Memoirs of Trauma Essay - Critical Essays

Memoirs of Trauma


Memoirs of Trauma

Last year, a number of reviewers noted an increase in the publication of memoirs, particularly memoirs of crises or traumatic incidents in the lives of the authors. "True torment sells," Doreen Carvajal wrote. "In an anxious and flat sales environment, publishers are buying the real life memoirs of private men and women with names that would not sell an American Express card, but traumas that will get them a talk show slot." Several articles analyzing the trend and its import to readers, modern literature, and society were published recently, with some critics asserting that the rise in popularity of memoirs is akin to that of the voyeuristic appeal of tabloid talk shows and indicates a lowering of standards in modern publishing. Others welcomed the increase in memoir publishing, seeing it as a healthy way for writers to exorcise their demons that is neither voyeuristic nor damaging to the literary sensibilities of readers. There is one element of the debate over which there can be no argument: true-life drama sells. Memoirs are now a staple of best-seller lists, and the National Book Critics Circle is considering adding a separate category for memoir to its prestigious annual awards.

Critical reaction to the books themselves has been mixed, and at times contentious. Tobias Wolff and Jonathan Yardley, both well-known and respected authors and critics, engaged in a printed sparring match over Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, the story of her four-year affair with her father which began when she was 20. In the book, perhaps the most controversial publication of the year, Harrison describes being unable to resist her father's advances, unable to wrench herself free of the psychological imprisonment that she learned later to understand. Wolff defended the author while castigating other critics, declaring, "The reviews of Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss are enough to make you think she had committed a crime in writing about her seduction by her father and the bitter sexual entanglement that followed." Wolff further contended that, in their negative reviews, Yardley and several other critics used Harrison "as a target of convenience for their animus against the genre she's working in—the memoir." Yardley responded with the assertion that The Kiss, regardless of its genre, is "an irredeemably rotten book." Noting that Harrison's published fictional works deal with much of the same subject matter, some accused her of telling the same story again, but this time calling it autobiography, to further her career. "It might be better if this woeful memoir had been a novel; its tone of hysterical self-obsession might pass as fiction," Martha Duffy proclaimed. "But Kathryn Harrison has already drawn on the theme of adult incest in her 1991 novel, Thicker than Water, to no great reverberance, so in The Kiss she tries the currently fashionable route of confession." For the shock it has elicited from critics and readers, The Kiss has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the fictional story of a man's incestuous relationship with his stepdaughter. "But if her father is a Humbert," James Wolcott asserted, "his daughter is no Lolita. The shock revelation in The Kiss—and, presumably, its selling point—is that the father-daughter incest it recounts is not childhood exploitation, but a consensual act between two adults."

Critical opinion of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the author's desperately poor childhood in Limerick, Ireland, was resoundingly favorable. The oldest child of Angela and Malachy McCourt, Frank recalls beginning his life in a New York slum, then moving to his parents' homeland where they hope to find a better life but instead become hopelessly mired in an even more grievous existence. As the family grows, Malachy's drinking worsens: during the few-and-far-between times when he holds a job, his paycheck ends up in the hands of the local barkeeps. Food is scarce and proper clothing, shoes, and bedding never enter the grim reality of the McCourt household. The house itself is an unheated rental next to the neighborhood latrine; when it rains the downstairs floods with rainwater and overflow from next door. Over everything hangs the poisonous pall of the River Shannon, feared as the source of the respiratory ailments which plague the residents of Limerick. Frank survives; one sister and two twin brothers do not. His survival is more than corporeal, however: critics describe Angela's Ashes as evidence that, despite the grim facts of his first nineteen years, McCourt retained love for his family, an exceptional storytelling ability, and an abiding wit. "McCourt relives [his] childhood with tenderness and, above all, humor," Trudy Bush observed.

While Angela's Ashes occupied one end of the critical spectrum and The Kiss held the other, many more memoirs drew the interest of critics and readers in 1997. Like Angela's Ashes, Agate Nesaule's A Woman in Amber and Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin' also portray traumatic childhoods, hers in wartime and his in poverty. In Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy allows readers a glimpse of life within a deformed body. Linda Katherine Cutting (Memory Slips), Gillian Helfgott (Love You to Bits and Pieces), and David Pelzer (A Child Called 'It') relate stories of childhood abuse and its residual affects in adulthood. With Darkness Visible, novelist William Styron exposes the impact of a depression that slowly enveloped his life. My Mother's Keeper (Tara Elgin Holley), Imagining Robert (Jay Neugeboren), and Mad House (Clea Simon) explore the challenges of living with a mentally ill relative. The short stories collected and edited by Laurie Stone (Close to the Bone) and Kathryn Rhett (Survival Stories) offer a variety of autobiographical sketches.

