Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dysfunctional Family Memoirs
(Fun? Not so much . . . )

Anne Taintor Postcard

The Social Contract
Jean Jacques Rousseau

All vote. All consent.
It's like a big family.
Not mine, but someone's.

by David M. Bader
Haiku U. ~ From Aristotle to Zola: 100 Great Books in 17 Syllables

Bader's literary haiku and Anne Taintor's captions are always hilarious, but all joking aside, I've recently read several family memoirs, all on the sad side, all about children making their way through minefields of dysfunction.

We Became Like a Hand: A Story of Five Sisters
by Carol Ortlip

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book. It was good, but I can't say that the proffered redemption balances out the sordid descent. However, I did love the metaphor of the title, the image of the siblings as a hand, each sister a fragile finger. Nor could I forget the sharpness of this cutting line: "I bring . . . an awareness of the razor that lives in the mind, ready to slice an opening into the world of madness if given half the chance" (219). So chilling and accurate.

Three Weeks With My Brother
by Nicholas Sparks

You might know Sparks already for his bestselling novels and blockbuster movies: e.g., Dear John, Message in a Bottle, The Notebook. Connection and coincidence: Sparks was an undergrad at Notre Dame when I was there! I'd like to say that he was one of my Freshman Writing students, but no, he wasn't! I wonder whose class he was in? Probably one of my fellow T.A.s!

In Three Weeks, he compresses the story of his life (almost 40 years) into a narrative that fits alongside the details of a three-week trip around the world with his older brother. The travelogue is fascinating but the autobiography even more so. As in Ortlip's book, the family ranks dwindle sadly, the fingers falling away one by one.

Without any hint of disrespect or rebellion, Sparks writes candidly about his parents and their casual, nearly dismissive, approach to parenting: "Yet, my mother was -- and always will be -- an enigma to me. While I knew she loved me, I couldn't help but wonder why she wouldn't acknowledge my successes. While we kids were the center of her life, she let us run wild in dangerous places, doing dangerous things. These inconsistencies have always puzzled me, and even now, I'm at a loss to explain them" (127). Not to spoil the ending, but his parents are both deceased by the time these questions arise, so he needn't steel himself for their response. He is left to make his own puzzling observations and draw his own conclusions about their apparent carelessness. I was reminded of a long ago day in my own childhood when reading his description of the time he and his brother were left alone in a hospital parking lot:

"It was hot that day, probably close a hundred degrees. We'd been left with neither food nor water, and to keep our minds off the heat, we spent the next few hours climbing the tree or walking just inside the lines of the imaginary box [the acceptable boundaries indicated by their mother]. We made a game of getting as close to the imaginary lines as we could without stepping over. At one point, I stumbled and fell over the line. I remember standing quickly, but the thought that I'd disobeyed my mom, coupled with the stress that we were under, brought me to tears. . . .

"My brother and I were a curious and sad sight in the parking lot. Strangers would see us as they got out of the car on their way to visit someone inside; hours later, when they came back out, we'd still be sitting in the same spot. A few people offered to buy us a soda or something to eat, but we'd shake our heads and say that we were fine. . . . Later in the afternoon [when his brother fell] . . . we wondered whether we should dis-obey our mom and head into the hospital to tell her about it. . . . We didn't move, though. We couldn't
[too afraid of getting in trouble]" (41 - 42)

Sparks doesn't use the words "careless" or "negligent' -- but I thought them. What's lacking in the child rearing practices he describes (e.g., letting the three kids run loose on a major highway) seems to be any deeply held conviction that children are an irreplaceable treasure that could be lost at any moment if a parent isn't careful. As one of my friends pointed out, we were typically raised in a group of sibs (not just one or two), with an attitude that any particular kid was "spare."

I've often suspected that one of the things that Boomer generation parents have got right (at the risk of being called "helicopters") is that we just love our kids to pieces, in a way not readily exemplified in previous generations. For example, my peers and I can recount plenty of instances of our parents' outbursts, but they don't seem so quite so funny, not even in hindsight, do they? For one thing, I'm still amazed at how downright MEAN our parents could be -- not just stressed and confused and at their wits end, but premeditated MEANNESS. And for another, our parents never apologized to us for being out of line in their anger, whereas I have always done so as soon as I can see that I owe my kids an apology.

