The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 12. Dealing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page)

Families exist to witness each other’s disappointments.

Laura Sillerman

Methods for dealing with family and friends differ as radically as writers do. On one end sit memoirists—mostly women—who interview and almost collaborate. Carolyn See rewrote her Dreaming in response to family comment. On the other sit those with enough moxie not to give a rat’s ass—all men, in my experience. Frank Conroy claimed he did Stop-Time without much interest in his own clan’s response at all. “If they’d have disapproved, I wouldn’t have changed a word.” My friend Jerry Stahl, whose Permanent Midnight challenged family history by renaming his father’s death a suicide, once said, “If you had to live it, you get to write it.”

The gender divide makes sense. Men can become men by rebelling against their folks—the angry young rock-and-roller stealing the car or standing up to the patriarch is an archetype—Oedipus slaying his father to marry his mother. But for a woman to kick her mother’s ass is unseemly. When I half chastised Lucy Grealy for—in her Autobiography of a Face—not explaining why her family seemingly abandoned her in the UK during the agonizing cancer treatments she underwent as a teen, she said, “Women are repositories of clan lore, and our femininity is gauged by the security of family relationships. To drag out the dirty laundry almost masculinizes a woman.” Of course we gossip and worry stories with each other in ways that would horrify many of our male kinfolk. But publishing such gossip, Lucy suggested, was something much worse.

Geoffrey Wolff bemoaned the effects of Duke on his prim mother, who’d been called a nasty name by a scumbag reviewer. “After that,” he’d told me, “it was clear she wished the book had never existed.” He particularly warned me off TV talk shows where complex family issues get warped into sound bites:

You take the people you love most in the world and make them characters in a narrative. Then you lose control of that narrative. . . . Dick Cavett found my life droll.

Then Toby’s book came out to wild acclaim. I’d twice met their mother—immaculately coiffed and tiny. I sat behind them all in the movie version of This Boy’s Life. She’s played by a chirpy Ellen Barkin, Toby by Leo DiCaprio; De Niro does the awful stepdad. Toby had to urge the director to edit out a supersexual part. “How could I have witnessed such a thing!” The New York Times Magazine quoted Geoffrey as saying:

Here’s this woman—she’s been written about once. The train’s rolled over her going north. She picks herself up and dusts herself off, and here comes the train about to back over her.

Mother Wolff’s quip: “If I’d known both my boys were going to be writers, I might have lived a little differently.”

Now comes the juncture where I either detail my own travails with others or end the chapter. The trusty literary advisers I call my Kitchen Cabinet have warned me off spending time here on my own processes. Maybe any writer who yaps about her work outside brief interviews comes off as a car salesman. Or worse, as if she’s touting herself as the doyenne. Believe me, I’m not—no one can be. It’s all too personal. Yet I don’t know anyone else’s adventures with family as intimately as my own, and not to include them seems coy at best, deceitful at worst. So here goes.

In general terms, there are three parts to my handling of others. I notify them way in advance, to give them a chance to shoot it down (nobody has yet). I keep pages private till the book’s done, and at the end, I send work out to folks I wrote about long before type’s set. As a side note, it’s not my nature to write at any length about people I don’t like. Save portraits of a grandmother who pissed me off and two pedophiles, it’s mostly love that drives me to the page.

My son was in junior high when my second memoir came out, and he took a stance he held for more than a decade: “I’m not ready to read your books.” This strikes me as wise. It’s one thing to know your mother was sexually assaulted, quite another to read the graphic scene. He prefers me as a dispenser of waffles, not a literary figure. But there’s nothing in my stories he doesn’t know in rough outline—we’re close, and I’d never want him to hear family traumas from pals. With my last book, Lit, I had him vet the first chapter, because he appeared there in his then-current, college-age permutation. He changed nary a word. I’d have preferred that his father scrutinize that manuscript for accuracy, but he preferred the blurring of a pseudonym. (I did send those chapters to our former marriage counselor, just to see if she felt it fair.)

Glib as I once was in suggesting Lucy Grealy piss off her own family, I was much like her before I set out to write about my less-than-perfect clan. As a single mom far from home, I dreaded pissing anybody off.

Before I ever started Liars’ Club, I kept phoning my mother and sister (my daddy had passed) to take their pulses about the project and warn them about possible public scrutiny, should I be so lucky as to draw any.

