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A Day in the Life of a Writer: Getting started on your memoir
When you want to write a memoir, it’s difficult to know where to start. You hear people discuss themes, and character arcs, and think, “I just want to tell about my life. Just start at the beginning, y’know?”
Yes. And no.
Where exactly is the beginning?
And the beginning of what?
A memoir is not an autobiography. It’s a themed piece of writing about your life.
For example: The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham, is about how she mentally puts her father’s suicide in some kind of orderly context (the point being that you really can’t, and this is her attempt to deal with a very messy situation.) Dry, by Augusten Burroughs is about his struggle with alcoholism.
Most people cringe when they hear the word theme, but it need not be intimidating. Think of it as a belt that holds pants up or cinches a dress at the waist. If you don’t wear it with your pants your crack will show, and without it the dress is bland. Likewise, the theme helps eliminate cracks in your story, whether they’re jumps in time or missing details. Theme also gives the story completion.
So you need to choose your theme, but often that’s difficult if you haven’t written anything yet. So choose a memory that sits in your chest so heavy that sometimes you can’t breathe. You know. That one about the thing on that one day?
Don’t worry about fleshing out details and such the first time you write a memory. You have to give the memory words on paper so you can massage them later.
And when you sit down, it helps to create a small ritual that puts your psyche in the right place. For me, it’s having a cup of coffee or tea in my Bad Kitties mug, my headphones, and the sound of a train. (Here’s what I listen to: Train Sounds)
So you write that memory, and it looks pitifully short. Just dashed-off paragraphs that don’t seem to mean much now that the memory’s there in black and white. Don’t stress it. Put it in a folder, and write another memory. Maybe it’s about a guy. Or your sister. Or your mom or dad. Write that memory, too. Put it in the folder with the other one, and write another memory.
After you’ve written four or five memories, take some time to write some lines about how you felt at the time, in each of the memories. What did you feel then? Did your feelings have the same tone, so to speak, in all of them, or were they different?
What stands out in these memories? What compels you to share them?
When we have this strong sense to tell our story, it often means an underlying theme resonates and will resonate with readers. I think many times we instinctively know this, even if we can’t articulate it. Find the feeling and write more about it. Find other memories in which you felt this way. Write the bare bones and stick them in the folder. You will come back to them later. For now, you must get the memories on the page.
Please tell me if you’ve started to write. I’d love to hear about it.
The Opposite of Down and the 5-Second-Rule
*Jake has not been found. Thank you for checking.
From Notes from the Universe:
“Raise your sights and broaden your steps.
Because doing one without the other
is the same as doing neither.”
One time, I was advising a security guard student who had been shooting at 3-yard targets and his groups were sufficiently close that I moved his target to about 1-1/2 times the distance. Right away I could tell by the set of his pistol that his sights weren’t properly aligned, and his shots would either hit the bottom of his target or they’d miss entirely. I explained this to him, but he didn’t listen.
He didn’t pass.
He didn’t hit the target at all; his shots were where his aim was, which was nowhere near that target. I saw the dust from where they hit the ground beyond and below the target.
The farther away your target is, the higher you have to raise your sights.
And you may get lucky with closer targets, but any deficiency in your aim will be magnified the farther away your target is.
I tell my students it’s best to practice small distances a LOT.
I advise them to practice 50 rounds at 3-5 yards. Because they can see the target more clearly at that range, it’s easier to correct how they’re squeezing the trigger or gripping the pistol and then see an immediate effect on the target.
Once they’re hitting the target in a consistently small area, then they should move the target back a couple of yards and practice with another 50 rounds, keeping in mind that the farther their target is, the more important their sight picture is.
Ah, I need to take this sighting advice myself for life in general.
I don’t even know what my sight picture is right now because my gaze has been focused on the ground: one step at a time. Get through this minute. This hour. This afternoon. This day. It’s coming up on a year that Jake’s been missing, and I feel like, man, I just got through Christmas.
Every day feels like he just left. Not the event but the shock of it. It’s like I’m always in a daze of traumatic shock. And not even with the blessed numbness that comes with that. The everlasting suck of pain, man.
My birthday is May 1, and then there’s Mother’s Day.
I can’t hide.
Ever since he disappeared I’ve wanted to hide but I can’t because life goes on.
Life is so rude.
It’s saying, “What’re you doing? Get that front sight up.”
I grumble back, “I’ll show you my front sight.”
Here’s another Note from the Universe:
“If you understood the extraordinary gifts
that every single challenge in your life
makes possible, even inevitable,
you’d celebrate your challenges,
new and old alike, as the omens that they are
of new beginnings and spectacular change.”
Celebrate my challenges.
That really feels like a lot to ask.
I don’t know if I can do that here.
But I can pull my gaze from my feet.
And I can get curious about what’s ahead.
