To Overshare Or Not To Overshare?

Kathryn Harrison had a succès de scandale in the late 90s with her memoir The Kiss, in which she recounted the four years of incestuous relationship she had with her father. Thinking to save that book for the program of creative non-fiction works I’m reading this year, I decided to try her out with a different memoir, The Mother Knot. It was 82 pages of dynamite that held me gripped as soon as I’d begun, and yet when I finished, I began to wonder about the last thing that should seem problematic with such a candid and upfront narrator – the truthfulness of the story.

mother knotThe narrator is weaning the youngest of her three children when the memoir begins. At 26 months, her daughter is relatively grown-up for breastfeeding, but it is a wrench for her mother, and one that darkens her underlying mood. Not long after this, her 10-year-old son develops severe asthma, and in her extreme anxiety over his condition, Kathryn Harrison finds herself drawing dark and superstitious conclusions. Although she nurses him with an assiduity and attention to detail that could not be bettered, her growing belief is that somehow she is the cause of his illness:

It had been four months before my son’s hospitalisation that I’d stopped nursing, relinquished that cherished perception of myself as my children’s primal source of sustenance and love. Now the onset of my son’s asthma attack struck me as an indication of my new impotence. Worse and more irrationally, it seemed to reveal me as dangerous. I saw – felt – a black, destructive spirit, dybbuk or dervish, twisting out of my chest, a force of corruption that sprang from me and infected my son, choked and smothered him.’

Harrison is an intelligent lady, and she’s had a reasonable amount of therapy. She knows that her mindset is related to the complicated and dissatisfactory relationship she had to her own mother, who gave birth to her at 17 and then abandoned her to grandparents six years later. The pregnancy was intended to place some distance between Kathryn’s mother and her grandmother, a relationship that was itself fraught with possessiveness. Kathryn, her mother told her, was intended to be ‘a hostage’, someone to take her place and allow her the freedom she had never had. Understandably, Kathryn as a child found this reasoning hard to follow, aware only that she was unable to please her mother, despite the ballet, the Sunday school and the diets. She emerged from the relationship with an unshakeable conviction that she was bad, polluted and wrong. It didn’t take much in the way of crisis in her adult life to return her to that place of universal guilt, in which she could be responsible even for the illness of her son.

As a strategy of appeasement, she starts to starve herself again. Anorexia turns out to be the ongoing problem: ‘I admitted that anorexia was a maladaption; and I admitted, with chagrin, to more than two decades of remissions mistaken for recoveries.’ Like most anorexics, the practice has much less to do with body shape than it has to do with mental control and darkly divine sacrifice. ‘Would that it were as simple as vanity,’ she tells her husband, when he says, in an attempt at coertion, her how much less attractive she looks too thin. ‘I’d characterized my eating disorder as a shatterproof glass box. I was inside, alone and safe. I could see out, and nothing could get in.’ But a life devoted to the harshest form of self-control is taking its toll. Her doctor threatens her with hospitalisation unless she gets her eating under control, her therapist is losing patience with her, and she fears how angry her husband will be if she can’t take care of herself well enough to be the wife and mother their family needs. In extremis, she knows she must confront the ghost of her mother, dead these past seventeen years, and finally break free.

I’ve quoted the text as much as possible because Kathryn Harrison is an amazing writer. The prose is powerful, vivid, economical, the mysteries of the mind described with exquisite insight and acuity. For a brief memoir, this certainly packs an emotional punch although the touch is light. The arc of the narrative flies like a skimming stone, glancing off the most salient points of her story – her relation to her mother, the vortex of uncontrollable emotions that threaten to pull her down, the epiphany she experiences and the solution she discovers. It is all brilliantly done, and so neat and tidy, not a single word wasted.

This was, I felt, an amazing piece of storytelling. And yet everything that was so well done about it, took it further and further away from life as we live it, and crises as we actually experience them. Where was the resistance, the procrastination, the backsliding that attends every inch of fresh terrain won from the forces of negativity that run their lucrative rackets in the mind? Where were the months spent stumped and hopeless in the therapist’s chair? Deep-rooted problems are beyond stubborn to dig out, and they react poorly to just about any form of treatment. Like computers, minds have default settings, bizarre agreements that were made in the era before reason, or awareness of the true value of things, and they are the very devil to uproot.

But of course, none of this makes for good storytelling, necessarily. One of the best novels I’ve ever read about the therapeutic process is the highly autobiographical The Words To Say It by Marie Cardinal. When that book was translated into English, the translator felt justified in leaving a whole chunk of it out, on the grounds that it was repetitive. This was the point. The myths on which we base our sense of self have to be gone over again and again. And probably again. You may well ask, does it matter if we leave some of this out in the stories we end up telling about ourselves? And I think it does, because storytelling is not innocent, when it comes to the connection between identity and narrative. The tighter the story, the more beautiful it is, the less we want to unravel it. This is the way that those original stories of love and terror bind us in the first place. And then I worry that people in trouble might read this and view it as inspirational, wondering miserably why they are not capable of identifying and solving their problems as slickly. When the truth is that healing is a messy, graceless process, not an edited montage.

But… I would not be honest, either, if I denied what a well-written book this is, or how compellingly it reads, or how piercing its understanding of psychic pain. Read it for its insight and its honesty, but do not believe it is the full truth.

16 thoughts on “To Overshare Or Not To Overshare?

  1. At least you understand this! Many readers are terribly literal and assume (or hope) that what they are reading is “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” As if! By the time a book is in print it has been massaged and revised and edited and re-edited by many people. It’s a document, not accurate eye-witness testimony.

    I wrote a memoir and left many things out. You have to, for a whole variety of reasons, from narrative arc and momentum to preserving the few shreds of your relationships with the living people in your book.