Over the years, I have come to realize the falsity of that old cliche about "Oh, when you look back, it won't seem so bad" or "Oh, one day you'll laugh about this." No, I think the exact opposite is true: you look back and realize that circumstances were actually way worse than you could ever acknowledge at the time because your emotional survival depended on pushing the reality out of your mind and rationalizing that all was well. I look back now at numerous incidents from the first twenty-five or so years of my life, and I think, "Oh my god, that was HORRIBLE!"

On the other hand, one of Sparks' happiest memories, referred to several times throughout the book, is the time - honored advice that he received from his mother: "It's your life / No one ever promised that life would be fair / What you want and what you get are usually two entirely different things" (127, 183, 316, 352). In fact, it is during a conversation along these lines that his mother says the magic words that eventually change his life: "Write a book!"

The Glass Castle: A Memoir
by Jeannette Walls

What selfish, inept parents! I was stunned to hear Jeannette Walls say in an interview that she wrote the book as a tribute to her parents even though they might come off in the book as somewhat flawed. SOMEWHAT FLAWED? Is she kidding? They come off as abhorrent! I kept wondering if Walls herself is not delusional? Does she really believe it when she says her parents were close and loving, that their life was intellectually stimulating and artistically nurturing, when in fact they lived in utter neglectful squalor? Or is she just trying to convince herself -- and the reader? I had to keep reminding myself that this upbringing took place in the 1970's, not the 30's. No flush toilet, no ceiling, rats on the table? That's not a nurturing environment -- that's criminal negligence, even more so, because these parents know better yet still treat their own children so shamefully.

I am left wondering if the parents were even more distasteful than Walls portrays and she just can't bear to paint their behavior any uglier or less competent than she already does. Or could it possibly be that things were not quite as bad as she depicts? It's not that she seems to be lying or exaggerating; and frankly, even if her upbringing was only HALF as bad as portrayed, it would still be horrible. But SOMETHING is missing from the equation here -- just not sure what it is.

The few times when her parents do come through for her are not even remotely enough to redeem their slovenly way of being in the world and their trashy concept of child-rearing. Her tolerance of them is mystifying to me, nor would I call it ennobling or forgiving. She wants it to be true that her parents could make a lifetime of deliberately sordid, lousy choices yet still be somehow pure of heart. No -- not possible! At best they were alcoholic (the dad) and mentally ill (the mom); at worst, fundamentally incapable of putting their children before themselves. And the author: at best, she's delusional; at worst deceiving. I'm not saying she's not a survivor -- she is. But her parents were not lovable, they were shiftless opportunists.

Have I walked a mile in Walls' shoes? No, I have not lived in poverty or squalor or alcoholic distress, but I know all about trying to put a good spin on a bad story; and what I'm hearing in this memoir is a very bad story told by a narrator who keeps insisting, "No so bad, not so bad." I'd prefer more truthfulness. Not that one has to be victimized, but -- let's face it -- once a bad story, always a bad story. I'm aware that the overwhelming response to Glass Castle is admiration for the author's courage. Well, now that she's an adult, how about attempting some mature analysis of what she experienced as a child? That's the courage I want to read about. I've been told that her next book, Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel explores some of these issues in further detail. I'll have to give it a try.

Precious /Push
by Sapphire

If you've seen this movie, or merely the previews, then you know already how the heroine, Precious triumphs over every imaginable kind of dysfunction and degradation: sexual abuse, inadequate education, an utter dearth of affection. The cover of the book plainly says novel not memoir. However, the movie goes to a great deal of trouble to present the narrative as autobiographical from the perspective of Precious; and so does the book. So I was rather disillusioned to learn how little the author's life resembles the story of Precious. The two intersect most prominently at the point where Sapphire "taught reading and writing to teenagers and adults" in Harlem. Oh, so this material is lifted from her students' journals? Well, then why not say so?