Representative Works Discussed Below

Bragg, Rick: All Over but the Shoutin' 1997
Cutting, Linda Katherine: Memory Slips 1997
Diski, Jenny: Skating to Antarctica 1998
Friedman, Sally: Swimming the Channel 1996
Grealy, Lucy: Autobiography of a Face 1994
Helfgott, Gillian (with Alissa Tanskaya): Love You to Bits and Pieces 1997
Holley, Tara Elgin: My Mother's Keeper 1997
Nesaule, Agate: A Woman in Amber 1995
Neugeboren, Jay: Imagining Robert 1997
Pelzer, Dave: A Child Called 'It' 1995
Rhett, Kathryn (editor): Survival Stories 1997
Simon, Clea: Mad House 1997
Stone, Laurie (editor): Close to the Bone 1997
Styron, William: Darkness Visible 1992


Doreen Carvajal (essay date 5 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Book Publishers Are Eager for Tales of True Torment," in The New York Times, April 5, 1997, pp. 1, 37.

[In the following essay, Carvajal surveys the upswing in publication of memoirs in recent years and provides an overview of a number of titles.]

The line is swelling for literary confession and Ira Silverberg is a somewhat reluctant confessor. His authors are freely spilling ink and intimacies, tales of brother-sister incest and cross-dressing seduction, and the travails of a man stalked by a scorned woman who demanded more vigorous beatings.

But he is feeling uneasy about one writer's proposed sequel to a harsh memoir of drug addiction. "I passed on his version of being a sexual compulsive," said Mr. Silverberg, the editor in chief of Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic. "It was lacking the depth of self-revelation that works."

True torment sells. In an anxious and flat sales environment, publishers are buying the real life memoirs of private men and women with names that would not sell an American Express card, but traumas that will get them a talk show slot.

A retired high school teacher's memoir of his impoverished Irish childhood is No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, and publishers are still recovering from a fierce bidding battle over rights to a Kansas grandmother's homespun book about Midwestern life and an alcoholic husband.

By the frantic fall season—prime time for bookstore traffic and publishing profits—the nation's publishers are preparing to release a torrent of confessionals that offer competing visions of anxiety. Rape, downsizing and disease. Depression and blue huckleberry jelly recipes. The "cellular memories" of a heart and lung transplant recipient who mysteriously developed her donor's zest for beer and fried chicken.

Anorexia is a particularly high-fashion literary theme; at least three young authors are reminiscing about self-imposed starvation with advances from several major publishing houses. Earlier last year, Disney's Hyperion purchased Lori Gottlieb's adolescent diary, "Stick Figure," for six figures amid sniping from rivals that the 11-year-old anorexic diarist seemed rather poised.

"My second book will be about me at age 30," said Ms. Gottlieb, who would not reveal more. "I don't know if I will continue to write about myself after that because I don't want to exploit it. At a certain point, people start to ask, what makes you so interesting?"

If this all sounds like the print version of the television anxiety show circuit, some writers and publishers gamely credit the programs for creating a tolerant climate for revelations.

Lonely readers, they say, are yearning for truth and the intimacy of reality literature, which has become so plentiful that the National Book Critics Circle is debating whether to create a separate award category for memoir. In turn, publishers want to sign memoirists because they make the most effective salespeople. With the right mix of charm, insight and writing talent, a first-time author like Frank McCourt has been able to nurture his memoir, Angela's Ashes, from a modest printing of 27,500 to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

So many confessionals are in the works that on Tuesday the Authors Guild will be host to a quintessential New York debate that poses the question "The Memoir Explosion: Novel of the 90's or Just Another Brand of Therapy?"

Come fall, readers will be able to plunge into the first person universe of a man growing up gay in the "aluminum sided wilds" of Little Falls, N.J., or a woman growing up gay in the strict, blue-collar, Roman Catholic atmosphere of an unnamed New England town. There are helpful recipes for kosher latkes—the inspiration for a writer's exploration of her Jewish heritage—and for jam as the antidote to Debby Bull's heart wreck in Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning. There are fill-in-the-blank memoirs (The Book of Myself: A Do-it-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions) with ample space for regrets and natural hair color.

