The Forbidden Message of the Memoir
Are some lives more important than others?
It’s an uncomfortable question to ask. So uncomfortable, in fact, that it’s one of those rare contemporary topics that have succeeded in becoming a universal taboo.
In the more or less egalitarian West, we believe that we are created equal and remain equal in the eyes of God, that class distinctions don’t much matter, and that anyone can achieve anything they want if they just dream big enough and work hard enough.
But even in Third World countries, where the aspirations of the individual are routinely crushed, dictators wield a very loud and phony brand of populism to maintain their grip on power, claiming that everyone is equal in the eyes of the State – equally un-important, to be sure, but equal nonetheless.
And yet every day, whether we live in a free society or a fascistic one, every one of us buckles down under a system that clearly does value some lives, whether deserving or not, much more highly than others: The well-born, the well-connected, the improbably lucky and, most visibly of all, the vacuously pretty.
This is not to say that we aren’t fortunate to live in a free country, or that the fix is in, in every case, from day one: It is in fact possible in economically free nations to be born in a housing project or hovel and through resilience, creativity, and determination, still achieve greatness. If we have a strong enough sense of self and are willing to work very hard and take risks and shrug off scorn and rejection, we can make something of our lives when others thought that we would be nothing. (The ones who thought we would be nothing are usually in our own social class and, likely as not, in our own families; those in higher classes are not even aware of our existence.)
Most of these self-made people bring innovative new products or services to the world, but there is one very unusual type of person who is, in effect, selling the “nothing” itself, which is to say the very circumstances of poverty and cruelty and criminally neglectful parents that have destroyed so many similar lives before they could even begin.
That person is, of course, the author who publishes a successful memoir.
And indeed, it is this career “arc”, a staple of popular culture since before Horatio Alger, and a surefire provider of vicarious thrills and reassurance to those that are struggling in their own lives, that has propelled the memoir genre to its present heights of popularity.
Most of the successful memoirs of recent years follow the same path: The author is born into sordid circumstances, and/or creates those circumstances for himself (usually drugs or drinking are involved), but discovers an unsuspected inner strength that allows him to clamber out of the mud and spittle and blood to achieve something substantial.
And the evidence that he has created something substantial? The memoir itself, the very book that you hold in your hands. Because the personal memoir is usually written by someone we’d never have heard of unless, self-reflexively, he’d written a personal memoir, the book becomes in part a totemic object for the reader, tangible and readable proof that they, too, can arise from miserable circumstances and achieve success.
But some memoirs are better than others, either because they’re more emotionally honest, or because they have an amazing story to tell, or because the prose sings. Or, we would hope, all of the above.
So what happens in the case of a memoir that isn’t particularly well written or distinctive? Is it then wholly a totemic object and nothing more? Is the author successful only because she is a published author, and not because she is anything else?
And if that is the case, the next question becomes this: Why, in a world of billions of people, most of whom have had to struggle to get to where they are today, is this author’s story deserving of being memorialized in print while so many countless others are not?
At this point, we arrive at the dark secret and knotty contradiction at the heart of the memoir genre. The contemporary memoir celebrates the capacity of any human being, no matter how difficult their circumstances or how unimportant their family might have been, to make something of themselves. But at the same time, it reminds the reader that only a select few are deemed important enough to indulge in this public celebration.
Thus, the memoir is the only contemporary art form that directly addresses the question, “are some lives more important than others?” yet manages to answer that question in two directly contradictory forms, depending on whether one is looking at the genre’s explicit message or its implicit, and forbidden, one.
Paradoxical and Presumptuous
Paradoxical and Presumptuous
Needless to say, none of these issues attach to memoirs whose beauty, and reason for existence, are beyond question – such as, to take just one example, All The Strange Hours, by the naturalist and environmentalist Loren Eiseley, who grew up in poverty and squalor with a mentally ill mother, turned to the natural world for consolation, and made out of a tangle of weeds and a beating of wings a brilliant career. Even in our trivial and celebrity-obsessed culture we still are, most of us, capable of standing in awe of beauty, or at the very least are willing to honor achievement on the scale of Eiseley and others like him.
Who Do You Think You Are?: A Memoir
(Simon & Schuster; US: Apr 2009)
But it’s hard to know what to make of something like Alyse Myers’ first book, Who Do You Think You Are? (the very title of which, incidentally, neatly expresses the paradox and presumptuousness behind the memoir genre.)
This particular question was asked of the young Alyse by her mother, who is not mentally ill but is a nasty, violent, insecure, chain-smoking piece of work who argued constantly with Alyse’s father. He wasn’t any better: He was absent for long periods of time, hid a couple of dark secrets from his children as parents in memoirs are wont to do, and died young (he wore a colostomy bag for unspecified reasons, and was always in pain).
The two of them made for Alyse and her two sisters a miserable home in the housing projects of Long Island, Queens in her early years. As Alyse grew older, her relationship with her widowed mother was so toxic and intolerable that she became an intermittent vagabond, sleeping on the couches of relatives before moving out on her own.
This book, like many memoirs of its type, is inspiring and almost ennobling. Consider that the question, “who do you think you are?”, when asked of a child by its parents, is a form of deeply twisted love: The parent has been embittered and disappointed by life, and, fearing the same for the child, attempts to discourage false hopes. In the worst cases, this tendency (and their own envy of their child’s burgeoning abilities) leads them to destroy their children and, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, “prove” to them that there was no point in striving for a better existence.
