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Joe Gould’s Secret–book review

While a casual reading of Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret might persuade the reader that the secret was that Gould never actually wrote his epic history of conversations he overheard, I think Mitchell tells us straight away what his secret was in the first few pages of his book.  Joe Gould tells Mitchell, “There is nothing accidental about me” (5).  This neatly captures his secret:  even when he was suffering from his choices, dressing “under a red exit light” (9), not writing that history,  he was where he wanted to be, not surrounded by a “shirt-sleeved multitude” (13).

Mitchell initially describes Gould as “an ancient, enigmatic, spectral figure, a banished man” (53),  but he gives him flesh and spirit a few pages later, with an interesting effect:

“…his face was alert and on guard and yet so tired and so detached and so remotely reflective that it was almost impassive. Looking straight at me, he looked straight through me.  I have seen the same deceptively blank expression on the faces of old freaks sitting on platforms in freak shows and on the faces of old apes in zoos on Sunday afternoons (57).

It’s as though Mitchell is fiercely warning the reader that Joe Gould is not a sideshow.  I was intrigued by this—not that Mitchell was showing his compassion but that he warned people as surely as if he’d told us to back the hell off.  The mechanics?  I don’t know what to call it, but I know I want to write like that.   In another passage, Mitchell writes, “…or I would see him sitting among the young mothers and the old alcoholics in the sooty, pigeon, crumb-besprinkled, newspaper-bestrewn, privet-choked, coffin-shaped little park at Sheridan Square” (53).  Besides being a delightfully visual sentence, this paints a vivid picture of the author himself, I think.  I catch an underlying impatient despairing anger in the way he rattles off how dreadful the park is—then he tops it off with “coffin-shaped,” as though its inhabitants were already dead.  (Much later, Mrs. Sarah Ostrowsky Berman refers to “the city’s living dead” (158).)

One thing in particular captivated me in this book:  the similarity between the author and his subject.   I probably wouldn’t have noticed it except for one small statement of Gould’s:  “I was under-sized; I was a runt, a shrimp, a peanut, a half-pint, a tadpole” (62).  What struck me was that it sounded like something Mitchell would write.  Indeed, he rattles off descriptions in exactly the same manner throughout the book.   For example, in addition to the previously cited passages, he describes a barroom:  “…it was long and narrow and murky, a blind tunnel of a place, a burrow, a bat’s cave, a bear’s den” (97); in describing magazines Gould brought out:   “They were dog-eared and grease-spotted and coffee-stained” (76).   I considered the possibility that all the dialogue was simply Mitchell’s style, but he took notes, and, I believe, recorded some conversations.  Journalistic integrity dictates that he transcribe exactly what Gould said.

So I wonder:  Did Mitchell see himself in Joe Gould?  Gould’s fascination with every day conversations certainly mirrors Mitchell’s job as a journalist, but I think another statement of Gould’s captures the meat of it:  Referring to his monstrously long history, he says, “Everything else I’ve ever done may disappear, but I’ll still be immortal” (77).  I think, at the heart of every writer, is the desire to have one’s words live beyond one’s life.  I wonder if Joe Gould’s secret was Mitchell’s as well.