I’ve designed my life to be happy and exciting this year, and I’ve purposely stayed involved in the community so I would choose to honor my word instead of my fear. I continue to show up, and through this determined mindset I’ve gained a perspective about what is important to me, and about who loves me.
My friends keep showing up. People I didn’t know were friends keep showing up. My husband always shows up, and so does my son, Josh. I appreciate how each presence shows up differently, whether it’s a persistent invitation, a hug, a funny video in FB messenger, or a small gift. When people show up, I know that I matter and that Jake matters.
I think the “extraordinary gifts” mentioned in the quote not only pertain to insights but also to opportunities. Maybe I can’t celebrate right now, but I can lift my eyes and take longer strides. (Sorry, honey. Only so much these squatty legs can do.)
Upside down is not down. It’s really just a place where you don’t feel in control.
Control’s an illusion, anyway.
So maybe the extraordinary gift in this situation is finally understanding that.
And I can stop screwing myself over.
You gotta watch this vid:
The 5-second rule has helped me abolish about 75% of my procrastinating.
I do still put off doing the dishes.
A Day in the Life of a Writer: Excavation via fresh hurts
Sometimes I only have a scent. Ivory Soap. Pine sap. Old Spice. It’s faint, like an afterimage, as Atwood writes in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Other times, I catch a memory when I noodle about something peripheral, like the weather of my childhood.
And other times, I am knocked into a pit by something that happens, like my son telling me he will not be seeing me again. As of this writing, I am 18 hours and 40 minutes from that revelation, and all I can think is, ‘if I’d known it was the last time I’d see him, I’d’ve lingered over dinner. I’d’ve drawn out the conversation, which would have been easy because our conversations have always been interesting. I’d’ve found some way not to be the mother who drives him crazy.’ Okay, nix that last one. I actually don’t know how to do that.
(He is not suicidal.) (And he doesn’t read my blog.)
There’s more to it. There always is. But that is not what this post is about. This post is about how present events harken back to old wounds.
I often identify old hurts by rooting around in the new ones (when I have the clarity to do so.) Today, in this fresh hell, I can identify the pain of many old things, but I will name only two:
1) giving my son up for adoption almost three decades ago, and
2) my mother washing her hands of me when I was 11, and again when I was 19.
So my next question for myself is, which pain am I feeling?
Here’s the thing: I have seen enough of life to understand its cycles. The grownup in me knows that nothing stays the same. So the enormous pain I feel is not just about my son walking away.
So what does this mean? How does the current issue illuminate the past hurt?
I see that by linking them I am telling myself the old story of abandonment, and that’s a story I’m done with. Being abandoned means I have no power. I’m not an abandoned waif, I’m a grownup, and I will not be undone by grief. I do leave my arms open for him should he return. But I also accept that it could be years, even decades, before that happens, if at all. My mother was dead ten years before I understood some things in our relationship, things about her.
I’m writing this because I am devastated and I have to work through this or go crazy. I have to be back at work on Monday and I can’t be dissolving every time something reminds me of my son. I have to see some meaning.
Still working on that.
What I do know is that I can model the grace I now recognize for myself. I can be thankful that he has new-found faith and that he is seeking his own right path. And I can trust that everything will be okay. Mostly. Still working on that, too.
Out of the Woods intro
When I was little, my mother read fairy tales to me. She never read stories about fainting princesses who languished until a handsome prince rescued them. She read Little Red Riding Hood to me, and Hansel and Gretel, and Babes in the Wood. When I learned to read, I read them every night before bed. In a way, these fairy tales and others were harbingers of what lay ahead for me, although I didn’t consciously connect any of the stories to my life, not even later, when life events mirrored parts of the stories. I had zero sense of impending doom. In retrospect, though, it seems it was all spelled out to me in the stories, and later, in the books that I loved.
Of all the stories, Babes in the Wood is the one that has resonated most strongly in me. It is a story of abandonment with no rescue, which reminds me of something my mother wrote me when I was in foster care and I had just learned that the father I’d never known existed lived in Oregon: Stay away from Twinkies so you don’t end up fluffy, and remember: no Prince will ride in to save the day. Not even your daddy.
I wonder if messages about my family’s history were unconsciously transmitted via folktales. The children in Babes in the Wood were left to die in the forest. Five of the six children of my generation on my mother’s side were put into foster care by their mothers. I’m not sure why my little brother made the cut, and I’m not sure he fared better than the rest of us, after all.
Mama’s nonchalance–hell, her outright silence– about the story’s ending baffled me for many years. Now I think that it was like a bad smell you get used to after you’re exposed to it for a while. It was her own reality, after all: her parents put her and her two older sisters in an orphanage when they hit adolescence. Other families sent their children to boarding school, or to summer camp. Ours sent the kids into the wilderness. (Fortunately for the parents of both generations, none of us followed the path of Oedipus.)