Even the art book publisher Harry N. Abrams is offering an illustrated memoir, Out of My Mind: An Autobiography by Kristin Nelson Tinker, the former wife of the late singer Ricky Nelson. Among the paintings is a courtroom battle scene with her brother, the actor Mark Harmon, who sought custody of her youngest son after forcing her into drug rehabilitation.

In publishing, success creates imitators and many editors contend that the current wave of reality literature dates back to the publication of The Liars' Club: A Memoir, a 1995 best-selling tale of the poet Mary Karr's East Texas childhood and "terrific family of liars and drunks." Since then other confessionals have climbed the best-seller lists such as Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, a raw account of her incestuous affair with her minister father.

Celebrities and chief executive officers once dominated the field, but partly because of high-priced flops there is more ample room in the genre for talented amateurs, seasoned novelists and poets accustomed to using "I".

"It seems to me that what's happened is that we're looking for some sort of moral compass," said Ms. Karr, who is at work on a sequel. "We're somewhat alienated and it's hard to know how well you're doing."

The new memoir writers actually have more in common with 18th-century Puritan writers, who were captured by Indians and survived to pen tales of adversity and triumph that were the first nonfiction best sellers in North America. Memoir writers chronicled slavery, the opening of the West and missionary quests. But what's unique about the new wave is psychological introspection, according to Patricia Willis, curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature.

Authors still write about adversity and triumph, but the themes are family traumas, compulsion and identity. The advances are also more generous. Jesse Lee Brown Foveaux, the Kansas grandmother, sold her bittersweet memoir to Warner Books for more than $1 million despite grumbling that the most interesting passages explored laundering techniques.

The contemporary genre can be divided into two categories, victim stories and shame narratives, according to Laurie Stone, the editor of an anthology of memories, called Close to the Bone, which will be published by Grove Press in the fall. What matters, she said, is the degree of insight and drama: "The whole point is not just to flash perversity, but that the writer has a story to tell, that they are using the self as a sort of lab rat."

The hunger for insight is evident at the bookstore appearances of Mr. McCourt, who took almost three decades to write the first volume of his life, Angela's Ashes, and is now at work on a sequel. A crowd of 400 gathered recently among the book-stacks at Borders in San Francisco to listen to Mr. McCourt reminisce about growing up in Limerick, Ireland. ("Worse than the ordinary miserable Irish childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.")

Mr. McCourt, 66, said he had struggled to write a novel, but "my own life kept intruding into my miserable little fiction." He went on: "It was stronger in the long run. I was trying to create a story about growing up in the slum in Limerick and the characters were already there. I was hanging fantasy on them and it just didn't work. The voices were false."

Truth is the muse most often cited by new-wave memoirists who feel no particular need to hide behind fiction or even to warn their real-life characters about literary exposure. Yet the subjective use of memory does raise issues about authenticity.

"There's always a question of verity involved and I'm not casting any aspersions," said Art Winslow, the president of the National Book Critics Circle. "In the first-person memoir, you only have other members of a person's nuclear family with the authority to say, yes this is true or no it is not. It's in their interest to have dramatic tension in the work. There's a danger that could be exaggerated."

Elaine Marr, 30, is a poet and a first-time author who signed with HarperCollins to publish Paper Daughter, an account of her Denver childhood that explores her anorexia and suicidal tendencies along with a failed romantic relationship and her ambivalence about her Chinese-American heritage. She said the revelations would probably not have much of an impact on her parents because they did not speak English.

"We talked about changing names and using pseudonyms, but unless HarperCollins says this is a concern, I am not going to do it," she said. "I just want to be honest. When you write a novel, even thinly disguised, people know what you're doing. The process of standing up and talking about who you are is a little like coming out sexually."

Still, brutal candor troubles writers like Mr. McCourt, who contends that certain secrets should remain protected until family members are dead. He has reservations about the recent work of Kathryn Harrison, a seasoned novelist who turned to the memoir for the first time with the account of an affair with her father that began when she was 20.

"I thought she should have waited till he was dead, and even then I balk at the idea, especially if the person is vulnerable," Mr. McCourt said. "In some ways, there's a feeling of a subconscious vendetta and it makes me queasy."

Mrs. Harrison does not name her father in her memoir. And as a condition of interviews, she asks that no attempt be made to reach him.