Edited: December 20th, 2009

Stop Time, by Frank Conroy–review

That Frank Conroy’s memoir is titled Stop-Time is intriguing, in that within his story there is a sense of no-time.  While we know from the author blurb that he was born in 1936, and thus understand that he grew up in the 1940s, and while he vividly paints his physical surroundings, Conroy doesn’t include many cultural references that would seat the reader in a specific time-frame.  It doesn’t matter for the story, but it makes it difficult to orient oneself, which may be the point. Perhaps Conroy, via his memoir, is “sending [his voice] ahead to animate the bleakness, supremely conscious of himself as [a] pinpoint of life in a world of dead things.”  In his story he “ramble[s] over…miles of wasteland, trying to find the center of it, the place to know it, [sensing] the place around [him] but they [are] too thinly spread, too finely drawn over all the miles of woods for us to grasp them” (29).  He is writing of his boyhood explorations with his best friend, and “us” in that final sentence refers to them, but it fits his readers as well.
Briefly, at odd moments, Conroy abruptly switches to the present tense in his narrative, which serves to bring the reader directly into the moment.  It’s an effective device, but one for which I could discern no pattern.  A few times he employs it when he is writing about the here and now, and other times it seems he is emphasizing the importance of a memory, but he doesn’t use the technique consistently.  Each time he uses it, it does stop time; perhaps it is because he is abruptly in the moment himself, as when he first shows his wife sleeping beside him and reveals that he still can’t figure out if he is alive or dead.
Conroy doesn’t expound on his inner turmoil as a child, but I believe he reveals anger at two points.  He tells of sneaking into his parents’ room through a transom, after which he lands on his head.  He writes, “The pain was barely noticeable.  (No more than, fifteen years later, a woman’s teeth in my arm)” (157).  He leaps from gleeful sneak-thievery to sexual innuendo, and it makes no sense within the context of the scene.  Even if one were to stretch the association and equate his delight in conquering the locked door to later sexual exploration, he makes no further reference to anything remotely sexual in the next paragraph.  So I wonder if his statement, “the pain was barely noticeable,” is a bigger one, an angry yet wistful brushing-aside of the immense emotional pain he endured as a child.  I realize this is a stretch, too, but still, I wonder, particularly since this memoir is praised as being almost free of self-pity.  He jars the reader one other time when he is gazing on the face of his newborn sister.  He writes, “I spent a lot of time looking at her…as if by being there long enough…I would come to understand the mystery (I was a child, remember) of life” (154).  We know he’s a child—we’re 150 pages into his story, and nowhere else has he felt the need to remind us that he was just a kid.  Why here?  I wonder, again, if this is a bit of anger seeping out.
One notable instance in which Conroy shows an emotional reaction occurs, interestingly, in the chapter, “The Coldness of Public Places”.  He tells of his mother’s “nightly bout[s] of weeping, faintly girlish, expressing exhaustion rather than sorrow.  As a plea to Jean [his stepfather], they never worked” (137).  He goes to his room to collect his schoolbooks, with no rumination, no personal reaction to his mother crying, but later, in the library, when he witnesses the hidden anguish of a young girl, he is shaken.  He writes, “I recoiled from the peephole as if a needle had pierced my pupil.  In a frenzy of confusion I began sorting books as if nothing had happened” (140).
Conroy’s narrative is episodic, with a somewhat disjointed forward motion.  Trees, cars, travel, and shadows are recurring motifs, which serve to underscore his innate need to dissociate himself from his life.  He writes of both feeling invisible and wanting to disappear, as when he hides within the dog kennel as a child and when he drives drunk as an adult.  He tries to find a sense of family with the dogs, but after their sudden, inexplicable feral behavior, they become as much a mystery to him as his own family is.  He writes, “They had their own cabal from which I was excluded” (105).  He hides in trees from his mother, and as a teenager he runs away from his stepfather, hitch-hiking toward Florida until he realizes he will never see his baby sister again.
It seems that his baby sister is the one family member toward which he feels affection and from whom he doesn’t hide, yet she is the one character about whom he almost completely excludes from his memoir.  We meet her as a baby—and that’s it.  His mother spirits her off to Denmark, and when they come back, we have no sense of who she is as a person.  When she is a baby, and he is fascinated by her, he mentions that she is important simply because she exists.  His silence on the matter seems to underscore this.
What I take away from Conroy’s memoir as a writer is the idea that even ordinary events are worth writing about.  I’m stuck sometimes because I think everything has to be dramatic or horrific, and while I have plenty such events to write about, I worry that the reader will come away from my story with sadness, rather than the hope I prefer.  Conroy reminds me that a story is more than the sum of its parts.  He also shows that one’s writing is, indeed, informed by what one reads.

