February 15, 2012
I write this blog for SheWrites last week, but thought I'd re-post it here:
I teach a family memoir class at NYU and, year after year, it’s always over-enrolled. The twenty year-olds carry around a limitless store of tales about their parents, their siblings, and the wrongs they’ve been done. But will they publish them? Probably not right away. A public airing of past struggle can be therapeutic in a class, but terrifying in the broader arena of publication—especially when that struggle implicates the living. Relatives, after all, are easily hurt or angered, they can contest your facts, and they can sue. As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “I don’t think anyone should write their autobiography until after they’re dead.”
I’m turning 40 next month and I just published my first short memoir, called Mother, Stranger. I had to wait for my mom to die. But this wasn’t because I was afraid of what she might do or say or even feel; I didn’t write about my mom while she was alive because I didn’t have the separate self to do it. I was too angry, too broken, too enmeshed. Despite the fact that I left my mother’s house at fourteen and never saw her again, the pain I felt about my mother kept her close. Too close to see her as both light and shadow, with edges distinct from my own. Her death gave me my voice.
In a book review about six years back, Francine Prose wrote,
“What the memoir writer knows is what readers of Grimm intuit: the loving parent and the evil stepparent may in reality be the same person viewed at successive moments and in different lights. And so the autobiographer is faced with the daunting challenge of describing the narrow escape from being baked into gingerbread while at the same time attempting to understand, forgive and even love the witch.”
Sometimes death provides enough distance for equanimity; it did for me. Suddenly all the unspoken bits of our shared history formed themselves into language, and death gave way to life. I could write a memoir with my mother as a living character, and imagine my way into compassion for both of us.
I know that for some people, an obituary is the green light to finally release the monsters from the closet, since you can’t libel the dead. But I also know that keeping mum on the monsters doesn’t help anyone. Audre Lorde once said, “your silence will not protect you.” She was right, but still, silence can sometimes serve as an incubator for memoirs too raw or unformed for display. Until one day, maybe after a death in the family, that silence cracks and you’re writing, writing writing, like your own life depends on it. Because it probably does.