"I went to a great deal of trouble to strip away any indicator; I didn't want to expose him," said Mrs. Harrison, who added that as a writer she felt a "great compulsion" to confess. "I wanted to show the workings of the relationship, to really vivisect myself."

Like Mr. McCourt, she is also at work on a sequel, a story of her grandmother, a dominant force in her family.

The sequel will be "kind of a hybrid; the memoir aspect will be the first 30 years of my life," Mrs. Harrison said. "She is the woman who raised me, of which I know early pieces, and I will have to reconstruct or invade her life."

Her first memoir offers a few early hints of the character to come. Her description sketches her grandmother's talent for screaming—"the shriek of a scalded infant, the cry of a young woman raped in the woods, the long howl of the werewolf who catches her scent, who finds and devours what's left of her."

Tobias Wolff (essay date 6 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Literary Conceits," in The New York Times, April 6, 1997, sec. 4, p. 19.

[In the following essay, Wolff defends memoirists as undeserving of the harsh criticism that they often receive from reviewers.]

The reviews of Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss are enough to make you think she had committed a crime in writing about her seduction by her father and the bitter sexual entanglement that followed. Michael Shnayerson suggests in Vanity Fair that her motive in telling her story was not, as she herself says, a matter of personal and artistic necessity, but a squalid grab for publicity and sales. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley dismisses the entire book as "trash … not an artful word in it"—contrived "for personal gain and talk show notoriety."

James Wolcott, in The New Republic, brings the author up on charges of being not only a hack, but also a mercenary opportunist, a liar and a bad mother, a wicked mother, whose autobiographical writings "constitute a narcissistic act on Harrison's part intended to invite misery and humiliation upon her children, especially the daughter, as misery was visited upon her."

I've never met Kathryn Harrison, but I have read her book, thought it remarkably courageous and well-told and have been happy to recommend it. Certainly there's nothing in it to explain the rage "visited upon her" by these critics.

The truth is that they are using her as a target of convenience for their animus against the genre she's working in—the memoir. All of them preface their attacks on her with expressions of suspicion or downright contempt for the personal writings that have recently found favor with readers. They want to be seen as bucking the trend, when of course they could not be more au courant, for it is now entirely the fashion with our self-deputized Border Patrol to mew in dismay at the wistful appearance of any new memoir at the gate of Literature.

Are these books so bad? From my own fairly extensive reading in the field, I'd say this: Some are indeed dreadful; most are mediocre; a few are good; a very few are superb. In other words, they correspond in quality to the new novels I read, and the new stories, and poems. Robert Frost is supposed to have said that there haven't been 500 poets in the world since Homer. We could probably make a case for opening up a few more positions, but the fact remains that at any given time there isn't a whole lot of work out there of the first order, and the contemporary work we do praise in those terms will, if past is portent, mostly pass into oblivion.

That holds true for every genre and form. The novelist, the historian, the poet and the memoirist all labor under the virtual certainly of being forgotten, yet all share equally in the hope of escaping that fate with a book like A Good Man Is Hard to Find or Life Studies or Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

A memoir is not bad because it is a memoir, but because it is a bad memoir. Of course it's true that many autobiographical writers have made ruthless use of their histories, exploited those who trusted them, betrayed intimacies, displayed their wounds in the marketplace. Robert Graves was accused of doing exactly those things when Goodbye to All That was published.

But when I came to write my own account of wartime service I was guided more by his memoir of World War I than by any of the Vietnam histories I'd been reading to put myself back in the picture. Though we were very different, his trials much harsher than mine and his record infinitely more distinguished, I learned from him. He did not impose global understandings and sympathies on the rather narrow-minded young man he was then, whose area of greatest concern was, after all, the patch of ruined ground just in front of his trench; he treated his younger incarnation with neither condescension nor flattery, but with an objectivity that didn't flinch from revealing the juvenile priggishness, sexual confusion and self-importance to which he was subject, or the courage of which he was capable.

Without false apologies or exhibitions of right-mindedness he made me feel something of what it was like for one particular person to be drawn into that war, submit to its logic, then reject it utterly while somehow continuing to fight. I wanted to know how a man of flesh and blood, not of fiction, made sense of what had been done to him, and of what he had done. It is this sort of curiosity that draws people to memoirs, and it is a legitimate curiosity.

