Vivian Gornick’s classic memoir’s serendipitous braided structure.

For Gornick, who has been teaching writing for 15 years, the important thing in organizing a personal narrative is figuring out ”who is speaking, what is being said and what is the relation between the two.” Once you’ve discovered who you are at the time of writing, then the rest of your memoir or essay will fall into place: ”Get the narrator, and you’ve got the piece.”

—from a New York Times review of The Situation and the Story

Fierce Attachments: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 204 pp.

Blurry Street x

[A street in Florence, Italy.]

Fierce Attachments stands with another classic literary memoir, John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, and surpasses by dint of its warm humanity Vladimir Nabokov’s chilly Speak, Memory. I’m embarrassed it has taken me so long to read it, especially since I’ve read Vivian Gornick’s short book of memoir theory, The Situation and the Story, many times. I’ve always found the latter rather slippery—seemingly too simple, it suddenly drops into murky depths—but Fierce Attachments’ brilliant use of the memoirist’s dual persona (me then, me now) brings her theories into focus.

All the same, my current reading of Fierce Attachments, originally published in 1987, is shadowed by disaster. I have two classes of freshmen reading it and they hate it. That may be a slight overstatement, but they aren’t enjoying it—it’s not a book for kids. They want events, plot. In a word, story.

What was I thinking? There’s a story here, but one it takes an adult to see: a woman trying to understand her mother, herself, and how her past forged her. Gornick was affected especially by her mother—mercurial, unlettered, brilliant—and by Nettie, an overripe, artistic, emotionally damaged widow next door.

Freshmen can’t relate. How can they, when most don’t yet own their material? Their parents, for instance aren’t yet people, let alone people who can be forged into characters. For juniors and seniors, if they’re writing majors or at least avid readers, Fierce Attachments would be a good risk. And all MFA students, especially those in creative nonfiction, should read it. Not to mention all self-taught adult memoirists. For it’s a wonder of a book, as good as they say.

[Then: Vivian Gornick, who is now about 78.]

Gornick’s truths blaze off the page, her portraits of others transfix, her sentences and rhythms delight. What she remembers, she says, of growing up in a Jewish tenement in the Bronx, is a building full of women:

Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I—the girl growing up in their midst, being made in their image—I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face.

What a metaphor! It’s stunning, and resonates throughout the book. Her memoir is her struggle for consciousness.

The structure of Fierce Attachment bears special mention. There are two parallel or braided stories: Gornick in the past, growing up, and her in some recent present, walking with her “urban peasant” mother through New York. The pair walk and talk, mostly about the women they knew when Gornick was growing up.

In an interview with Sari Botton for the Rumpus, Gornick explains:

So I wrote about forty pages and I suddenly got horribly stuck and I knew I did not have a structure that would help me tell the story that I wanted to tell, and I did not even really know what the story was at this point. But I knew I had unfinished business with my mother and that telling this all in the past, as if I was telling a straight narrative since I was eight years old, would not work. For six months, I sat at my desk in misery, and then one day my mother called and told me one of these walking stories that I later repeated in the book. . . . And then, for fun, just to relieve myself of the writing block, I sat down and wrote this vignette out. And suddenly I realized that I had gold, that I could put my mother and myself in the present, walking the streets of New York, and alternate with the past, and that would help me create two sets of women who were slowly going to account for themselves, to each other. And in the walks, I was going to give my mother everything. In the walks, she’d be smart, funny, wise, warm, tart, all the things that she could be, and in the past, she would be neurotic and self-pitying.

Rumpus: So she had an arc.

She had an arc and that helped me make an arc. When I went back and re-wrote everything this way, slowly I began to see the story was not in how momma and Nettie made me a woman, but the story was that I had become my mother and therefore I could not leave my mother. That was the thing I really came to understand – what we all come to understand ultimately. It is all based on fear and misery and the inability to separate. And that I had mimicked so much of her. So much of her was inside me that I could not leave. Once I understood that, I knew that I was writing to dramatize that insight. After that it didn’t matter what the hell I wrote. There was nothing I was afraid of, because I knew I was not writing to trash her. I was not writing to aggrandize myself. I was writing to serve that insight.

Gornick-Fierce Attachments

It inspires—the way Gornick depicts her worlds and the way she fights to understand them and herself. And such a truthful writer. A couple times, I’ve closed memoirs in disgust, convinced the authors were self-serving liars. Gornick is a truth-teller, almost ruthless, yet something—her own depicted flaws, maybe—renders her compassionate.

She achieves the high aesthetic standard she mentions in The Situation and the Story:

 A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by the idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.


  • Wow. I’m sold.

    I, too, have closed memoirs in disgust–often those written by politicians or rock stars who want to define their supposed legacy. There, the self-serving impetus seems blatantly obvious to me. Most of the time, it’s less obvious and only occasionally disgusting (because occasionally I wonder whether all memoir is somewhat self-serving).

    I’m hanging this on my office wall: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

    • Richard says:

      You might like The Situation and the Story, too, from whence that quote comes, Tracy. It’s about the importance of the persona in nonfiction, very different from fiction. Also not a book for teenagers, who are just flummoxed by it!

  • This sounds like a fascinating memoir. I can relate to it especially, I think, because after my father died, and except for my little brother, I too was raised in a world dominated by women. It’s an experience that has both its upsides and its downsides, and I think probably that Gornick seems from what you say to convey them both. I’ll look forward to running across it in the library.