This is certainly the modus operandi of Alyse Myers’ mother, who calls Alyse a snob for wanting a better life, and brands her as selfish, slaps her around, kicks her out of the house, and then watches apathetically as Alyse transcends her oppressive upbringing to become: first a writer and executive for the New York Times; second, a better mother on all evidence than her own mother; and third, the author of this book.
But for all of Myers’ emotional honesty and spiritual strength in surviving her mother’s psychic reign of terror, there is something deeply unsatisfying about Who Do You Think You Are?
Regrettably, there are many millions of children whose upbringings are as bad as or worse than Alyse Myers’. So why has hers, and her admirable rise to success, been immortalized in the form of a memoir that has been published by an imprint of Simon and Schuster and blurbed by the likes of the late Frank McCourt, the esteemed critic Terry Teachout and, yes, the New York Times?
Why, to put it bluntly, should we care? Why should we shell out $15 in these tough economic times to buy the paperback story of someone else’s difficult childhood? Why should we take the time to read about her life instead of focusing on our own?
What, in short, makes her so special?
Unfortunately, that isn’t an easy question to answer. While Myers’ story is gripping enough, it is hardly unusual and, when compared to some lives, not really all that harrowing.
Of far greater concern, however, is her selection of narrative voice – a shockingly dumbed-down prose style that appears to be pitched to the level of first-grade comprehension. At first, because she tells her story chronologically, I assumed that Myers was attempting to speak in the voice of a little girl, but that voice never changes throughout the 247 insistently staccato pages of this book, even as she recounts her growth as a person and as a writer.
Here she is, for example, writing about her memories as a ten-year-old in the voice of a six-year-old:
Ding-dong ding-dong ding-dong.
He was back.
And they were fighting again.
Ding-dong ding-dong ding-dong.
It was late in the night and he was ringing the doorbell. He wouldn’t stop.
I could tell this wasn’t the usual I-hate-you-and-wish-you-were-dead fighting.
And here she is as a teenager, living in better circumstances after moving out of the housing project, but evidently still suffering from FDSS (Flat Declarative Sentence Syndrome):
The new apartment was clean and quiet. We still had two bedrooms, but now we lived in a building where the elevator worked, we had air conditioners, and the hallways didn’t smell like urine. We no longer had to listen to the garbage trucks coming in and out of the garage all night. We could see a small playground from the big window that extended from the dining area to the living room.
Does that thrillingly evoke for you in vivid and particular detail the way her new or old apartments looked and smelled and felt?
Didn’t think so.
There is not a single moment of humor or wit in these pages. No figures of speech or metaphors, no memorable imagery, no language that is heightened or eloquent or cutting or fierce. If what Myers was attempting to achieve through this strategy was a sense of numbness, she has succeeded well, but at the cost of committing, again and again, the “imitative fallacy” (the mistaken belief that the tone of a narrative must imitate the inner state of the protagonist, so that the story of a boring and conventional person becomes inevitably boring and conventional instead of, as it should be, witty or scathing.)
And here she is as an adult, a former assistant at a publishing company and by now employed by the nation’s newspaper of record, visiting her mother’s hospital room during her dying days:
I was glad my middle sister came into the room. I didn’t want to have this conversation anymore.
The three of us chatted about the weather and my mother complimented my sister’s coat.
Then a doctor I had never seen before came into the room…
He asked if these two beautiful young ladies were her daughters.
My mother nodded.
He looked like he was my age. Thirty-seven.
‘I just looked over your chart,’ he told her. Yes, we could see that.
She nodded, again.
‘And I think you know,’ he continued, ‘that we’ve done everything we can to help you.’
He patted her leg under the blanket as he was talking.
‘I wish we could do more,’ he told her, as he was patting her leg.
Stop patting her leg, I wanted to tell him. Stop talking, I kept thinking. And who the hell are you, anyway? I’ve never seen you before, so get out of her room. Now.
‘I wish we could do more,’ he said, still patting.
Stop talking, I kept thinking. Stop, stop, stop. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to say anything?
It’s an act of courage, or at least bravado, to expose yourself and your emotions as you sit at the bedside of the mother you hated and loved in varying measures, watching her suffer and die. But when you are reduced to expressing these powerful emotions through Dick and Jane prose like “stop, stop, stop,” it would appear to be something else entirely that is being exposed.
Most of the successful memoirs in recent years have been parables about crushed innocence that manages somehow to metamorphose into adult wisdom and acceptance. There is no question that Myers has achieved a hard-won wisdom; the latter part of the book, in fact, is a large-hearted account of how she became a far-better mother to her own daughter than her mother ever was to her, and yet managed to do so without holding onto very much bitterness about her own miserable upbringing. In fact, the manner in which she and her mother achieve a rapprochement late in her mother’s life, and the way in which she cares for her mother during her last illness, is touching.
Nowadays, of course, most parents don’t even say “Who do you think you are?” They say, instead, “You can be whatever you want to be.” While surely an improvement over the old mode of parenting, it still is not much more than a comforting lie (the world can hold only so many Broadway performers and New York Knicks, and even fewer princesses and astronauts). And to the extent that it is true at all, it applies primarily to those who are willing and able to transcend not only their circumstances, but their chosen genres, as well.
Alyse Myers has every right to feel proud of her successful journey into adulthood, and every right to tell her story. But it remains to be seen if this is the only story she has to tell – and, should there be another one, whether she can locate a compelling narrative voice that establishes her as not merely an author, but as a writer.