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Three memoirists of the family, on why and how they came to tell their difficult stories
Editor’s note: Over the past two decades, memoir has become as significant an American literary form as the novel has been, challenging fiction for supremacy on the bestseller lists, in the awarding of literary prizes, and for Hollywood’s affection. Memoir is not, of course, a new art form. As a literary genre, memoir (or autobiography, to use the decorous name memoir lived under when it was still the consort of retired statesmen and naval heroes) has a history stretching back to Augustine, who wanted to map out a conversion narrative for the benefit of other sinners, and stretching forward to Greg Mortenson, the author of the best-selling and at present disputed Three Cups of Tea, whose authorial motives, as of this writing, are difficult to know with the exception, it would appear, of a desire to be renowned and wealthy. Of all the myriad subjects that memoir currently celebrates—politics, war, addiction, dog ownership—one of the more popular, as well as perilous for the writer, is family. On March 23, BCM sponsored a public forum on memoir writing that brought together Amy Boesky and Suzanne Berne, two members of the faculty who have recently published highly regarded family chronicles, and Joan Wickersham, a Boston-area writer whose recent memoir was nominated for a National Book Award. The following essays are edited from their remarks.
She’s Gone: Missing Lucile
Memoirists are drawn to what they don’t understand. We all have events that happened in the past that are still confusing, that haunt us; but at some point the memoirist—usually for pressing reasons of her own—decides it’s time to write about them.
I wanted to write about a ghost in my family. My father lost his mother, Lucile, when he was six years old, and being motherless became the central fact of his life—responsible, he felt, for the marriages that didn’t work, the profession he couldn’t settle on, the places he couldn’t decide whether or not to live in, his difficulties with his own children.
The story we were told was that he and his brother were sent to stay with relatives as Lucile was dying. A few days after she was buried, his father came to collect them, and all he told his sons was: “She’s gone.” Every time he recounted this story my father would say, the outrage in his voice still fresh and immediate, “They said she was gone. No one ever said where.”
Even as a child, I wanted to give his mother back to him. I had a mother myself, and I found it awful that he didn’t have one as well. What would my father have been like if he’d had a mother? I wondered. What would I have been like if he’d had a mother?
About six years ago, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. I remember sitting with him one day and hearing him say, as he so often did, that he had never had a mother. And I thought: you did have a mother; you just don’t know who she was. Because for all of his preoccupation with her, my father had never tried to learn about Lucile. In fact, when my grandfather died, he left an attic stuffed with family memorabilia, and my father threw everything away: diaries, letters, school papers.
Or almost everything. I was 12 years old, and before we left my grandfather’s house I filled a small box with trinkets from the attic myself—all things, it turned out, that had belonged to my grandmother.
I had that box when I began writing this book. I also had some photographs, a letter Lucile had written, a few pages of a diary. Can you reconstruct somebody’s life from a few facts and artifacts? I kept asking. How much do you have to know? As a novelist, I considered writing a novel about Lucile. But this woman was already fiction, and to fictionalize her yet again seemed an aesthetic and personal mistake. She had once been as alive as I was, full of ambition, frustration, and desire; full of her own history. And I wanted that history. Memoir, the writer Patricia Hampl says, is “the intersection of narration and reflection, of storytelling and essay writing.” As a flexible narrative form, memoir allowed me to keep changing the terms of engagement while I struggled to write about a real woman whom I knew I would never really know.
Unlike many other memoirists, I began this book without worrying that it would upset my family. But I was wrong. Although no one but some elderly cousins of my father even remembered having met Lucile, I was still writing about family history, and for my own purposes. I was telling the story of who we were: my version. One of my sisters said to me one day, “I feel like Lucile has become your grandmother.” It was true, of course, because whatever you write is your creation, partly a projection of yourself. And whether or not anyone in the family has any interest in defining the past, the fact is that you have hijacked it, you will publish what’s going to seem like the definitive version, and a memoir writer has got to be prepared for the consequences of claiming a piece of family history as her own.
Afterthoughts: The Suicide Index
My father shot himself in 1991. Every suicide is a mystery. You’re constantly wrestling with why, why, why. The way I work out my why is to write. I thought: I’m going to write a novel about a father’s suicide, what led up to it, and the impact on his family.