Edited: December 20th, 2009

Review-All God’s Children, by Fox Butterfield

Butterfield’s portrayal of Willie Bosket should be required reading in college ethnic courses as well as those of American history. His careful rendering of the details of Willie’s family history along with that of Edgefield, South Carolina reveals a disturbing pattern of distorted ethics that I have never encountered in all my years of schooling.  Yes, we read about slavery, but we don’t learn about how its effects continue to resonate in our current culture, nor do we learn about the insidious nature of the “code of honor” in the South.

All God’s Children demonstrates not only the importance of fathers in the role of a child’s life, but also the subtle way parents influence their children’s behavior.  One counselor noted that Willie’s real problem “…has to do with his underlying sense of inferiority and insecurity and the rage which he personally feels towards his mother and which his mother expresses to the world partly through his behavior…the real trouble was Laura and her rage at having been mistreated” (192).   This is illustrated by her laughing at his bad behavior at different points in the narrative.  She does nothing not because she feels helpless but because she is vicariously venting through Willie—and it is Willie who pays the ultimate price.

That Willie’s photo is featured in promotional material for a reform school is savagely ironic.  That he begins acting out at eight years old and no one rescues him is heartbreaking.  That he survives his childhood is mystifying.

What is also baffling is that our nation continues to regard penal institutions as a catch-all solution to crime.  Willie is clearly the product of an ineffectual system that took up where his family left off.   Breaking family chains of dysfunction requires taking a risk, but if the mother herself is unaware of those patterns, how can she address the issue?  Willie’s mother didn’t know, and was so steeped in her own rage that she didn’t care.  What difference might she have made if she had cared?

Poverty is a key issue in Willie’s story.  He gets passed around various institutions, and it seems the only thing that would have brought a caring adult into his life—one willing to take a risk for an extended amount of time—is money.  Money would have bought him psychological attention, for one thing, and it would have filled his tummy when he was little, when he was on the streets trying to make a buck for food.

It is altogether chilling that our nation has this undercurrent of historical violence that seems to go unnoticed.  We sanitize our history books and continue to repeat our mistakes, and Butterfield aptly demonstrates how dangerous this is.  While he doesn’t offer one concrete solution, his research illuminates both where we’ve come from and where we should not continue.  And lest anyone should think his actions are inconsequential, he should note what inaction creates.

Edited: May 17th, 2009

Review- Louise Wisechild, Sue William Silverman, and others

Childhood abuse is in the news so often that the term itself is almost a cliché. A reader might be tempted to think, upon seeing yet another memoir of abuse on the store shelves, that here is just another tragic story in a long line of many; that it has nothing new to say; that these memoirs are all the same. To an extent this is true: each has the sexual exploitation of children, each is an emotionally difficult read. And each makes the reader wonder at the myopic selfishness of the human race. However, each of these stories also bears the singular voice of its author, and in this respect that new memoir on the shelves is offering something new. Although childhood abuse memoirs seem to be flooding the bookshelves, each is important and necessary, for each memoir reaches different people. The abuse is the same, yet not.

Louise Wisechild’s point of view in her memoir, The Obsidian Mirror,  is somewhat scattered among several different characters which represent her fragmented self. The characters themselves are distracting, and yet they are what make the fragmentation real to the reader; she deftly shows us these warring factions within her, never resorting to long-winded explanations. Wisechild also demonstrates with form how memories come to her unbidden, a propos of nothing. She does this by indenting her narrative, abruptly telling the reader that she’s had a flashback. The memory narrative is a bulleted indentation, which serves to pull the reader into the past along with her; it also shows the nature of memory: we may be talking about something unrelated and poof, here’s a flashback.

