Memoirist or monster? What gives writers the right?
When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.—Czeslaw Milosz
We all know that view. Talking last week to a friend about Emily Rapp’s Poster Child memoir, reviewed here, my friend mentioned Rapp’s forthcoming memoir about her disabled son who is dying, or possibly already dead, from Tay-Sachs disease. “I can’t imagine doing that,” she said. “I think I’d have other things on my mind.” I looked at her, trying to form a response and wondering if I should have addressed that in my review. Then my friend added, trying to be fair, “Maybe she had time . . .”
I was reading a different memoir by then, Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums. Even to a hardened memoirist like me, Sessums seemed a bit cold in writing about his father’s bloody, fatal head wound after a car crash:
Red thick yolks of the stuff oozed past his butch-waxed thatch of bristles and blackened even more the fresh asphalt, drawing the flies that buzzed over a neighboring pasture where they swarmed around cattle that looked up, for a second, at the sound of the crash then turned away to focus on their cuds.
Very graphic and unblinking. Writer friends are apt to admire and cheer on such prose—it conveys and does justice to what truly happened. Maybe his prose was colored by the fact that his relationship with his father, a bullying basketball coach, hadn’t been great. And, let’s face it, his father is beyond knowing or caring what his gay son says.
I remembered when I started to write memoir essays seven years ago. For the first time, I’d begun to tell the story of the traumas that shaped my father’s life, and that therefore shaped me. The worst of these was about how my grandfather killed himself and how my father, then fourteen, found his body. There was lots of romance and adventure in my father’s life, too, but often it was entwined with violence, blood, or early death. There was the train wreck that maimed his beautiful mother when he was an infant. When he was nineteen his fiancé, heiress to an automobile fortune in their hometown of Detroit, died of pneumonia when he was sailing around the world after his graduation from prep school. Then he got thrown out of Cornell, where he was studying agriculture, for landing an airplane on a campus lawn. He attended flight school in southern California before the war, and raced cars on oval tracks and airplanes cross-country. One night a drunken friend tried to drive Dad’s new coupe up a palm tree and Dad scooped his brains back in his skull. Serving as a pilot in the Pacific, Dad bombed Japan, and was the first American to land an airplane in Tokyo after the surrender. When he married his first wife, he spent their honeymoon cruise to Hawaii sobbing in their stateroom, the voyage having returned to him the memories of his first, lost love.
“Your father’s life,” my mother told me when I was a boy, “is the saddest story you’ll ever hear.” I can’t remember if that was before or after the Thanksgiving I was twelve, when Dad had the first heart attack that almost killed him, on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his father’s death.
Writing these stories for the first time, I ran to my keyboard each day. I loved Dad and believed in him and wanted to explain him, as Mom had tried to explain him to me. Explain his courage, his bone-deep integrity, and how, without trying, he commanded respect. Explain how, when he wanted to charm others, which wasn’t often, he could be as charismatic as a movie star, though his sense of humor was surprisingly silly, and he listened secretly to country music.
In the midst of my early memoir work, a friend of my wife’s came to dinner. She taught English, a seeming affinity that emboldened me to tell her of my writings about my father. “You sound like you’re talking about a stranger,” she said, looking shocked. Later I learned that her relationship with her own father was fraught. In hindsight, she’d looked more fascinated than shocked as she bored in, as people often do, when someone mentions something that haunts or afflicts them.
My far-flung siblings and my stepbrother and stepsister and inlaws have been supportive of my writing. But that might have been different had our mother not been so tough. If she hadn’t helped me tell our father’s story. If she hadn’t realized that their romance, during which she divorced him three times, was a good story. I’m grateful personally for one of their remarriages, because it was just before Mom delivered me; they were in Reno, where they were buying cattle for their ranch in California’s high desert.
I guess love is the key for me. This Thanksgiving, I thought as always of Dad’s stoic acceptance of that day and of Mom’s heroic efforts to overcome his history with her feast. And I felt, pain and all, blessed and grateful.