Three Worthwhile Memoirs
February 17th, 2011 | Blog, Memoir Authors, Memoir Reviews | 0 Comments
Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS struck me as “memoirs” rather than a literary memoir. It seemed drawn from journals rather than relived and recreated via memory, there isn’t a lot of reflection or insight, and the style is not particularly scenic but more recounted or recorded. That said, the material was interesting–her and Robert Mapplethorpe’s young lives in New York in the late ’60s and early 70s, and particularly their developments and mutual support as artists. I enjoyed it, and found myself genuinely moved at the end by her love for and loss of her long-time mentor, friend, love, early lover, and always supporter. It was fun to read about life at the Chelsea Hotel and the NYC scene with people like Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard, Diane Arbus, Gregory Corso, Bobby Neuwirth, Marianne Faithful, and George Plimpton (to name only a few) wandering through (there are also a ton of names I didn’t recognize–she takes name dropping to a new level! But that’s ”the scene” and a huge part of the memoir). Patti herself seems beguiling and almost guileless in an appealing way. She describes sitting on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang “Me and Bobby McGee” with Janis Joplin joining in the chorus: “I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.” JUST KIDS won the National Book Award last year.
THE SUICIDE INDEX will be of interest to at least two audiences: those who have had some encounter with suicide; and those interested in writing memoir (well, maybe EVERY memoir is of interest to the latter). My only experience with suicide was with a student who came very close to killing himself, which I’ve written about in a short story called “The Student” available on my website. Joan Wickersham, the author of THE SUICIDE INDEX, was blindsided by her father’s suicide when he was 61. That devastating event shocked her to her soul, and threw her own life into turmoil. The memoir is the recounting of her efforts to understand not only why her father shot himself in the head, but who he really was, and the effect his death had on her own life. It’s an amazing work of honesty, intelligence, and pain. What is of interest to the memoir writer is the structure, in which the material is organized by and as an index, thus freeing her from a chronological survey of events. She also is self-conscious about being a writer writing a memoir, such as talking about being at a writers’ colony to work on the book. Her openness about her own life puts you very close to her, so that you feel you know her intimately. At the same time, I wondered how much of the material and experience was driven by her wanting to write a memoir, and at times it felt as if some of the experience was ”milked” for that reason. It’s an issue that comes up in memoir writing. She’s fabulous on the portrait of her mother, who is shallow and self-centered, but it was disturbing, at least to me, when she writes about her son’s depression and troubles. I wondered about her son’s privacy and exposure via the memoir. Again, this is an issue many writers of memoir have to confront. The writing is extraordinary, the structure effective and original, and the pain palbable. An admirable work.
Laura M. Flynn is a Minneapolis based writer whose SWALLOW THE OCEAN is an exemplary literary memoir. It’s about growing up with a schizophrenic mother in San Francisco in the 70s, and is a work of great beauty and integrity. She does a fine job of establishing a voice from her adult perspective that allows her to reflect on and shape the experience from her present understanding, and also to recreate the experiential world of the child who loves and is dependent on her increasingly erratic and ill mother, especially after Flynn’s father moves out and only sees the girls on the weekends. I can’t imagine how she could have better captured the strange world of her childhood as her mother sinks further into illness: ”Stuck inside the house with my mother, who was intent on unwriting our lives, erasing the past, and cutting all our ties, my sisters and I grasped for a narrative that would hold. We spent our days playing dolls, telling each other stories of loss, abandonment, and escape over and over again. Every game began like this: ‘We’re orphans,’ I’d say, or Sara would say. Then we’d dispense with parents by way of illness, train wreck, or civil war.”
When I heard Laura Flynn speak to students at a class at St. Kate’s College, I asked her about finding the voice that allowed her to tell her story so beautifully, interweaving the past and present in a seamless flow. She said someone once told her “to really write something you have to know the material so deeply–and it takes a long time.” This is a memoir in which the material feels fully processed and digested with great compassion, honesty and love–truly and deeply known.