Published in 1995, The Liars’ Club dramatically revived the art of memoir. Mary Carr’s command of the English language, along with her honesty, grit and courage left me in awe. I read Carr’s other memoirs as well and by the end of the last one I actually felt a sense of grief parting with these real life characters I had gotten to know so well.
Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini is fiction that reads like memoir. Like a lot of fiction, the author’s real experiences are on the page. Calling it fiction allowed his father, the tyrant in the story, to temporarily deny its truth. Conroy offers up his angst to the page, one scene at a time. Like Mary Carr’s, his words do not convey self-pity, but rather a detached yet descriptive unfolding of his history. In the end, his father owned up to the truths in the book, and the two men redeemed their relationship.
I considered writing my book as fiction, but have made my choice to call it what it is, a memoir. Still, I definitely understand Conroy’s choice. To call a true story fiction is an act of self-protection, or maybe of protection of others as well, to offer them up the possibility that it was all made up. It’s just a tale, something from nothing, no big deal, we can all go home now. I do see the appeal in that.
My own memoir-in-progress tells the story of being alienated from my mother after my parents’ volatile divorce, when I was four.
Secrets and suffering are ingredients of nearly every memoir. Mine is no exception.
My father threw my mother out of our home when he discovered her affair, and capitalizing on her shame and her already low self-esteem, he essentially bullied her out of my life completely. My mother, a broken woman after five years of marriage with a man who intimidated her, after some struggle to maintain contact with us, slipped away quietly.
My father remarried soon after and insisted we call his second wife “Mom”. He convinced himself he had put life back in order and he never mentioned my mother again.
The absence of truth is usually a lie, and in the case of family tragedy, pretending to the outside world that all is well leads the most introspective amongst us to take notes, both literally and metaphorically speaking. My memoir is the accumulation of all my mental notes. They started when I was four.
I know something of that need to bring “the thing” to light by way of the written word. The desire is compelling, and almost beyond choice. Most memoirists have suffered greatly before they craft their story for the public. But many suffer even more afterwards, or so I hear. That part is scary and surely tests the desire to offer the story up to the world.
From the outside, my family was ordinary by anyone’s standards. But the loss of my mother was extraordinary and therefore I must write it.
As I am nearing the end of it, I imagine my father’s response to my words. He somehow had convinced himself that erasing my mother was excusable, even necessary. To face 250 pages from the lens of my loss is not going to sit well with him. But it is also quite possible that he will never read it.
And I understand that- the not wanting to read it- or even needing to deny that it is written. I empathize with the pain of being exposed, and the vulnerability.
And in the depths of my soul, I know that we are all vulnerable. My father has been my teacher and the lessons have been hard, really hard. But I believe in something of a soul agreement, chosen before we even come here to this this side of the veil. It helps to believe that I actually chose my particular lessons, and that I needed my father to help carry them out. We all have our lessons, and my story just happens to contain mine.
I hope I am learning to speak up for myself and make up for the betrayal of childhood; to dig through the rubble and reach authenticity, even when it hurts like hell. I hope I am learning truth and courage and forgiveness too.
I have written what I have lived, my experiences, my thoughts, my feelings, my words. And that’s all a writer can do in the end, is just to say it is the truth, her truth, and hope others can understand that it had to be told.