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Autobio Hazards

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Check out the ever-expanding Biography section of any bookstore, and you'll see a selection of personal memoirs with self-deprecating, often self-explanatory titles: Fat Girl, Welfare Brat, Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress. Who are all these people writing about themselves? you may wonder. And what makes them more interesting than me?

There's a common perception that, to write a memoir, you need to have "been through" something -- no one's going to rush out and buy a manuscript about Jane or Joe Schmo's Kodak moments growing up in the leafy suburbs. At the same time, writers who chronicle their personal trauma often come in for criticism as "exploiters" of their own misfortune. Who are they, ask critics of the genre, to reveal their family's painful secrets, or to give us blow-by-blow accounts of their struggles with addiction or illness? And why should we want to know?

Two local writers suggest the answers to those questions are as various as memoirs themselves. Mary Childers of Hanover, New Hampshire, is the author of Welfare Brat: A Memoir from Bloomsbury Publishing. She turned to personal narrative as a way to articulate truths about life on welfare that she felt often get drowned out by political noise. By contrast, PJ Long of Morrisville, whose book Gifts from the Broken Jar tells of her slow recovery from a traumatic brain injury, began her manuscript as therapy or "cognitive retraining" and continued it as a form of self-discovery. While their books are worlds apart, both writers speak with powerful candor about the decision to share their experiences with the public.

Slim, freckled and youthful at 52, Mary Childers talks openly about her 1960s childhood in a fatherless family of seven kids in the Bronx. Writing her memoir, she says, she was aware that some readers might find incidents in it "over the top" and "melodramatic, because that's how poor people's lives are perceived. But this is a reality that deserves to be described from the inside."

Four years ago, Childers began writing her book when she discovered that her niece was pregnant for the third time and in danger of falling into the pattern of welfare dependence set by her grandmother. A Ph.D in English, Childers had already written about women and poverty in a scholarly context. But now, she says, "I started to feel as though I had to escape from academic language and write in a more straightforward way. The memoir was the easiest genre for me. As someone who grew up on welfare and got a level of education that people hardly ever get ... I seemed uniquely positioned to do it, and I had some sense of obligation."

Childers had finished her first draft when a Bellagio Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation gave her a break from her academic consulting job: a month in a villa on Lake Como. "I thought I was just there to finish the manuscript, and I started completely rewriting it," she says. "In that peaceful environment, I started to get closer to the voice of the adolescent girl."

The result is a story told in first person and present tense that often reads like a page-turning novel as it chronicles the fortunes of the Childers family from 1962 through the upheavals of the late '60s.

Childers, who will talk about the ethics of life writing at the South Burlington Barnes & Noble in June, says several ethical issues dogged the writing of her book. First, as someone who's concerned about the politics of poverty, she wanted to avoid making herself an example of the "myth of exceptionalism" -- the notion that anyone with smarts and pluck can get ahead.

Second, Childers was worried about compromising her family's privacy. "Not all of my siblings wanted me to write this book," she admits. To allay their fears, Childers changed the names of people and places and asked permission to describe elements such as her older sister's heroin addiction. "I ended up, because I wanted to respect their privacy, focusing on myself more," she says. "Because I didn't have the right to tell everything about them." Now, Childers says, four family members have read or are reading the memoir and are surprised "that I am as hard on myself as I am on other people. That's given them a great sense of relief." They're also surprised at "how much lightness there is" in the narrative, which mixes its drama with wry, hard-nosed humor.

The book has also helped Childers reconnect with people from her past. One day she received an email from a social worker who had known her when she was "14 and skinny and intense." He remembered Childers "because I said I was going to college." He also told her that, until 1967, official policy forbade social workers from telling women on welfare about birth control. It made her wonder how her mother's life might have been different if she'd had such information.

Childers acknowledges that certain elements of her story, such as one sister's "horrible abortion with quinine ... could be pure exploitation." But she balances such potential sensationalism by describing the same sister as "intent on learning how to work, caring deeply about taking care of herself." Likewise, Childers strives to be balanced in her treatment of the hot-button issue of welfare, portraying people "who used it improperly and took it for granted" alongside those -- like herself -- who worked their way out of the system. Childers hopes the reader will leave the book with an understanding that "However hard it was then, it's harder to be poor now." Nowadays, she says, kids on welfare are "stigmatized, not only by the neighbor who doesn't understand, but by our political leaders."

Childers believes that, despite all her precautions, "in fact you are exploiting other people" whenever you write a memoir. Life writing makes us aware that "We are all unreliable narrators of our shared lives," she says. The more we write about ourselves, the more we realize that "Memory is not faithful to what happened. Memory two days later is a distortion." But at the same time, Childers points out, the very act of writing helps us fill in memory's gaps and becomes a "process of discovery."

The same notion resonates strongly throughout PJ Long's Gifts from the Broken Jar: Rediscovering Hope, Beauty and Joy, published earlier this year by California's EquiLibrium Press. If all of us struggle with our imperfect memories, working to build a sense of self out of fragments, Long's struggle was of another order of magnitude. In September 1999, a fall from a horse left her with a persistent, insidious brain injury.

Finding herself with "no memory," no sense of the passage of time, and a diminished ability to process sensory information, then 40-year-old Long had to leave her job as a psychotherapist. She writes of feeling that "My body was a shell with no 'me' inside." Because she couldn't explain her symptoms to herself, she couldn't convey their severity to others. As gradual healing and rehabilitation therapy brought her out of the silence, Long began writing short entries in a journal and email messages to a novelist friend across the country who urged her to "write what [you] love and don't worry about the outcome."

In 2002, Long considered turning her journals and email print-outs into a "self-help type book about recovery from brain injury," she says. But she soon realized "That kind of organizing and conceptualizing was way beyond me." She decided simply to group her raw materials chronologically and found that "It was becoming a book for me, a memoir, telling the story to myself."

Because she "couldn't hold things in memory from one page to the next," Long "would print out the pages and lay them out across the floor," she says. "That way I could literally walk through a section as I worked on it." A professional editor helped her to find the "'arc of the narrative,' making sure the story didn't get lost in too much meandering or repetition," but otherwise kept Long's ex tempore writings intact. The book is a series of vivid snapshots of Long's daily life as she uses color-coded maps to navigate the grocery store, slows down to photograph her garden when the task of tending it overwhelms her, and deals with her daughter's question, "When will you be a real mama again?"

When Long received her manuscript back from the editor in summer 2003, she was in the process of undergoing treatment for a breast cancer diagnosed in May. "I was surprised to discover that what I had written about life and healing was a comfort to me now as I dealt with cancer," says Long, who had originally meant to keep the manuscript as a private record of her recovery. "That's when I realized that there could be a wide audience for the book -- that it might bring comfort and hope to people in many different situations."

When Long was interviewed on Mark Johnson's radio show on WDEV last February, calls came flooding in from brain-injury survivors and others who'd been inspired by the book. Johnson says his initial response to hearing about Long's book was, "Oh, here's another overcoming-adversity story." Now he describes Long as "one of the top five most gripping people I've interviewed," and says he's "not had the kind of response that I had with her, ever." Long will read from her book at Barnes & Noble in July.

In Gifts, Long writes of how her injury impaired her ability to process and create narratives. Now she's working on two new books, an inspirational photo-journal and another nonfiction manuscript, possibly a memoir. "I wouldn't say we 'need to tell our lives as stories in order to understand them,' because I'm not certain of that," Long says. "But what I do think is that if we can tell our sorrows as stories, then our stories will help us to heal. Shakespeare knew that. He said, 'Give sorrow words.'"

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