Back when memoirs dominated the best-seller lists, it was tempting to believe that any writer with a gritty, harrowing past could generate an instant sensation (and sometimes, as in James Frey’s case, a subsequent scandal). These days, however, reality TV satisfies the public’s appetite for human train wrecks. Unless you’re a celebrity, it matters more how you write your memoir than what you can divulge in it.
All this is a fancy way of saying that, while Jessica Hendry Nelson’s first book is a memoir of her gritty, harrowing past, it has little in common with the sensationalist best sellers that fueled a backlash against the genre. Widely published in literary journals, Nelson lives in Colchester and co-owns the Renegade Writers’ Collective. Her skill with words is evident in every sentence of this haunting, often poetic book. Divided into chapters that also work as self-sufficient essays, it slips and slides along the timeline of the author’s life to demonstrate that past and present are inextricable.
In the prologue, styled as a letter to her younger brother, Eric, Nelson lays out the facts of the case. In rhythmic prose, she reels off a list of places where the siblings visited their father when they were growing up in suburban Philadelphia: rehab centers, hospitals, jails, halfway houses. Next comes a list of places where their dad visited them — with careful supervision, or on the sly. By the end of the piece, we know that the father is dead and the grown brother is repeating his cycle of addiction. But this litany of loss, which gradually becomes a tribute, is only the beginning of the story.
It’s a story of ruinous substance abuse passed from monied forebears to father to son, and of two women — Nelson and her mother — who try to save their loved ones (and themselves) by “following directions.” It’s an ironic title, given that those directions are really just imperfect therapeutic tactics deployed “for the gazillionth time,” as Nelson notes in the title chapter.
This is also the coming-of-age story of a daughter who considered herself the “dutiful one,” flirting with drug abuse in her teen years before finding sustenance elsewhere. We watch the younger Nelson learn to forgive herself for leaving home, then realize that in a sense she hasn’t left at all. “I’d thought to bear witness to stave off disaster and by leaving I had done irreparable damage…” she writes of her family. “I didn’t yet understand that we were like conjoined triplets.”
Finally, this memoir is and isn’t a “story” in the first place, if by that word we mean an orderly narrative.
When we step back and view each chapter of Directions as a whole, we find a conventional sequence taking us from Nelson’s childhood through her adolescence, her college years, a stint in New York City and finally her relocation to a cabin on Malletts Bay in Vermont. But when we focus on each chapter in isolation, we see something less linear than kaleidoscopic: a wild assemblage of memories with different time stamps. Only as we read do we become aware of the single formative incident around which each chapter’s flashbacks and flash-forwards pivot.
Take for instance “Fall,” which opens with the image of a cliff-scaling ewe that the adult Nelson observed in Scotland. It ends with a childhood memory of skiing with her dad during one of his rare sober years. Between these two instances of falling (the ewe’s disastrous, the child’s controlled and exuberant) lies the essay’s core: Nelson describes the night of her father’s death, which involved yet another fall. By not starting there, the author has buried her lead, as journalists say. Yet somehow we still read each chapter with baited breath, waiting for a memory or motif to emerge and weave the vivid, disparate threads into coherence.
That coherence, when it arrives, is always lucid and unsettling, largely because of Nelson’s skill with language. She has a knack for crafting sound bites that are breezy and casual and yet right: “I was sleeping in snapshots,” she writes of her teen years. Her brother “was born with a homing device for drugs.” Palm trees in Florida “shudder, a hint of sex, a flash of Mother Nature’s fleshy thigh.”
In more involved passages, Nelson evokes a whole place or time with a few artful details. Take this summoning of her childhood:
This is when the world is no bigger than the space between home and the creek bed, and phone numbers don’t have area codes. When a stray Barbie leg still occasionally pops up through the couch cushions. When I can work myself into a panic just by thinking about death.
Readers looking for an inspirational narrative or a guidebook through a loved one’s addiction won’t find it in Directions. Yet they may find a profound, weary understanding of their struggles. Each chapter pivots around its central memory, mimicking the obsessive, cyclical character of addiction.
Only this circular motion isn’t futile. Like Proust, Nelson believes in an insistent, writerly engagement with the past because, she suggests, that’s how we experience life and is the only way to draw insight from it. “[W]hat we are is only a vestige of where we have been,” she writes of a family gathering, “the clunky manifestation of an abstract set of memories, and even these are made up, an experiment.”
Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves about the past are always in a sense “made up,” even when they don’t contradict the facts (a boundary some memoirists have unwisely crossed). Each attempt to shape those bald facts into a story is an act of creation, an experiment. And Nelson’s particular experiment is a sneaky, stunning success.
"If Only You People Could Follow Directions" by Jessica Hendry Nelson, Counterpoint, 256 pages. $25.
The original print version of this article was headlined "All Directions Home"