter’s Daughter: a True Memoir, Laurie Sandell tells her story of growing up with a mysterious dad who might be in the CIA, or in witness protection, or just indulging in his own vast imagination. Alison Bechdel chronicles life with a remote funeral director father in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Of course, the mother of all memoirs of this type is the sublime Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, about coming of age in Iran during the Islamic revolution.

The remoteness of fathers taken one step further to absentee dads brings to mind two favorite memoirs.  Townie is Andre Dubus III’s story of his father’s abandonment of his family and the subsequent experience of growing up in the rough and tumble neighborhood of a depressed Massachusetts Mill Town; add a seasoning of intermittent contact from the father who is lives a comfortable life as a college professor and you get a profoundly affecting story of a sensitive survivor who learns to channel his anger poignantly and constructively. The Tender Bar is J.R. Moehringer’s truly tender memoir of growing up fatherless in Manhasset, New York and finding what it is to be a man in the school of his uncle’s bar.

Dysfunction often provides fodder for memoir, but I can recommend several recent books featuring loving and supportive families.  Michele Norris began what she conceived as a treatise on race in the U.S., but when she delved into her past, she discovered staggering secrets only possible in an African American family.  Her book, The Grace of Silence, is an enlightening and thoroughly thought provoking read.  For another excellent look at race and, specifically, racial identity, read James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.

Another outsider with a loving family can be found in Wade Rouse’s America’s Boy which tells the story of his childhood growing up gay in small town in the Missouri Ozarks. While the two aforementioned stories are gut wrenchingly sobering, Rouse’s story alternates between poignancy and hilarity. For sheer fun, read his At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life about moving with his partner and their urban sensibilities to rural Michigan.

The coziest of loving family memoirs is served up by Molly Wizenberg in A Home-made Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table.  In a family where eating and cooking is another expression of their love for one another, each memory is accompanied by a recipe.  Wizenberg’s book is both a memoir and memorial to her father.

For a quartet of drinking memoirs, check out Julia Wertz’s Drinking at the Movies, Augusten Burroughs’ Dry,
Drinking, A Love Story
by Caroline Knapp, and Mary Karr’s Lit. Outwardly successful, each author unflinchingly portrays ugly truths — sometimes with humor, sometimes with ironic, lyrical beauty.

Elizabeth Gilbert popularized the self-discovery memoir with her ridiculously familiar, Eat, Pray, Love, but before her came a Canadian teacher’s ballsy story of accepting an assignment in Bhutan rather than stumbling into marriage following her graduation from college; Beyond the Sky and the Earth is by Jamie Zeppa.  In her book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, intrepid traveler, Susan Jane Gilman sets off with a college pal to discover China, before it was open to the West, to discover less than welcoming circumstances complicated by her companion’s slip into pathological paranoia.

Through memoir we discover the resilience of the human spirit.  We can vicariously go beyond our own comfort zones.  We can take inspiration and courage from these real stories.  Those are the draws and sustaining aspects of the genre, and I suppose that is why I discovered a plethora of memoirs on my Goodreads’  “read” shelves when I thought to identify my favorite genre.

One comment on “Vicarious Experience: Reading Memoirs

  1. I love reading memoirs; many of the ones you’ve listed here are my favorites, and I thank you for suggesting a few more for me to try. Today on NPR, I heard an interview with the editor of the just-published journals kept by Arthur Conan Doyle during a voyage to the Arctic. Not a title to which I’d usually be drawn (I’m more of a Mary Karr and Patti Smith memoir fan), but after hearing this, I’m intrigued and ready to give it a try:

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