The simplicity of Wisechild’s story makes her book a must-read for abuse survivors who have just begun their recovery journey. It’s almost as if the author were another child whispering secrets to her friend, which makes this new journey of recovery seem manageable. Particularly helpful are her descriptions of her therapy sessions. Starting therapy is one of the scariest steps in personally dealing with childhood sexual abuse; Wisechild’s portrayal of her sessions demystifies sessions by showing her own experience. One reader on Amazon writes, “The therapy sessions are described in detail, it’s like sitting in on the session and seeing her process happening as she sifts through memories and makes connections with the way her adult attitudes and beliefs were shaped by the abuse. The reader gains vicarious healing by being drawn along in Louise Wisechild’s journey to find her answers from within herself.”

Another reader writes, “In reading her book I was also introduced to bodywork as a helpful therapy to heal from the residual body effects of sexual abuse. Louise provides helpful information about this because she is a massage therapist, who works with incest survivors.” Most people—not just survivors, but the general population—have never heard of bodywork, or body memories. Wisechild writes of both as though they are natural routes to regaining mental clarity and ridding oneself of toxic shame. She is unique in this regard (I think)—most memoirists focus on their personal history.

Sue William Silverman tells her story from the beginning in an unrelenting series of horrific events that she endured from early childhood into her late teens. Her memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, is both artful and restrained, which serves to emphasize the trauma she experienced. She narrates the story from as far back as she can remember, age five, telling the reader, “I knew the pleasure before the shame.” This stands out because most memoir authors do not point out that the abuse felt good. Silverman doesn’t go into detail about the pleasure, but that one sentence is significant. Readers Silverman’s memoir on Amazon write, “I found a kindred spirit in Sue. She has survived the fires of hell at her parents [sic] hands. There are many triggers in the book so if you are a survivor of sexual abuse make sure you are ready to face your body memories;” “It hurt but it helped…I identify with Sue…so much similarity in the pedifile’s [sic] character. However, Sue is much more forgiving and loyal. My father died by the time I was 18…that was closure for me;” “The writing of the book, in a sense, becomes the final chapter of her recovery;” and “To be repeatedly raped by a rich, powerful father–the silencing horror of it. And then, painfully, courageously to regain her own voice” (Amazon). People connected with Silverman’s story, and one reviewer mentioned the hope she found in Silverman’s it. This makes sense, given that Silverman mentions the pleasure she felt when her father touched her; any writer who admits that breeches another taboo that’s nestled within incest: if you’re a victim of it, you only allowed to have felt pain.

Part of what is disturbing about Silverman’s story is that there’s no closure. Is there any hope for her? Or for the reader who has had the same experience? What can the reader take away to help her on her path? The open-endedness of her story illustrates the fact that recovery is a journey, and that although she has finally found her voice she doesn’t have all the answers. Survivors of abuse want someone, anyone, to have answers; it is good to be reminded that someone out there is quietly living her life not knowing everything, yet being okay with it.

Lois Gould’s short story, “Businessman,” from the collection, Close to the Bone, is a memoir of her father. Her story is lush with human details. The reader knows her family. Her parents are vividly drawn, from her mother’s stylish wardrobe to her father’s cigar-smell, and the reader knows them inwardly as well: the father’s careless secretiveness, the mother’s callous disregard of her children. One thing that makes her story stand out is the fact that her father did not beat her; he beat her brother. Her father was contemptuous of women, which is not unique in these stories. But telling the story of vicarious abuse is different, and someone who grew up in a similar situation needs Gould’s story. (It’s not globally unique, of course. It’s just not what one typically discovers on the memoir shelf in a bookstore.)

Catherine Texier’s short story, “My Father’s Picture,” also in Close to the Bone, actually focuses on her mother. She writes, “My mother’s breasts. They’re always in my face…I see them in the bathtub, when we take baths together” (232). Her mother flaunts her sexuality in front of Catherine in defiance of her mother, with whom they live. The story is as much about Catherine’s father’s absence as it is about her mother’s emotional and sexual abuse, but it is the female aspect of incest that is different. In fact, one wonders if readers even identify what her mother did as incest. The idea that mothers molest seems to be another taboo: only fathers perpetrate sexual abuse. Why is this? Is the concept of male power so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that mother-as-sexual-perpetrator cannot be ingested? Texier’s story shows that mother abuse exists. We need more stories like hers.

