Guilt and Reparation

Writing about memoir, William Zinsser, the American critic and non-fiction writer, states a distinct preference for memoirs that are generous and redemptive. In his opinion, the most satisfying memoirs ‘elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge […] We come from a tribe of fallible people, prisoners of our own destructiveness, and we have endured to tell the story without judgement and to get on with our lives.’ And so he’s rather horrified by the new breed of misery memoir that has sprung up in recent times and proved so unexpectedly popular. Such memoirs he deems ‘therapy’ and he categorises events such as drug addiction, rape, sexual abuse, depression and obesity as ‘lurid’. ‘These chronicles of shame and victimhood are the dark side of the personal narrative boom, giving the form a bad name.’ Such books make memoir ‘a degraded genre.’ He does go on to say that of course, there are good and bad books in both categories and it’s really quality that matters – but he doesn’t mean it, does he? Not on the evidence of his earlier paragraphs.

Well this gave me pause for thought. Did I really prefer memoirs that made their peace with the past and found refreshing perspectives on traumas old and new? Did I really consider the recounting of stories of addiction and dependency to be inevitably full of self-pity? What I found even more intriguing was Zinsser’s account of his mother’s reaction to his own account of childhood: ‘My mother, after reading my chapter, cried because my memory of boyhood was less golden than her memory of my boyhood. Had I subconsciously reinvented it to make it more lonely than it really was? Had she subconsciously never noticed?’ Zinsser grew up in prosperity, his father’s firm proving resilient through the Depression, and the family home was a big and beautiful house overlooking Long Island Sound. His mother may well have felt that all had been done to give her children a happy and settled upbringing. But the house was isolated, there were no other boys in the area, the young William had three older sisters and a thwarted passion for baseball which, in the era before television, was a tricky sport to follow. Plus he was a short boy, and the main socialising seems to have been dances, at which he was obliged to steer unwilling and unimpressed tall girls around the floor. ‘I cloaked these unhappy memories in humor – an old habit,’ he writes, but obviously they weren’t cloaked enough for his mother, whose unhappiness he was clearly anticipating. ‘When I started writing that memoir I was half paralysed by the awareness that my parents and my sisters were looking over my shoulder, if not actually perched there.’

I felt his account of memoir writing reflected uneasily on his earlier fierce distinction between ‘good’ redemptive memoirs and ‘bad’ unresolved ones. What – or who – does the memoir set out to satisfy? Is it created to please parents and to see things from their point of view? Is it always about survival and tenacity and our ability to make something good out of something bad? Is it extending solidarity with its readers, who may also have been through, or indeed be in, difficult situations, with the intent of articulating their despair or giving them hope for the future? Undoubtedly there are no easy answers to this, and the very complexity of the motives for memoir must be one of the most challenging factors to take into account.

Zinsser’s words on memoir came back to me during the week as I was reading a biography of the founder of child psychotherapy, Melanie Klein. Klein argued that from the earliest stages of life, children battle with ferocious emotions. Her analyses of young children suggested to her that inevitable procedures, like weaning and toilet training could provoke feelings of rage and hatred in the child that would inevitably collapse into guilt and anxiety. The child would be very fearful that its anger had in some way damaged its mother (a feeling reinforced by a depressed mother, for instance), and that thought could bring about all sorts of anxiety bound up with fear for survival and also fear for reprisals and retaliation from the parent. How these sorts of conflicts played out in the early days would then set a pattern for all situations of rage, guilt and anxiety in the future.

If this sounds very fanciful, then lets look at it from a different angle. Supposing you are walking down the street and you bump into a friend who tells you all about the marvellous party that mutual friend X threw the other evening, to which you were not invited. Now the obvious adult response is to think, oh well I was busy that night, and I didn’t really expect X to invite me, given that we don’t know each other so very well, and I didn’t invite him/her to my party either. But down deep there will be a little voice saying ‘Why? Why didn’t I get invited to the party? I should have been there! X must hate me really!’ And that little voice, representative of a persecutory universe, is the remainder of intense childhood emotions, when things were taken away from us and we just didn’t understand why. Klein believed that if children were allowed even a basic understanding of what was going on inside them, and that was expressed as being ok and acceptable, then the child got through the emotional crisis much quicker and was able to make ‘reparation’. Or in other words, they felt free to love the parent again, untroubled by fear of damage or retaliation.

So how does this pan out in relation to memoir? Is the redemptive memoir evidence of that beautiful experience of reparation? When the troubles of the past are seen as having no bearing on the love the grown-up child feels for its parents? Is the misery memoir an account of that devastating experience of rage, guilt and hatred that sparks out of unresolved issues between parents and children? I can see good reasons, then, for accurate and articulate accounts of both these states, but I can also see why they may make some readers feel uncomfortable, one way or another.

