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Art and Family Intersect: A Review of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

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Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family
Joy Castro, Ed.
University of Nebraska Press, 2013; $25.00

In the introduction to her compelling anthology, editor and memoirist Joy Castro claims that “memoir is the genre of our era.” I agree. Through the ubiquity of social media, autobiography appears easy—almost reflexive, like capturing the infamous “selfie.”

With Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, and Tumblr to story our lives, the boundaries between the private and public are increasingly tested and blurred. Recently, Dean Obeidallah posted an editorial on CNN’s website, “Are We Sharing Too Much Online?” In it, he observes how social media norms have changed over the relatively short time of their development. At first, such sites advertised users’ daily highlights through photos and brief slogans, chiefly confirming the fun everyone was having. Progressively, however, the medium’s norms have become more self-disclosing and intimate, more raw and real. Often, these self-disclosures reveal secrets about relatives as well as the fraught emotions of family life. Why, and to what end, are so many people turning to memoir as a means of airing their own—and their families’—dirty laundry? And what is at stake when the private of familial life becomes the public of social consumption?

While Castro’s collection doesn’t directly address memoir as it’s written on blogs, the twenty-five essayists in Family Trouble certainly grapple with the question of what’s at stake in “revealing family” through public writing. How these writers struggle to compose authentic lives on the page and how they confront difficult and necessary personal truths involving their families impact anyone who has ever made a controversial comment about a relative on Facebook, in a blog post, in a letter, in an essay, or face-to-face. Each piece in Family Trouble invites readers to witness the hard yet lyrical stories writers tell about themselves and their family members as well as consider what it means to use complicated family dynamics as artistic material. For this is the ethical challenge at the center of Castro’s book: to communicate personal truths about one’s family—whether unsavory or sublime—and position one’s art against one’s relationships.

Across the collection, I appreciate the ethical questions that inform, guide, and often plague the writers. At what point does attempting to share one’s life become ethically compromising? When does published material serve the author more than the art? When does a writer’s version of “the truth” become a misrepresentation of that truth? How might a memoirist’s story violate the privacy and integrity of others? Given the millennial penchant for virtual—and sometimes viral—self-publication and self-revelation, numerous readers (not just memoirists) will resonate with these questions.

Castro’s introduction, “Mapping Hope,” considers how and why memoir has become increasingly popular over the past decade, what she calls a “self-disclosing genre of our reality-hungry era [where] few layers between the writer’s private life and the words on the page [exist].” Castro posits that, perhaps, one reason for this new and growing popularity is a kind of liberation of one’s writerly space, such as the ability to challenge “past eras’ illicit secrets” as Castro herself does in her own memoir, The Truth Book, about her abuse as a child at the hands of a Jehovah’s Witness stepfather and adoptive mother. Yet, Castro also deals directly with the other side of a writer’s liberation: the cost of “exploiting” one’s family members in service of one’s art. Castro quotes William Faulkner’s famous article in the Paris Review, in which he declares:

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. . . . If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.

Perhaps this is true—that art’s transcendence trumps the lived experience of old ladies. But I remain suspicious, which, I believe, is precisely what Castro wants, framing my mind as questioning and critical as I moved from her introduction to the other essays in this thought-provoking collection.

In one such essay, “The Deeper End of the Quarry: Fiction, Non-Fiction, and the Family Dilemma,” Dinty W. Moore explores episodes of his own writing. As a young writer, Moore admits he found it easier to mask his real-life stories as fiction: for instance, he published a short story about his mother falling “spectacularly off the wagon” in her late sixties. “[T]his story was,” explains Moore, “like much fiction, thinly veiled autobiography.” As he continued to write, however, he found that he was increasingly uncomfortable offering family tales under the guise of fiction. In some ways, Moore echoes Faulkner’s view in claiming that “[i]t is the writer’s duty. . .to view the world with no filters over the eyes, no rose-colored glasses distorting what is really seen, no glossing over the truth for the sake of politeness or propriety. . . . [M]ore people have been harmed over time by secrets and concealment than by candor and revelation.” When he finally turned to creative non-fiction—the genre Moore now works in the most—he found that he was able to be forthcoming about his father’s alcoholism as well as his mother’s tragic childhood followed by a lifetime struggle with depression. Yet both of these memoirs were published after Moore’s parents had died.

A third memoir never got published: a book Moore worked on for five years, one inspired by Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and dealing with his own father-daughter relationship within a “girl-poisoning culture.” Unlike Faulkner, ultimately Moore felt he couldn’t “rob his mother”—or, rather, his daughter. “It is the duty of parents,” he claims, “to double-up on the rose-colored glasses and give the kid as much leeway and as generous an interpretation as possible.” I appreciate Moore’s sense that timing matters: that he couldn’t “out” his daughter as complicated and human at the very moment when she needs to believe that her father sees her as strong and whole. Moore shapes his form and content to honor his artistic purposes and yet also to honor those who are vulnerable as a result of his process. After five years and many hundreds of pages of work, Moore wound up with an eight-page essay that “pretty much summarizes everything I was trying to say.”

Instead of Faulkner’s thieving imagery, I prefer Moore’s more subtle and layered notion of the deep-ended quarry: “The quarry of family secrets has a deep end, full of darkness and uncertainty, and writers who dive down into that material are going to have to learn to swim and breathe underwater, while still holding their eyes wide open. But the quarry has a deeper end still. . .and I simply couldn’t take it. I had to come up for air.” Moore’s “coming up for air” reflects his inability to write with complete honesty about his father-daughter relationship. And while his original artistic intent and process were arrested, his art didn’t die. It moved from memoir to essay. By swimming to the deep end to endeavor to seek truth within his art, Moore may have had to “come up for air,” but as a result, he achieves a greater artistic integrity.