Louise Wisechild’s second memoir, The Mother I Carry, is stylistically different from Obsidian Mirror. The characters she used to tell her first story still exist, but she has incorporated them into herself. She refers to them occasionally, as when she describes her reaction to a fifteen page letter her mother has written to her brother: “It’s been eight years and she still uses the same phrases she used when I was fifteen years old. And they still bring Fuckit to my throat” (199). Wisechild is fully in her body, and this is reflected in the way she recreates her childhood memories. She tells of sitting in the dirt, crying when some boys called her names: “I like how soft the dirt is. When I sit in the dirt I can feel my bottom and I don’t feel like I’ll fly away any minute…A great tiredness is pulling at my limbs” (69). She writes of a memory from age fourteen: “I hate my body for blushing. I hate my fat body for wanting a cupcake” (146). Again she emphasizes awareness of body, which few memoirs do. Her tone is still that of a confiding adolescent, but her growth along her journey shows, and now the tone seems more purposeful.

In Fire of the Five Hearts, Holly A. Smith’s memoir as a therapist treating incest survivors, emotion is unfettered and freely expressed. She writes, “These children were trying desperately to mimic a secret they could barely articulate, much less comprehend” (76). She compensates for their muteness: “My sorrow has eroded and devoured my spirit. Its new embodiment comes to me in the form of tears…I feel the constriction, and…an immediate bitter taste of bile and an obstruction of air. It rises with great fury up my throat, and I cannot speak. The tears collect underneath my bottom lid and pool there, refusing to erupt and stream down my cheeks. My lower lip quivers and then is stilled. The tears evaporate, never evolving into a satisfying, cathartic weep” (63). What is ironic is that memoirists writing of any childhood abuse are strongly urged to eliminate such emotive writing from their stories because the dry telling will allow the reader to fill in the emotions herself. Any memoirist writing like Smith did would be labeled as over-wrought and dramatic. An interesting juxtaposition exists: in therapy the therapist is controlled and unemotional, while the patient is allowed free emotional expression. In both instances the restriction is necessary; nevertheless, the restriction itself is interesting.

It is also ironic that memoirs are supposed to remind the reader that those little girls were much more than their bodies; what happens instead is that a sharper awareness of their bodies, their victimhood, has been created. Were we to meet any of these authors face to face, would we not think primarily of them as victims of sexual abuse? Why is this so?

If we encounter a survivor of a major disaster, we do not compartmentalize them into the victim category. Rather, we regard them as people who had bad things happen to them. The people who lost their houses in the California wildfires, those who suffered through the 9/11 attacks, war survivors, hurricane Katrina victims, earthquake survivors—none of these people is automatically assigned the label of victim, yet they all underwent tremendous emotional and physical trauma. We recognize that they are more than what happened to them; they do not become the event.

This is not true of sexual abuse victims. If we were to encounter, say, Sybil, on the street (assuming we recognized her,) would we not immediately think, sexual abuse? Augusten Burroughs’ name conjures the term as well, although to a lesser extent, perhaps because he has written other works that make him seem more rounded, which leads to my point: incest memoirs, instead of showing the world that the author is a human being who suffered, are instead reinforcing the notion that victims are still victims, not whole people who had bad things happen to them. Memoirs should be regarded as wounds exposed, their words the seepage of an infection too long untended. They should be seen as individual stories rather than as a whole, but somehow they still get lumped into an autobiographical stewpot in the same way that we seem to label the authors as victims.

Recognizing these stories as part of a whole rather than the sum of its parts will lead to healing of the collective whole. The singular voice of each author contributes to the chorus, whether the voices are dramatic or detached, sad or triumphant. It is good that the shelves are flooded with memoirs. People are finally telling their stories, and, while those who remain silent won’t find their own stories in all of the published memoirs, they will find them somewhere, as long as the brave ones write.

Edited: May 17th, 2009

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