    • Stories have their own rules, and they are different to those of life! That’s why we have stories at all, because they do the things we’d like life to do but it doesn’t, such as have shape, meaning, pattern, etc. I honestly think it’s because literature isn’t taught (well) in schools that this whole notion of stories being transparent to truth has sprung up. They never were and they never will be. All this being said, I was always very fond of life writing, as it was called, which allowed for different shapes and patterns in non-fiction in order to bring it closer to the experience of living. I think it’s out of fashion at the moment, and that’s a shame. Some of it was fabulous – but of course, the editor’s word is law for writers these days.

  2. If she hadn’t left it out, I imagine her editor would have made her. Marie Cardinal’s editor sounds more unusual and more committed to the whole picture…unlike her translator.

    • I agree with you – it’s editors who insist on partiality in the name of storytelling (I know this very well from my few encounters with them). And in some ways it’s a shame – I think readers are far more flexible are able to swallow more unusual forms than they are given credit for.

  3. Well, well, another book I haven’t read, which your account, as usual, makes me wish I had.
    I wondered if the narrative strategy was part of the ongoing process, but you’ll have to correct me if I’m wrong. The book is about the expulsion of one identity/psychological narrative by another, perhaps by incorporating the former threatening one, or by escaping that glass box of safety you quote, placing the threatening narrative inside it. This is an internal series of events in the narrator’s mind. Perhaps by writing it down and releasing it into the outside world, it strengthens the newer narrative, gives it a sort of objective form which makes it more finished and unassailable. As such to diminish the details if not the stated impact of the older narrative might be a legitimate part of the process. Just a thought!

    • That is a lovely thought, and I like it very much as an explanation! I really hope this is true, and it wasn’t just chopped about by a zealous editor! And if you’d like to read it, it’s really short – about 90 pages – so it only takes a couple of hours out of your life. 🙂

  4. Has she written “Envy”? I’ve got that and wanted to read it.
    This sounds very interesting. I loved marie cardinal and I’m glad I read it in Fench. not once did I find it repetitive. While I can see why someone would feel like that I think it’s not acceptable to cut a book like that.

    • Yes, it’s the same author, and I am sure you’ll love her writing; it’s really good. Hurray that you loved Marie Cardinal – I thought it was fabulous and it isn’t at all repetitive, is it? I was very fond of the kind of life writing around at that time, and really appreciated its innovations. I know it’s perfectly possible to create a gripping, readable book with an unusual shape or perspective.

  5. That’s the trouble with books that involve lots of therapy, isn’t it, they tend to leave out so much of the circling round and round, the bone gnawing, the self-pity and the I can’t do this whine and make it look so very simple. It is, I hope, unintentionally deceptive. It is interesting what must be done for the sake of telling a good story.

    • Oh I don’t think there is any intention to deceive – it felt much more that certain elements had been picked out to create a neat narrative. And yet you and I are both readers who don’t mind open-ended, unusual stories with different forms and inconclusive endings. They’re good too. I think that readers are able to take a lot more innovation than they expect, and that it’s possible to write in unorthodox ways that are still gripping.

  6. Bravo. Love the focus on the efficiency of the writing, something we can all benefit from (except for your reviews, of course 😉

    Regarding your concern that, “people in trouble might read this and view it as inspirational, wondering miserably why they are not capable of identifying and solving their problems as slickly.”

    Not to worry. If an author’s work has a happy, or, at least an I’m-not-finished-but-have-found-a-way-forward ending, troubled people will internalize and wonder why they just can’t ‘get it.’ That’s just the nature of feeling like crap. You think you suck and compare your failures to others’ successes until you just…well, don’t anymore. Only then are you inspired rather than defeated.

    Thanks for another enticing teaser.

    • Modernidiot, that’s really sweet of you to be so comforting! I do find myself worried that readers will come away from this with unnatural expectations, much in the same way that the training montage in films has led to very strange ideas about the speed at which we can master difficult things! 🙂 But I hear what you say about the nature of feeling crap, and you are quite right. It is an all-encompassing perspective that has a tendency to swallow anything that is good and encouraging. Just between you and me, I really could chop these reviews a bit if I tried – concision is a virtue and I wish I were better at it! Thank you for your lovely comment.

      • Oh no, no chop, delight in your thoroughness-I do. Of all the people who should not be intimidated by reading, it should be your follower. We’re all word nerds! 🙂

        “training montage in films has led to very strange ideas about the speed at which we can master difficult things!”

        oooh, I never thought of this. this makes me think dark, deep angry things…what a cheap manipulative tool.

  7. It will be interesting to compare this book with her other memoir. I have read some of her fiction, but was a little too afraid of trying The Kiss. Do you think it’s a matter of not being entirely truthful or being selective in what she shares (or maybe that’s the same thing, really)? Memoirs are fascinating but they are so often skewed it seems–how much is really real, what exactly happened, and what is added to or left out in the telling, and the desire to be a good storyteller.

    • I think it’s a case of being selective – given that the book is only about 90 pages long, she really is VERY selective! 🙂 I would have happily stuck with her narrative for a great deal longer as the writing is wonderful. But it did feel as if she had carefully selected certain scenes to construct the story – and it’s not as if the choice was bad. They are good scenes! But knowing what humans are like, how it is part and parcel of grieving and changing and growing to whine and be sorry for oneself and wallow in misery and confusion, I don’t mind in the least when writers give a bit of this up. After all, it’s possible to write well about anything. You are so right that memoirs are always skewed, and to some extent I accept that as life is long and full of incidents that aren’t exactly meaningful. But at the same time, I think stories are different from life, and that it doesn’t hurt to let that be shown a little. I know what you mean about being afraid of The Kiss – I still am a bit! 🙂

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