Part of me hoped they’d shoo me off. Much as I worshiped the form of memoir, the project’s prospect shot me through with dread. I felt compelled to write it, yet broke a sweat when I realized how easy it would be to do it wrong. Truth was, I had a financial flamethrower on my ass: no car in Syracuse, where the snow’s measurable in yards, and child-care costs that precluded my making much on summer holidays.

Maybe my mother and sister were so glib about the book because they were used to my small-press poetry efforts, with readership measurable in the dozens. I knew my New York publisher hoped for world domination.

My family’s unflappability worried me more than if they’d thrown fits. “Who cares?” my sister said. “Get it off your chest,” my mother said. They were both great readers, and I’d been giving memoirs as gifts for decades, so they knew I was shooting for a 3D portrait, not a burn-your-house-down tell-all.

Still, our household had been the site of some flaming jackpots. Asked once how a bullet hole landed in a kitchen tile, Mother said, succinctly, “He moved.” And that wasn’t the only firearm incident. My sister once quipped to Mother as the tile guy fingered a bullet hole, “Isn’t that where you shot at Daddy?” and Mother came back, “No, that’s where I shot at Larry. Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.”

(Which also tells you why memoir suited me. With characters this good, why make shit up?)

But alcohol and firearms weren’t the whole story—they seldom are. There was deliverance, too, thanks in no small measure to how Mother sobered up in her sixties (which showed me the way years later). Sobriety hadn’t undone our tattered past, but it had worked as triage to stop the bleeding. And unearthing Mother’s long-nurtured lies had led to our greatest closeness as a clan.

It pleased me no end that my family anticipated a loving portrait. And we’d spent decades clearing the ground by talking over the book’s events anyway—my therapists (plural) had urged me into those conversations. Still, my family didn’t seem to be twigging to the possibilities. Maybe their spectacular denial systems had kicked in again.

So at Christmas I flew down and spent several days detailing stuff I feared would embarrass them. “Remember when you brandished a butcher knife at us and set our toys on fire and got taken capital-A away?”

“Oh, hell,” Mother said, “the whole town knew about that.”

Lucky is the memoirist like me, blessed with a wild-ass mother: “If I gave a shit what people thought, I’d have been baking cookies and going to the PTA.” She’d raised hell and knocked over supermarket displays. Plus she was a portraitist trained in New York, so she understood how point of view and feeling shape reality. She knew my voice would ground the reader in subjective reality, not feign absolute authority.

It was my in-some-ways conformist sister who came off as way too devil-may-care—but with an edge. A local insurance agent, she cussed like a sailor and acted the badass. But she’d always colored in the lines way more than the rest of us—somebody had to, I guess. She’d been naive enough to quip, repeatedly and with cheer, “I didn’t have to go to therapy because you went for me.” She belonged to Rotary and the women’s Masonic organization. Even in the 1970s, her jeans had military creases. During her first marriage to a guy we called the Rice Baron, she once forbade me to visit their country club in my thrift-store clothes: “I wouldn’t sod my yard dressed like that.”

I was left, she was hard right. I was a boho loner, she a southern business owner with a Christmas card list in the high hundreds.

But despite schisms between us well into adulthood, in childhood she’d been my hero, and so would she be in the book.

After a few days in Texas, I brought up the only news the book would carry, which didn’t involve them, really—two childhood sexual assaults I’d kept to myself. The morning I unburdened myself, the news went by in the blip I’d expected. Mother said, somewhat fiercely, “Those sons of bitches.”

Then, after a brief lull, Lecia grabbed her purse. “I could really go for some Mexican food.” Over lunch she talked about a guy who’d tried to force himself on her and how she’d physically overthrown him.

Otherwise, that ended the discussion until the night before I left, when some business acquaintance of Lecia’s I barely knew came by and wanted to talk to me about the assaults. Lecia had told him the whole story. His sole question—“Were you penetrated?”—felt coldly prurient. But I figured if I were going to write a memoir, I’d better get used to it. You can’t sign up to play football then whine you’ve been hit.

In the two-plus years I was writing, I kept the pages to myself, but occasionally I rang Mother to check out a fact—usually a date—or to take her temperature on how she felt about certain details going public. God bless her, she never blinked.