It took me years to get started because the subject was so painful, and once I got started I spent eight years, on and off, doing all of the things novelists do when they don’t know what they’re doing. I did a third person novel. I did a first person novel. I did a chronological novel. I did a chronological novel with flashbacks. But always the fiction felt thin, remote.
I threw out the manuscripts, and began to write about my father’s life in little chapters. The memoir that resulted is called The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order because it is structured as an index. The sections are alphabetized, which gives them order, but it’s an ironic and almost ridiculously formal order, which is a way of saying that the experience of a suicide defies emotional and rational order.
There are chapters that are written in first person, in second person, in third person. There are chapters in which I’m trying to work my way into my father’s mind. There are chapters that almost could have been from a novel. In a novel, however, you put your characters through a series of trials, and you learn about them by the way they come through. Suicide was a disruption, a confusion. I had, in fact, come to feel that my father’s suicide had tampered with my memory of him, with my sense that I knew him and he knew me.
The problem with a family memoir, of course, is that you can’t tell your story without telling other people’s stories. I didn’t ask my family’s permission to write this story. Some people are very open about family memoirs, and they pass around successive drafts. I couldn’t write under those circumstances. I recognized immediately that my version of family history would be different from my mother’s or my sister’s, and that a suicide, in any case, leaves behind competing versions of history that will never match up. But I also felt that if I was going to write this book, I had to do it honestly; and that presented a dilemma, because while I wanted to be honest, I didn’t want to gratuitously hurt people.
There are stories that are best told through fiction, and in some ways I believe that fiction is more truthful than nonfiction because it allows an author to get at emotional complexities in a way that nonfiction rarely does. But this book had to be a memoir because in it I’m grappling with the nature of memory itself, trying to figure out what memories I have that are reliable, what memories I have that are unreliable, and how I can reconcile my father’s suicide with my memory of his life.
BRCA1: What We Have
Until I wrote this memoir, my experience with the genre was primarily academic, principally focused on “Writing the Self,” a course I teach about life-writing during the 17th century. In my own poetry, fiction, and scholarship, I have generally stayed away from family matters, and most particularly from the subject of What We Have: a mutated BRCA1 gene that led to the deaths by breast and ovarian cancer of most of the women in my mother’s family while they were still in their forties.
The book focuses on a year in the life of my family, a year in which my mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, in which my first daughter was born, and in which the experience of one life ending and another beginning crossed for me. This was a year that already felt, as I began working on the project about five years ago, as if it had taken place a long while back, and yet, like all the most pressing of family histories, was still continuing to unfold.
In my teaching, I often ask students to look at the blurred boundaries between memoir and fiction. Many well-known novels are constructed as fictional autobiographies. Why? Is it because the first-person narrative of lived experience has so compelling a hold on readers? Or because the first-person voice in fiction lays bare and troubles the bounds of authenticity? I know that I was conscious of a strong need to use novelistic devices when I wrote and rewrote What We Have: in my decision, for instance, to confine most of the narrative to a single year, as well as my use of dialogue, in the imagining of exemplary scenes to tell the story, and the attempts to bring to life various members of my family as realizable characters.
I was deeply aware that I was telling the story not just on my behalf but for other members of my family, some of whom read and commented on every draft, and some of whom barely knew what I was writing. It’s a tricky business, writing about family. I know, for example, that I waited to write this book until my own daughters were old enough to give their young adult consent to publishing its story, as they are part of the story both in the past and in the (still unfolding) future.
What We Have may be a memoir, but it is by no means a “book of me,” a chronicle about who I am or what my life has been like or how I see my character. I don’t think I would have had any patience to write a book like that, and I can’t imagine why anyone would care to read it. Rather, What We Have is a highly particularized account of a set of family circumstances, choices, and decisions in which I was involved and that I felt needed to be told, not simply for my enjoyment as a writer, but because I thought the telling might be useful in opening conversations about some of the issues associated with genetic mutation, disease prevention, and the perception and experience of risk.
What did I learn about memoir from writing this book? I suppose two things: first, that the impulse to cover up truth is surprisingly strong on the part of the writer of memoir, as well as her supposed subjects; and second, that the objects in the mirror may not be closer than they appear after all.
Suzanne Berne teaches writing in the Boston College English department and is the award-winning author of three novels. An excerpt from Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of this magazine. Joan Wickersham is a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist; she writes an op-ed column for the Boston Globe. Amy Boesky is a member of the English faculty and a scholar of 17th-century British literature.