Memoirs of Trauma Criticism - Essay

Karl Miller (review date 21 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 understanding of extreme abuse or how he made his journey from "Victim to Victor." It takes some work to get past the poor writing and the self-aggrandizing back matter, but the book tries fervently to provide a much-needed perspective. One of the greater obstacles to healing for males is admitting that they have been victims, especially if their perpetrator is a woman. This author has overcome that obstacle and succeeded in life by such masculine norms as joining the Air Force and receiving awards for his volunteerism. However, while personal accounts of child maltreatment provide crucial information about the realities of childhood, youngsters need insight and hope in order to digest the raw material of abuse. James Deem's The 3 NBs of Julian Drew (Houghton, 1994) is a well-crafted, fictional work that effectively covers much of the same ground.

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)