Interesting then that Melanie Klein’s own autobiography, an unfinished affair, contains a highly idealised portrait of her mother. Klein described her as a gentle, unassuming woman, tolerant and serene. Unfortunately, a large amount of correspondence has been discovered, written by Klein’s mother, in which she comes across quite clearly as manipulative, domineering, aggressive and misguided. Really, in my time researching mothers I have come across some fairly dreadful ones, but Klein’s mother is in a category all of her own. The things she did! But that will have to be a post for another day, and it probably will as the book has to go back to the library and I want to fix the details in my mind. But here I have also to ask whether idealisation is itself the x that marks the spot where a lot of inconvenient emotions have been buried? Is this why William Zinsser’s mother cried? Not because she had such a good time during his childhood that she couldn’t bear to think of him imagining it differently, but because her own idealisation of his youth is evidence that she herself had emotions she never wished to confront about motherhood?

Oh I am full of questions that I have no answers to today. But they strike me as interesting questions.


12 thoughts on “Guilt and Reparation

  1. “But here I have also to ask whether idealisation is itself the x that marks the spot where a lot of inconvenient emotions have been buried?” That’s a fascinating question and I suspect that the answer is often yes. As for William Z’s definition of lurid, unfortunately, then, many people have had a lurid life, leaving memoir to the field of the uncommonly bland. No, that won’t do. I’m all for redemption, but it has to be a truthful one. There is no honour in just skipping over the rough stuff to a happy ending. Not even fairy tales do that.

  2. Really interesting questions.

    I hope to write a memoir of my family life (when parents are dead) but am very aware that my perspective is very limited, as it is for everyone who writes memoir — unless (and maybe some do, as David Carr did) they actually go and interview the people they are writing about to confirm or deny the truth they think they exerienced.

  3. I may be too idealistic, but I always thought one writes to satisfy one’s urge to write, to gratify one’s passion. And if it’s a memoir, then authenticity is essential… or else it would be fiction. So joining these two premises, one writes what is true, facts and feelings, according to one’s own subjectivity, to quench the urge and maintain the integrity of the writing, or else, it would be fiction. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces comes to mind. Now, that would be one case where guilt and reparation should indeed be called for.

  4. Lilian – quite! It won’t do, will it? I feel the same – redemption only works if the lives of the narrators are genuinely redeemed. Anything else is dishonest or saccharine. I remember finding Jeannette Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle, a brilliant read but a really troubling one because of the way she sidesteps the problem of her parents’ neglect.

    voula – they are intriguing, no? Alas all the good questions are tough to answer!

    Caroline – nice to know I’m not alone in thinking them.

    broadsideblog – ooh I read an essay by Phyllis Rose on the difficulties involved in checking out the ‘truth’ of what happened with the protagonists. Everyone she spoke to wanted the story changed to fit in with their own experiences and beliefs. If ever there was a context for the phrase ‘Publish and be damned!’ it’s the memoir these days I think! Good luck with yours.

    Kristin – thank you!

    Arti – I’ve been reading several really good books on memoir – the one that William Zinsser edited being pertinent here. Its title is Inventing the Truth – because of the discomforting interplay of ‘reality’ and ‘subjectivity’ in memoir. It’s a fascinating subject but such a difficult one. The best way around it is to say that there are many truths, all of them authentic to individual experience but often at considerable odds with one another. Frey’s book is one I haven’t read, although I’ve heard about it. I should maybe give it a go?

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  6. Memoir is such an interesting animal. Writing one in which key people like parents are still alive must be really hard. You want to be honest but you don’t want to hurt your parents. Or maybe you do, but then the book verges into being cruel revenge. And the author, even of a misery memoir, even one who admits to doing unsavory things, still doesn’t want to end the book with the reader thinking, wow, this guy is a *#@$%&! that kind of interferes with opportunities to appear on Oprah and other talk shows. So then, how honest can an author be in their self-representation? See, you’ve got me asking questions I can’t answer too!

  7. I’ve now put the Zinsser book on my list of critical books on life writing/memoir. It sounds really interesting. But I don’t like the idea at all that memoirs should be generous and redemptive. Please! I hate it when people put arbitrary limits on what a genre should do. A personal preference is fine (and perhaps that’s all Zinsser was claiming?), but it too often shades into statements that generalize too much. There are tons of bad misery memoirs out there, sure, but can’t they be great works of art also?

  8. Stefanie – I think that’s quite right – even the worst misery memoir want to produce sympathy in the audience, and there is definitely a line (hard to see exactly where it lies) that trips the reader from compassion to, why is this person moaning so much? Your line about interfering with Oprah appearances really made me laugh!

    Dorothy – I think you would like this one! I’m looking forward to hearing what some of the other authors have to say about the difficulties of writing honest, accurate but possibly offensive memoirs. Such a vexed area, but such an intriguing one. I completely agree that there shouldn’t be prescriptions – other than that the work be good….

    Smithereens – bless you! You are the only person who’s shown interest in Mama Klein, so I wasn’t going to post on her, but if I write anything about her (and I may) I’ll let you know in case you’d like to read it.

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