Yeah, I did therapy. Started with group therapy–safety in numbers. Grew brave after a year–and by that point, desperate–and started seeing a therapist by myself. The prevailing sentiment then was that people who went through therapy came out psycho. My Nana, for example, was very worried for my mental health because I was hashing up things that were better left buried. I should mention here that it was her son who molested me.
When I entered therapy, I was aware only on a superficial level that my perspective was shaped by my childhood. It seems obvious now, like how we marvel that the Columbine parents and teachers didn’t see the massacre coming. I didn’t know, for example, why I was indiscriminate in my sexual relationships before I got married. Conversely, I didn’t know why I felt guilty when I didn’t want to have sex with my husband. I didn’t know why I felt so ugly, even though people told me I had beautiful children who looked just like me. And I thought there was something wrong with me that I felt so crazy around my family.
My take on the new person who emerged: Yup. She was psycho. She went in psycho, and came out a new and improved psycho. She was missing some of her cogs for functioning in her family machine. She forgot her role. The cliche is scapegoat; I reject that. I like black sheep, and not for the obvious reason. Farmers put one black sheep in their flocks for every 100 white sheep. That way they only have to count the black ones to know how many sheep they’ve got. I think the black sheep is the one who carries the story of the flock. A friend told me once that families will often send one of their own out (by way of shunning) in unconscious hope that that one will bring back the elixir and heal the family.
I don’t know if I care enough to bring back an elixir. This may change with time. Or not.
The best I can do now is carry the tale.
to be continued
How to excavate a story from your past: Memoir ideas
Telling a story from one’s childhood is not the same as excavating it. One may think that simply writing out a vignette from one’s childhood addresses issues plainly, but it ain’t so.
Here’s the thing:
First you have to write out the memory exactly as it has been playing in your head for the past umpteen years.
Then you have to go back and fill in the sensory details: Was Mama’s apron black? Or red? Janey insists it was black, but you know it was red. Mental note: dig up old pictures, if possible.
Was music on the stereo? What color were the curtains?
Was the TV on? Were there toys on the floor?
How many people were in the room?
Dinner on the stove?
(Even if you’re in your bedroom, you can smell dinner, right?)
You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the dialogue right. You have to write that down to the best of your recollection before you can feel around the edges of the words for sharpness, or hidden meanings. And you can’t just go groping around smashing the dirt this way and that. You have to tread gingerly. And you have to use the right tools:
That flat shovel can lift an unbelievably thin layer of soil. The round point one is the tester–you know something’s down there, so you cut into the soil with it. (If you click on the picture it’ll take to to a right proper archaeology site :))
The flat shovel is what you use to lift each layer of the memory.
First layer: remember where you are in the memory. Where are you physically, where are you relative to the story, where are you in time?
Second layer: who else is there?
Third: What happened?
Fourth: What was said, and who said what?
Then you start digging with the other shovel and see what you over-turn.
There are some memories I’ve had to sneak up on, just like I would a wispy dream. I tell my brain that my fingers are just fiddling around on the keyboard, and I ignore any possible typos at this point because I’m typing like Stevie Wonder–my eyes are closed, and I’m leaning a little to the left because maybe that’s the way the car was going, and I’m swaying because I know Daddy’s got Johnny Cash on the radio and I’m trying to remember that empty lot on the corner that I liked to play in because I liked the texture of the greasy dirt on the bottoms of my feet.
After you write the bare-boned scene, ask yourself why it is so important. What holds the meaning for you? Why does it hurt to remember it? Or why does it make your heart burst with joy? Maybe you’re standing on the front seat of your daddy’s old white Pontiac, your small hand tucked into the collar of his shirt, and your face is snugged up under his chin where you can smell Old Spice and tobacco, and the memory holds both deep delight and terror, because you’re next to your favorite person, and you know he’s driving drunk…..
Back in the saddle: Memoir Revision
It’s been about eight months since I finished the first draft of my memoir. I’ve finally mustered the nerve to work on it–for a while I was afraid I’d give myself another stroke, and I already had enough on my plate, anyway, with my new jobs. Now that the semester’s winding down (two more weeks!) I’ll have time and brain space to rewrite it.
The first time through, all I could manage was to write the memories–I couldn’t find the oomph to incorporate who I am now into the text, which made for a very dark book. I mention this in case a reader out there is also writing his/her memoir and perhaps thinks there is only one way to write a memoir. Not so. The process for my first draft was disjointed — I wrote memories out of order. For a while I’d write about something that happened when I was 5, then I’d switch to something more recent because writing the first memory triggered it.
Take your time while you write, and be patient with yourself. Your first draft won’t be perfect–there’ll be things you forgot to include, or maybe later you’ll realize the house wasn’t yellow, it was white, or you won’t be able to remember the name of the kid next door. Just keep writing, knowing that you can always come back and fix things.
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.
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.