"To have written an autobiography," William Gass wrote in Harper's magazine three years ago, "is already to have made yourself a monster." His point was that the autobiographer is bound to puff himself up, to lie, to take revenge, to hide the greater sin by confessing the lesser, to crown herself with a halo. If this is true, it is no more true of memoirists than of other writers. What is the novelist's sentimentality (whether expressed in desperate cheer or easy cynicism) but a lie of the heart, and the conceit that nobody else is smart enough to see through it? Do poets not take revenge? Read your Catullus. As for halos, isn't Mr. Gass wearing one here?

Writers of all kinds are prone to self-idealization. But the best memoirists have an astonishing capacity for seeing themselves in the round, fully implicated in the fallen creation of which they write. Think of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant." There's no conceit here, no halo, no getting even with an unkind world, only the absurd helplessness of a man taken prisoner by his own spurious authority.

We see the same honesty at work in Susanna Kaysen's description of going to an ice cream parlor with her fellow lunatics in Girl, Interrupted, Frank Conroy's obsession with the yo-yo in Stop Time, Mary McCarthy's account in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood of how, by pretending to lose her faith, she actually lost her faith, Mary Karr deviling her legless grandmother in The Liar's Club.

We demand this sort of personal reckoning from the memoirist, and then we demand everything else: a sense of story, formal mastery, moral consciousness, the gift of bringing others to life in words, music. Auden said it all:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.

Even memoirists.

Jonathan Yardley (essay date 14 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Thanks for the Memoirists," in The Washington Post, April 14, 1997, p. D2.

[In the following essay, Yardley rebuts Tobias Wolff's defense of memoirists, particularly Kathryn Harrison, asserting that he objects to Harrison's The Kiss not because it is a memoir but...

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Karl Miller (review date 21 March 1991)

SOURCE: "Literary Supplements," in London Review of Books, March 21, 1991, pp. 6-7.

[In the following excerpt, Miller discusses William Styron's memoir, Darkness Visible, finding that it makes clear many truths of the author that have been alluded to in his novels. Miller remarks: "His novels, with their stress on suicide and gloom, could be said to find their afterword in the memoir."]

The American novelist William Styron has written a short book which describes how he came to grief at around the age of sixty, falling into a depression which nearly cost him his life. He felt, in romantic-confessional style, that he had to write it, and it is good to have it. I...

(The entire section is 901 words.)

World Literature Today (review date Summer 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Darkness Visible, in World Literature Today, Summer, 1991, p. 108.

[In the following review, the critic discusses William Styron's Darkness Visible, noting that in the memoir the author offers many self-diagnoses.]

William Styron's essay meanders through his experience of depression in a somewhat crotchety style, one which pulls the facts along like loose seaweed emerging through the surf. It is a wandering and poignant memoir that catalogues his thinking on depression.

So much has been written about this disorder. The 1980s (and now the 1990s) are the "ages" of depression, as the 1950s were the age of anxiety...

(The entire section is 565 words.)

A. G. Mojtabai (review date 25 September 1994)

SOURCE: "I Was Too Ugly to Go to School," in The New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1994, pp. 11-12.

[Below, Mojtabai offers a positive review of Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, praising the author's first published work as an account that "struggles from outer to inner to inmost senses of "face" as it charts the difficulties encountered in trying to carve a face for oneself from the inside out."]

You should begin Autobiography of a Face, a poet's memoir in which no words are approximate or unfelt, by pausing to give its title due weight. All that is to follow is packed into the substitution of "face" for "person," "self" or "soul." The...

(The entire section is 1437 words.)

Sonia Jaffe Robbins (review date March 1995)

SOURCE: "Staring Pain in the Face," London Review of Books, March, 1995, p. 16.

[In the following review, Robbins asserts that in Autobiography of a Face Lucy Grealy "has created a beautifully written re-creation of and meditation on her illness and treatment, growing up, love, and the years spent being her face."]

At the age of nine, Lucy Grealy learned she had Ewing's sarcoma. An operation removed the tumor along with half of her jaw, and was followed by two years of radiation treatment and two and a half years of chemotherapy. Her chances of survival were around five percent.

I had my own preconceptions of what Lucy Grealy's account...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)

Mary Beth Loup (review date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: "Facing the World," in Belles Lettres, Spring, 1995, p. 53.

[In the following positive review, Loup relates her reticence as a cancer survivor at reading Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, but finds that "Grealy learns to look in the mirror and accept what she sees: the reader privileged to have shared her mirror can do no less."]