    • Richard says:

      Yes, her father died when she was 13, and he’d been away at work all the time before that. The domestic sphere was almost entirely female, with her powerful mother a major figure in the building and in her life. I do think you’d find it interesting, Victoria.

  • shirleyhs says:

    I too read The Situation and the Story and have not yet read this memoir. As always, you made me want to stop and read the new book right away. Alas, many other things first.

    Thanks for telling us your experience with teaching the book to undergrads. I have the full range of four years in my class (frosh-senior), and finding texts that appeal to that range, as well as appeal to me, forty years or so removed from them in time, is sometimes a challenge. But a good one. I’m sure you will find something teachable out of the conflict. You already have in this post!

    • Richard says:

      Shirley, I have a list of proven, solid gold memoirs for undergrads. And I departed from it, set out entirely for uncharted territory! I’ve decided it’s best to keep a few chestnuts in the lineup as I search for new ones. Here is my proven list:

      The Glass Castle
      Half a Life
      Poster Child
      Mama’s Girl
      The Black Girl Next Door
      Name All the Animals
      This Boy’s Life

  • Yep. Adding this to my list. Just finished WORKS CITED and loved! Thank you, Richard.

  • That’s interesting that your students aren’t engaged by this book–and maybe a little painful for Teacher! It made a big impression on me when I read it years ago, and I consider it a classic. I was shocked to see the new cover for it! That’s a photo of Vivian and her mother? I just looked for my copy and couldn’t find it–ever since I cleaned out my bookshelf I can’t find anything! I remember the opening where the women on the landing are talking, Mrs. Drucker I think it was, about sex, and also how Vivian’s mother would come home after she was widowed and just lie on the couch (it’s been a while, so hope I have this right)–such a depiction of deep depression–it was frightening, really. I think Gornick’s idea of “the situation and the story” is invaluable, and I find myself repeating it to students and myself in my own writing. I heard Gornick when she was in the Twin Cities years ago, and I seem to remember that she said she was worried about her mother’s reaction to the memoir, but after it came out, her mother would go around autographing it!

    • Richard says:

      That’s Vivian and her mother on the cover! Yes, it is painful that the students don’t like it. I think they can’t relate to Vivian, her mother, or that world. They need a character they can identify with, as much as plot, I think upon reflection. So a character they can identify with in tumultuous circumstances is ideal—then they don’t find the book “depressing,” because that person gets out in one way or another.

      I thought you put your books in alphabetical order, Paulette!

      • YOU put your books in alphabetical order, Richard. I didn’t! I just grouped them into memoirs, novels, etc. I should have pushed on and alphabetized but I was reduced to a heap on the floor after cleaning out my bookshelves. I did the best I could, Richard. So often my case. Not too bad, not good enough . . .

  • […] Gornick’s ‘Fierce Attachments’ ( […]

  • I am currently enrolled in an MFA program in creative Non-Fiction and working on a memoir. I have struggled endlessly with structure, scenes, themes, etc…. I have read Gornick’s The Situation and The Story, but keep postponing reading Fierce Attachments primarily because of this article

    Where she apparently said that some of the scenes were fabricated, certain details did not occur, composite characters. While I’m not saying that any of what was created in order to make a better flow, arc, whatever is wrong nor makes it fiction, I’m quite stuck on should I allow myself to do this, what should I then take from her novel then? Do I read it just for the technique and talent of writing? Because I do read fiction differently than non-fiction. Or does any of this even really matter as I trust she didn’t fabricate important details.

    • Richard says:

      This is a hard issue. My thinking has evolved over time, as reflected in blog posts over the years; check under my category of “honesty”. I came to see that a memoirist must imagine her way back into the past and take us there with her. She should not fabricate the key event (or conversation) but, in my thinking, can re-create the particulars. Gornick may have gone a little farther, creating a scene in order to show her mother and herself interacting as they typically did or did at another point. However, I trust her. It comes down to that. There is no transcript for memoir, and memory is not linear but conflates things, so we rely on emotional honesty. That’s what Gornick’s whole book is about. One’s emotional truth is vital and what the reader seeks.

  • I guess Nabokov was a case who did not survive the comparison with Gornick well in more than one way: not only is “Speak, Memory” chilly and scholarly-authoritarian in its tone, if we’re calling something that has a particular theme a memoir, and something that just goes from near the beginning to as near the end as the author can imagine an autobiography, I would say that “Speak, Memory” is really an autobiography. And Richard, you’re right, it’s hard sailing with that book. It’s rather as if Nabokov had thought to himself, “Well, of course people will want to hear anything I can tell them about MYSELF,” and had gone from there. Not that it doesn’t have its humorous moments, but it could’ve been relieved by more of them. Also, though I have nothing to support this theory, I’ve a lot of suspicions about Nabokov’s literary systems of trickery and would say that whereas Gornick ‘fessed up about scenes she made up, Nabokov would do so as a matter of course and take it as his right in speaking about himself, and make no further bones about it. He’s great when he’s being funny and telling tales on himself, but when he gets all serious about the importance of his ancestors, I give up.

    • Richard says:

      Victoria, you know he punches my buttons! I guess my main beef with him is was seems his coldness as a person, or so I interpret him based on Speak, Memory. I am unsure whether he made up things from whole cloth in his memoir – but AM sure he wouldn’t feel bad about it if he did.

  • […] both. Her outrageous mother, whom she portrayed at length in her classic memoir Fierce Attachments (reviewed) also […]

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