The New York Times recently reviewed a new memoir that is probably going to cause some controversy, Julie Myerson's Lost Child: A Mother's Story. In case you missed the firestorm in England when this book was published there, the reviewer tells us Myerson was "pilloried in her home country this spring as cruel, selfish and manipulative for writing about her teenage son's descent into drug addiction."
Myerson's son, Jake, the subject of the book, "denounced his mother as insane and obscene for exploiting and exaggerating the drug trouble that eventually led his parents to throw him out when he was seventeen." Jake rejects that addict label, saying he simply enjoys smoking cannabis, that his mother has exaggerated and distorted the facts. (Well, most addicts I know insist that their drug use isn't really a problem ... but that's another essay.) Myerson says she is "cautiously optimistic that Americans won't rush in and judge me."
But the questions remains: Should they? Or should Canadians, for that matter?
A question I frequently get from students is whether they should write a memoir that includes negative details about other people's lives. Some people shout a resounding "Yes," being in accord with Susan Cheever, John Cheever's daughter, who has said, "I strongly believe everybody has the right to their own story." John Cheever's work was famously autobiographical, so his daughter has had an oar off both sides of the boat: She wrote about her father in Home Before Dark and about her own children in a newspaper column (not to mention a memoir about her sex addiction).
Certainly, many writers, myself included, mine our lives for the elements of our work, sometimes fictionalized, sometimes in memoir, sometimes in essay form. At the request of my parents, I wrote about the suicide deaths of my two brothers, and although I received a vast number of e-mails from people thanking me for talking about it, I also received a highly vitriolic one from a woman I don't know, saying I was exploiting my family for the sake of my career.
Great art has resulted from this style of writing. (Consider Richard Yates's autobiographical novel Revolutionary Road.) But there is no doubt it can come at a cost. As writers, we can't escape that, and I believe we need to be accountable. I'm not saying you shouldn't do it. I'm saying if you're going to do it, you have to know why you're doing it, and you have to be prepared to live with the consequences.
There are good points on either side of the question. One of the tools abusers use is silencing the victims. Clearly, the victims have the right to speak their truth, loudly and with unbowed heads. In fact, speaking the truth may be deeply therapeutic, and an adjunct to justice.
But the truth may be a far more fluid thing than it appears. And just as there is no such thing as The Lie, there may be no such thing as The Truth, particularly when we are talking about telling our life stories. (And no, I'm not speaking of relativism, so please don't send me nasty notes.)
My experience has been that memory is often at the service of the present. By this I mean that, psychologically speaking, where I am today will influence my perception not only of the present but of the past. I remember the things that confirm and support my present perceptions. If I'm infuriated by X today, chances are I'll remember the time she stole 10 bucks from my purse, and not the time she paid for dinner. The story of the theft may well be true, but it's not the whole truth.
So it is possible that I "change" the story to reinforce the self.
But the opposite is also true: Jungian psychologist James Hillman, in his analysis of analysis, Healing Fiction, posits that by changing the stories we tell, we can change the self. Of one deeply troubled patient, he says, "The story needed to be doctored, not her: it needed reimagining. So I put her years of wastage into another fiction; she knew the psyche because she had been immersed in its depths. Hospital had been her finishing school, her initiation rites, her religious confirmation, her rape. ... Her pedigree to survival and diploma was her soul's endurance through, and masochistic enjoyment of, these psychological horrors. She was indeed a victim, of her history, but also of the story she had put into her story."
As a writer, I am interested in getting at the truth of a situation, at the kernel of universality at the core of the human experience. I am trying to make sense of my world, and my experience of the world.
As a person concerned with how my actions affect others, I am interested in doing that without inflicting collateral damage.
And perhaps that is why I shrink from the memoir form. Many's the time I've been told I should write about my life - but then, who hasn't? (Snort.) Suicide, addiction, mental illness and violence aren't prerequisites for a writer, but they do give you a plethora of subject matter. However, I have resisted for a couple of reasons: First, I'm not sure anyone really wants to read another tale of woe, even with a redemptive finish; second, I don't want to hurt those whose story I must also tell in order to tell my own.
When I wrote the essay about my brothers, I did so at the urging of my family, who hoped it would help others. No one was harmed in the writing of this article. But were I to write a memoir, I'm not so sure that would be the case. I wouldn't mean to harm anyone, but it might be unavoidable. Thus, I chose not to do it. Were I the only person left alive from my clan, would I write about it then? Possibly. But I'd still have to be convinced that it was the best way of getting at the truth and making sense of it.
I often feel the best way of doing that is not to address the facts, but to compose a fiction. For one thing, it liberates me from literalism, and my nagging fears of hurting someone. Soon I will begin writing a book that takes as its theme something from my own life. It may even seem, to the untrained eye, as though I am writing from purely personal experience, since some details will be culled from my life. But such a conclusion will be in error. By the time I get through churning the facts through my own subconscious, any resemblance to the living will be purely coincidental, and if you think that's you on Page 146, well … it isn't.
I remember a book from a few years back (I'm not going to name it), wherein the author wrote stories about her ex-lovers, every one in an unflattering if humorous light. It was, at first, entertaining, but I quickly found myself uncomfortable with her revenge tactics. It seemed cheap. I lost respect for her.
The question becomes which is more important, the book or the person (other than the author) written about?
In some cases, blunt-force honesty may be called for. The work of Holocaust survivors, for example, books such as Night, by Elie Wiesel, or Primo Levi's If This is a Man and Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone. Survivors of these unspeakable acts have a responsibility to help us remember, so that we might fight any recurrence. This is doubtless true for certain child-abuse memoirs and addiction memoirs as well. And I happen to think the world is a better place for Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, written with so much compassion and humour, and so little judgment, that it deserves all the attention it garnered.I suppose this question of not only what we are allowed to write about, but what we ought to write about, enters spiritual territory, as does so much writing. I believe we have a responsibility to others, that they matter as much as we do, and that I have no right to inflict pain on someone else, certainly not for the sake of "literature." It's not always easy, but it's possible to find a way to tell our stories without dragging other people onto the page.
And, although no one who is struggling to get published ever really believes this, there are things far more important than publishing a book, such as kindness, love, character.
Although Susan Cheever may be correct in saying we all have the right to tell our stories, our story is never just ours alone. We are all connected, tightly woven together; we affect one another and, in affecting others, we affect ourselves. Full circle. The web of creation, of humanity. If, having considered all the consequences, you believe you simply must write that tell-all memoir, then by all means do so, though you certainly don't need my permission. But do so with your eyes wide open; there is a price to be paid for every book we write. If you are willing to pay it, then pick up that pen, you've made an informed choice, and it may well be worth it - for all of us.
Lauren B. Davis is the author of The Stubborn Season, The Radiant City and, most recently, An Unrehearsed Desire. She lives in Princeton, N.J., where she practises her balancing act.