Unlike many readers who anticipated the appearance of Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face after first reading her article "Mirrorings" in Harper's, I read the book first. Knowing only that the memoir deals with the author's facial disfigurement following cancer treatment as a child, I approached it...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Carolyn Polese (review date December 1995)

SOURCE: A review of A Child Called 'It,' in School Library Journal, December, 1995, pp. 139-40.

[In the following mixed review, the critic describes David Pelzer's A Child Called 'It' as "unforgettable," but faults the author's writing style and suggests that the book is not a good choice for young readers.]

This autobiographical account charts the abuse of a young boy as his alcoholic mother first isolates him from the rest of the family; then torments him; and finally nearly kills him through starvation, poisoning, and one dramatic stabbing. Pelzer's portrayal of domestic tyranny and eventual escape is unforgettable, but falls short of providing...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Los Angeles Times Book Review (review date 16 September 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Darkness Visible, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 16, 1996, p. 6.

[In the following negative review of William Styron's Darkness Visible, the critic asserts that "there's nothing here that hasn't been said better elsewhere."]

A law professor once said that legal scholarship had two problems—one its style, the other its content. I have a similar reaction to William Styron's new book, and say so reluctantly because it touches on a serious subject: depression, which brought the novelist to the edge of suicide.

Darkness Visible is not, in fact, about depression, since Styron says his bout was...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

John Blades (review date 22 October 1996)

SOURCE: "McCourt's Memoir Awash in Tales of Ireland, Booze," in Chicago Tribune, October 22. 1996, pp. 1, 3.

[In the following review of Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, Blades relates the author's account of how the book came to be and what happened after the point at which the narrative ends.]

If ever a man could personally testify to the evils of drink, it's Frank McCourt. As a survivor of what he calls the worst kind of "miserable childhood … the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," McCourt traces most of that misery to the demons rum, stout and whiskey, which were consumed in profligate quantities by his father, a stereotypically "shiftless...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)

Eugenia Zukerman (review date 2 February 1997)

SOURCE: "Overture to a Recovery," in The Washington Post Book World, February 2, 1997, p. 5.

[In the following review of Linda Katherine Cuttings' Memory Slips, Zukerman finds that the author "manages to write with simple candor and elegant prose about" her abuse as a child, "a subject that is too often sensationalized."]

For most of her life, Linda Katherine Cutting was ordered to apologize and to keep silent. "If you tell you'll burn in hell," she was admonished by her minister father. Remarkably, Cutting grew up to become a successful concert pianist, but her performances came to a halt when memory lapses at the keyboard jolted memories muted since early...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Frederick Busch (review date 9 February 1997)

SOURCE: "My Brother, Myself," in New York Times Book Review, February 9, 1997, p. 10.

[In the following positive review of Imagining Robert, by Jay Neugeboren, Busch distinguishes between Neugeboren's roles as author and as brother, offering sympathetic opinions of both.]

The novelist Jay Neugeboren would not agree that a discussion of his powerful story—his brother's battle for more than 30 years with mental illness—centers on him, the writer. He would insist that his brother is the heart of the matter. His belief is part of the appeal of his memoir, Imagining Robert.

But he is the writer, and it is he who has found the language and...

(The entire section is 1421 words.)

Margaret Moorman (review date 9 February 1997)

SOURCE: "Fugue State," in New York Times Book Review, February 9, 1997, p. 18.

[Below, Moorman offers a positive review of Linda Katherine Cutting's Memory Slips, describing the book as dignified and eloquent.]

In 1989, Linda Katherine Cutting, a young, widely praised concert pianist, suffered a memory slip on stage. "I heard footsteps. Suddenly I was in the wrong key…. The footsteps came nearer to the piano…. I had to make sure it wasn't him." Six and a half bars into the opening of a Beethoven sonata, she stopped playing. "It was only a late-comer taking his seat," she writes in her extraordinary book, Memory Slips. She began again and mercifully...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Martha Duffy (review date 10 March 1997)

SOURCE: "Taboo Time," in Time, March 10, 1997.

[In the following negative review of Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, Duffy concludes that "one hesitates to question the veracity of a book labeled a memoir," but proclaims the book "more a purple tale than a glimpse of truth."]

It might be better if this woeful memoir had been a novel; its tone of hysterical self-obsession might pass as fiction. But Kathryn Harrison has already drawn on the theme of adult incest in her 1991 novel, Thicker than Water, to no great reverberance, so in The Kiss she tries the currently fashionable route of confession. Hers: an affair with her father.