As for how I handled interpretative differences, it may not work for everybody. If somebody’s view wholly opposed mine, I mentioned it in passing, yet never felt duty-bound to represent it. For instance, my blond sister adored our fair grandmother, who loved Lecia’s blond ass back. I baldly showed my own scorn for the old lady (who thought my dark hair made me look Mexican—a blight) yet allowed as how my sister tatted lace with her and more or less sucked up. I also mentioned that my grandmother was dying of cancer in her fifties, which can’t do much for your disposition, and a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her brain no doubt warped her disposition. In any event, I doubt the reader accepts my hatred of her as just or fair, only that it was my view. Here’s another such mitigating passage:

Lecia contends I started screaming, and that my screaming caused Mother to wheel around. . . . (Were Lecia writing this memoir, I would only appear in one of three guises: sobbing hysterically, wetting my pants in a deliberately inconvenient way, or biting somebody, usually her, with no provocation.)

In short, I tried to lay out my prejudices and gesture there might be another opinion.

Once the manuscript was done, I flew Mother up to Syracuse, where she sat reading pages on the back porch. Off and on, she cried, “I was such an asshole,” which shattered me in one way, but (I have to confess it) also satisfied me in another. Ultimately, she said something that rattled me to my core: “I didn’t know you felt this way.”

I also met Lecia in Colorado to do what we called the Child Abuse Tour. She flipped pages while I drove around old haunts, double-checking physical details. It shocked me how she wolfed the book down. “How did you remember all this shit?” She’d phoned my editor of her own volition to rave about the pages and endorse their truth, as my mother had.

A few months before the book came out, Lecia decided she was pissed off and stopped speaking to me. Though this was a fairly common phenomenon, it still set me back. But I also figured she’d be such a hero to anybody who read the story, she’d come around once it was published.

Then a writer friend figured out a way to label the book fiction and write her out, making me an only child. No doubt my mother passed this prospect along to my sister, and not long after, the publisher’s lawyers reported that my sister had phoned to champion the book’s accuracy again. She ultimately sold copies from her car trunk and bragged her ass off about it.

I can also honestly say that publishing the story freed us from our old shame somehow. My beautiful, outlaw seventy-year-old mother received marriage proposals from strangers; my sister was heralded as brave in every review. People wrote how my hard-drinking daddy was now their favorite patriarch.

In my hometown, the seamier facts had been common knowledge anyway, but something about having all the bad news out in open air freed us even more. Call it aversion therapy: we seemed collectively to get over Mother’s half-century-plus lies about who she was. When she arranged a book signing at our local library, over five hundred people showed—including old beaus, far-flung cousins, and my first-grade teacher. In some ways, that day, with my mother and sister holding court, meant more than any good review I ever got—truly a life highlight. It burned away some old aura of shame, I think.

Which phenomenon echoes my favorite reconciliation story from Maxine Hong Kingston. Her mother couldn’t believe how well Maxine had captured a village life she’d never lived. And when her later China Men was translated into Chinese so her father could read it, he started writing poems again in its margins, which in Chinese books are superwide to permit commentary, part of an old Confucian tradition. If Maxine was complaining about how her people devalue daughters, her father penned a poem celebrating women’s equality. These were the first poems he’d written since he’d left China to work in a laundry in this country, and Maxine’s mother embroidered the characters in cloth to save them.

When I donated the books with his commentary to the library at University of California, I didn’t tell my father. They gave a big party during which his marginalia were displayed in glass cases. He stood before it and said loudly, “My writing,” all night so onlookers could hear.

Among all the dozens of pals and shrinks and acquaintances I’ve sent manuscripts to, I’ve never had a detractor. Which probably says more about their generosity than my accuracy, so I count myself more lucky than expert.

For the record, here are my rules for dealing with others:

1.Notify subjects way in advance, detailing parts that might make them wince. So far, no one has ever winced.

2.On pain of death, don’t show pages to anybody mid-process. You want them to see your best work, polished.

3.As Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, “If you’re writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love.”

4.Related to the above: I never speak with authority about how people feel or what their motives were. I may guess at it, but I always let the reader know that’s speculative. I keep the focus on my own innards.

5.If somebody’s opinion of what happened wholly opposes mine, I mention it in passing without feeling obliged to represent it.

6.Don’t use jargon to describe people. It’s both disrespectful and bad writing. I never called my parents alcoholics; I showed myself pouring vodka down the sink. Give information in the form you received it.

7.Let your friends choose their pseudonyms.

8.Try to consider the whole time you’re working how your views—especially the harsh ones—may be wrong. Correct as needed.

9.With your closest compadres and touchy material, you might sit with them (same house or town, maybe not same room) while they read pages that may be painful for them.

10.I’d cut anything that someone just flat-out denies. Then again, in my family, all the worst stuff was long confessed to before I started writing the first tome.

11.Let the reader know how subjective your point of view is. This is in some way a form of respect to your subjects, who might disagree.