The question of how to write honestly about children is one found in other essays within Family Trouble as well. Though affording only a partial view of a relationship with an adopted daughter, in Susan Olding’s “Mama’s Voices,” the writer explores her unconditional but hardly uncomplicated mother-love as her daughter Maia struggles with violent tendencies—an apparent response to trauma while living in an orphanage during her first ten months of her life. As Olding grapples with her own inclination to silence herself on this topic, she employs a disjointed form for her essay in which she frequently interrupts herself, using transitions that “stop,” “play”, “fast forward,” “rewind,” and “record” her narrative. Olding’s stylistic decision is purposeful, conveying her non-linear thought process as well as her adoptive daughter’s non-linear patterns of violent behavior. Form equals function. To search for a complicated understanding of a familial dynamic, there is no coherent, easy flow. There are fits and starts, punctuated by flashes of insight, fleeting yet informing. And, sometimes patterns emerge. In Olding’s essay, these patterns become evident as the piece unfolds: as Olding “fast forwards” by ruminating on her promising and yet hampered writer’s life; as she “stops” to consider the analogy of Lana Turner—her meteoric acting career alongside personal devastations, abusive lovers, estrangement from her daughter, and eventual death to throat cancer; as she “plays” memories of Maia’s early childhood through actual, recorded tapes Olding made for her daughter to soothe her while Olding herself traveled professionally; and as she “records.” The second and final “recorded” segment of the essay involves Maia’s own manipulation of the tape recorder, where through Maia’s influence—a kind of co-writing of this familial story—“parts of those old tapes are blank now, where [Maia] erased them. Parts of them sound with her own words. In her own voice.” Through this innovative, and yet also frustrating, essay form, Olding encourages me to consider what stories—if any—can’t be told.

Beyond ethical challenges presented in writing about parent-child relationships, the essayists included within Family Trouble also struggle with defying the cultural norms embedded within family traditions. For instance, in Bich Minh Nguyen’s “The Bad Asian Daughter,” the author says that memoirists must write “against the tide of silence”; in her case, toward understanding her dual Vietnamese and American identity by writing it down, by turning silence into sound, despite her family’s protests. Another common theme within these essays is what it means to seek personal understanding at another’s potential expense. This concern is illustrated beautifully in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “A Spell Against Sorrow,” in which Cofer explores her desire to write her father’s life story posthumously while struggling to deal with his apparent suicide, driving into an embankment wall even though he was, in life, the “most methodical, careful driver I have ever known.” Cofer admits, “I have often asked myself if his sadness finally became unbearable. He would have been ashamed to have admitted it.”

This desire to examine the complexities of human emotion even when familial backlash (or even re-victimization) is possible is the central concern of a range of other essays within this collection, including Richard Hoffman’s “Like Rain on Dust,” in which he confronts the consequences of revealing to his father that his childhood coach sexually abused him. This revelation potentially shames the father, particularly by depicting the “love and rage” characterizing their relationship. And still other essays question objective accuracy within a subjective account of the past, such as Ruth Behar’s “The Day I Cried at Starbucks,” in which Behar inherits a private family memoir and decides to publish it without first asking the permission of her uncles, aunts, or cousins. In all of these essays, the costs and the gains of familial revelation do not resolve easily—and in some cases, not at all.

As a reader of this collection—a reader with a husband and children and parents, a reader who is also a teacher of writing, though not a memoirist—what I find myself left with at the end of Family Trouble is a productive sense of being unsettled. Through co-existing with these writers in their ethical questions and dilemmas, I am more aware of how complicated and risky and freeing and imperative it is to seek such truth. And through these essays, I find myself more resolved to exercise truth-telling in my own life and with my own family members.

For, as the parent of teenagers, I find myself trying to figure out how to grapple with the truths my children wish to tell—and wish to hide. My parenting isn’t merely about what they tell me, face-to-face, about their lives. It’s also about reading their “memoirs” through social media. As both a parent and as an English teacher, I’ve witnessed troubled kids dropping hints on Twitter about their sense of hopelessness. I’ve witnessed sexual harassment and bullying through instant messaging. I’ve witnessed how teenagers use Facebook as a grieving space after losing a friend to suicide. And this permeable membrane of private experience and public declarations of that experience isn’t just a matter of teenage impulsiveness or catharsis. Adults, too, now post self-revealing material, such as a friend’s cancer diagnosis, via Facebook. There seems to be little hesitation between observing life material and sharing it—specifically writing it down for all to see. Thus, the ethical questions posed in Joy Castro’s anthology strike me as more than just about what it means to be a memoirist who writes about his or her family members. These questions are culturally responsible as well as necessary—and have universally powerful implications.

Sarah Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the English Education Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, although for nearly twenty years, Thomas taught high-school English before transitioning into a professorship. Alongside her university work, she serves as an Executive Consultant for the Malaika Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting global education for Nebraska teachers and students. Both roles inspire her to conduct research on effective teacher induction and meaningful educational reform, and this fall, Thomas will present creativity research at an international educational reform conference in Beijing. In addition to her teaching and research, spending time with her husband, Jay, teenage children, Samantha and Jack (as well as her golden doodle, Charlie, a third canine child), offers her unlimited learning and joy.

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Very thoughtful review, and important questions, all. Off to add the book to my ever-growing wishlist.
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