(The entire section is 317 words.)

Mim Udovitch (review date 17 March 1997)

SOURCE: "The Evil Dads," in New York, March 17, 1997, pp. 57-8.

[In the following excerpt, Udovitch asserts that Kathryn Harrison brings to The Kiss "a mannered, accomplished technique, which … is executed with precision and grace. What she fails to bring is any sense of rigorous engagement with her material."]

Okay, let it first be said that if Kathryn Harrison, whose memoir The Kiss tells the story of the incestuous relationship she had with her father between the ages of 20 and 24, wants to make this experience the centerpiece of her published work, be it fictional, nonfictional, pictographic, or a series of rhyming billboards on the Garden State...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

James Wolcott (review date 31 March 1997)

SOURCE: "Dating Your Dad," in The New Republic, March 31, 1997, pp. 32-6.

[In the following review, Wolcott gives an extensive analysis of Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss. In comparing it to her other works and to her statements in interviews, Wolcott questions whether The Kiss is fact or fiction.]

Remember when it took some digging to unearth secrets? When guilt and repression were still powerful enforcers? In the aftermath of Freud and Jung, the unconscious seemed like a rich treasure bed, a sunken Atlantis of racial myth and murky memories, a crumbling Edgar Allan Poe estate choked with moss. To read one of Freud's case studies is to descend a spiral...

(The entire section is 5174 words.)

Conan Putnam (review date 6 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Fear of Father," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 6, 1997, p. 3.

[Below, Putnam reviews Linda Katherine Cutting's Memory Slips and Gillian Helfgott's Love You to Bits and Pieces, both memoirs of trauma in the lives of accomplished pianists. In considering Cutting's autobiographical piece, Putnam asserts that the author would have been more successful in reaching "deeper introspection" had she employed a more conventional narrative style. Putnam also praises Love You to Bits and Pieces, Gillian Helfgott's account (written with Alissa Tanskaya) of her life with piano prodigy David Helfgott and his battle to overcome "a cruelly damaging relationship with his...

(The entire section is 1655 words.)

Joanne Kaufman (review date 20 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Novelist Kathryn Harrison's Memoir of Her Affair with Her Father," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 20, 1997, p. 2.

[In the following review of Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, Kaufman notes that "the reader wants, needs, what feels spontaneous; the reader gets something studied, carefully literary." She compares The Kiss to Harrison's other works and finds them similar, concluding that "perhaps The Kiss will serve as the means by which Harrison can finally exorcise her demons and begin to broaden the terrain of her fiction."]

There are lots of really swell ways for authors to market their works these days: Concoct an elaborately clumsy piece...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Carolyn Alessio (review date 27 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Dark Angels," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 27, 1997, p. 3.

[Below, Alessio reviews three memoirs examining the effects of mental illness on families: Tara Elgin Holley's My Mother's Keeper, Clea Simon's Mad House, and Jay Neugeboren's Imagining Robert.]

The modern world recklessly equates mental illness with art. Consider the current world tour of Australian pianist David Helfgott, the subject of the popular film Shine. Despite reports of his abysmal technique, Helfgott plays to sold-out audiences, while his CD ranks as a best seller on classical music charts. Famous disturbed artists whose work did succeed, like Vincent Van Gogh and...

(The entire section is 1637 words.)

Susie Linfield (review date 11 May 1997)

SOURCE: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 11, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following positive review, Linfield praises Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss and rebuts the negative appraisals of several other critics.]

Every now and then a book comes along that disturbs, disrupts and polarizes the public in new ways. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was such a book, as was Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, Phillip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve. (This used to happen with films, too—Bonnie and Clyde, Last Tango...

(The entire section is 2119 words.)

Trudy Bush (essay date 21 May 1997)

SOURCE: "Putting a Life in Order," in Christian Century, May 21-28, 1997, pp. 519-23.

[Below, Bush discusses the current state of memoir-writing and reviews three works: Agate Nesaule's A Woman in Amber and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, which she describes as "two of the best of the recent memoirs," and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, which she considers "one of the worst."]

My mother is our family's storyteller, and an eventful life has given her great material. Born in the U.S. to immigrant parents who couldn't decide whether they preferred to live in America or Europe, she divided her childhood between Batschka Jarak, a small ethnic German...

(The entire section is 3115 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 June 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Survival Stories, in Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1997, p. 857.

