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.
The truth may be a far more fluid thing than it appears
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.Report Typo/Error