[Below, the critic offers a positive review of Survival Stories, edited by Kathryn Rhett.]

Twenty fine essays, some never before published, mark episodes of life-changing loss or illness and the redemptive movement toward reconciliation.

Developed from Rhett's course in crisis memoir—or survival stories—at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, the anthology features works that encompass the distinctive elements of the form: the "inclusion of present and past, narrative and digression," and an "urgency" that the work be written, which reveals itself in a sense...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Donna Seaman (review date July 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Survival Stories, in Booklist, July, 1997, p. 1778.

[In the following highly positive review, Seaman recounts the process by which Survival Stories, edited by Kathryn Rhett, came to be, concluding that the essays in the collection "transcend all criticism."]

Rhett noticed that the most arresting essays written for the memoir-writing workshops she taught were about surviving crises. This observation inspired her to create a crises memoir course, in spite of her fears that such an intense focus could turn her classes into group therapy sessions. A real pro, Rhett was able to concentrate on the writing itself, thus helping her students...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 July 1997)

SOURCE: A review of All Over but the Shoutin', in Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1997, p. 995.

[Below, the critic gives a positive review of Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin'.]

A celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter turns his investigative attention to his own past: growing up poor and making his way from rural Alabama to the top of his profession.

[Rick] Bragg, who was born in 1959, is poetic and convincing on his family's poverty and how it chipped away at their dreams "to the point that the hopelessness show[ed] through." His father, violent and an alcoholic, figures here, as do his siblings, but this is above all a...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Bret Lott (review date 11 September 1997)

SOURCE: "Up from Southern Poverty, into a Wider World," in The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1997, p. C16.

[In the following review, Lott describes Rick Bragg's writing in his memoir, All Over but the Shoutin', as self-conscious, asserting that the work "suffers from precisely what has made him such a fine reporter: the book reads as though it were a feature.]

Regular readers of The New York Times know the work of Rick Bragg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose piercing snapshots of Americans, from the Susan Smith murder trial in South Carolina to the Oklahoma bombing to street life in Harlem, have graced The Times's pages since...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

Gloria Emerson (review date 14 September 1997)

SOURCE: "Dirty Laundry," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 14, 1997, p. 9.

[Below, Emerson offers a positive review of Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin', noting that she wished he had included more excerpts of his articles previously published in the New York Times.]

The idea of a journalist born in 1959 writing his memoirs, with no great wars or historic events to report, is surprising. But what Rick Bragg gives us in All Over but the Shoutin' is his own story, a record of a life that has been harrowing, cruel and yet triumphant, written so beautifully he makes the book a marvel. "This is not an important book," he writes. "It is only the...

(The entire section is 1590 words.)

Anthony Walton (review date 14 September 1997)

SOURCE: "The Hard Road from Dixie," in New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1997, p. 13.

[In the following review, Walton praises Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin', describing the memoir as "the kind of book that causes us to see ourselves more clearly because it corrects and heightens our vision."]

There is an old saying among African-Americans to the effect that any white man who lives in poverty does so by choice. This saying is based on the premise that being born with white skin is so great an advantage as to determine a successful life. The colloquialism for disadvantaged Caucasians, "white trash," indicates that the nation as a whole holds these...

(The entire section is 1363 words.)

Rick Bragg (essay date 18 September 1997)

SOURCE: "If the Doorbell's Ringing, It Must Be Home," in The New York Times, September 18, 1997, p. F20.

[In the following essay, adapted from his memoir, All Over but the Shoutin', Bragg relates his mother's lifelong yearning for a home of her own.]

All her life my momma had lived in other people's houses. Sometimes through cheap rent, sometimes through charity, she had lived beholden. The closest thing we had ever had to a home of our own was a small trailer we lived in for only a few months, when I was a boy.

Through it all, my mamma never said she wanted a house. She never even hinted. But if you could have seen her face when we rode down...

(The entire section is 2051 words.)

Further Reading


Ackerman, Felicia. "Volte Face." American Scholar (Winter 1996): 142.

Review of Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face.

Berry, Jason. "Moving On." Chicago Tribune (19 October 1997): sec. 14, p. 4.

Review of Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin'.

Rose, Lloyd. "Hearts of Darkness." Voice Literary Supplement (November 1990): 12-14.

Examines depression as a topic in the writings of William Styron, Oliver Sacks, Susan Sontag, and others.

(The entire section is 61 words.)