In her memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, writer Heather Sellers recounts an exchange that gives us the most common picture of our relationship with memoir. At a lecture, Sellers reads a short story based on the events of her childhood, which were fractured by her mother’s mental illness and her father’s instability. After reading, a man stands to ask this question:
I read a review that said [your work] is autobiographical. And that’s the trend, I know. But these people—this strains at our belief. There are dysfunctional families. But there isn’t anything like this. This strains credibility.
Sellers feels the speaker’s anger, and his anger has weight: memoirs about every dysfunction under the sun glut bookstores and Amazon, and the question of credibility, of telling the truth, haunts Sellers. She feels her own insecurity over the bizarre facts of her life, her fear that the story of her broken family, whether in fiction or in memoir, is not worth telling.
It is a feeling that I understand personally. My writing centres on my own childhood, which was shaped by my family’s addictions and abuses. When people ask me about my own memoir work, I notice that I get defensive, distant, and vague about the writing I am doing, or at least, the writing I am trying to do.
And the suspicions about memoir do not help me, or others, find confidence in telling our stories. One of my fiance’s friends, after hearing that I wrote, shrugged his shoulders.
“Seems like everyone is trying to tell their story nowadays,” he said. “What makes a story different? What makes it matter?”
The genre of memoir recollects a life: what happened to a person, what they did afterward. What larger truth emerges from the specific plots through which our lives move? For Christians and non-Christians alike, the difficulty of memoir comes not just from issues with the genre, but in the nature of the larger truth. What do we do when the events we read about, the events that we ourselves recall, are dark and difficult, tragic to the point of disbelief? What do we do, as writers and readers, when the narratives we encounter, both in others and ourselves, do not offer resolve or closure?
What do we do when our stories echo Psalm 88: “My soul is full of troubles…my one true friend is darkness”?
Memoir without the idolatry of self?
It is clear that the role of memoir is shifting. Questions about memoir’s validity, its parameters and value, are constantly being asked. By exploring those questions, I believe that we can offer a clearer route for both discerning the difficult stories of others and for articulating our own. What we need is a kind of memoir that can shape and name the ways our lives have been wounded without the idolatry of self that accompanies contemporary memoir. We need a form that can, in the most personal way, give voice to our bruised faith, our individual hurts, our longings for healing and restoration.
What we need in memoir is lament, the biblical mode that Nicholas Wolterstorff (in Lament for a Son) names as “the voice . . . of many forms of loss.” In our lives, we have lost much: loved ones, opportunities, homes, identities, whole shorelines gone with the sweep of a tsunami wave. Lament is the mourning that we experience over those losses, the injustices that break us, the heartaches that split our families and worlds apart.
We have largely ignored lament because we think that acknowledging our hurts, and wrestling with them, is dangerous—we are afraid of crying out to God, of seeing the depths of the pits we fall into, the ways in which our brokenness consumes us. We are afraid to lament because we are afraid to stand with the psalmist, the refugee, the neglected child—we are afraid, and we either ignore our stories entirely or parade our hurts as an exhibition of revenge. In memoir, this is especially true. Memoir writers suffer from an “honesty” that is bent on drawing the line between heroes and villains, and readers suffer from a story that lacks in telling the truth about who we are and what we have suffered; what we are hoping for, in the midst of it all.
What we need is to be truthful: we are broken people, and our cries are real. We long for God; we hope in the resurrection; and in our waiting for the kingdom, we yearn for things to be made new. And we lament because what we hope for is not yet here. We need to lament, and we need to listen to laments, to weep with those who weep and mourn with the blessed mourners, who have, as Wolterstorff says, “caught a glimpse of God’s new day . . . and who break into tears when confronted with its absence.”
I truly believe that Christians are in a particular place to not only describe lament, but to practice it; I believe that our stories have both individual and cultural sway, and that we can tell them in such a way as to witness to what the Nicene Creed tells us we look for: the life of the world to come. Families reordered, hurts healed, life everlasting. By exploring what lament is not, and by pursuing some of these larger issues within memoir, I hope that we pick up our stories and tell them for what they are. For what is the point of telling our stories if we do not long for things to be made right in the first place? Why write, or read, if we are not looking for salvation?
Though there are memoirists who would shy away from the spiritual bent of their genre, it is an unconscious movement in our drive to tell, and read about, personal stories. And in our culture, the personal is what you can get through reality television and celebrity gossip. If the NY Times’ Neil Genzlinger can complain that “there was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir,” then we have given rights to anyone whose life catches our eye: disgraced senators, beautiful heiresses, teenagers who celebrate the prom in maternity dresses. We look to the lives of others to escape our own, and we have shaped our appetites towards the consumption of what is over the top, bizarre, removed from how we really live. The fact that Snooki can garner attention for a memoir she is only thinking of writing is proof of our obsession with the lives of others, no matter how distant or ridiculous those lives are.
And, at the same time, we read and write because we look to see who shares our experiences with us. Liz Stephens, editor of Brevity magazine’s blog, writes that “my quotidian life fascinates me so much that I want to know what others make of it as well, of their train rides, their errands through the streets, their awkward exchanges with daughters.”
We want to know what others make of it, how they eat and pray and love in the face of struggle, difficulty, and loss. No matter how mundane or grand the circumstance, we tell and read stories because we want to be illumined. And although memoir can be distorted by selfish desires, its intention is, as Patricia Hampl names it, “to bear the burden of our witnessing.” It is through memoir, particularly lament memoirs, that the difficulties of our stories, the ambiguities and the losses, are named and known. It is in lament that our witness is made fuller, more real, and hopeful in the truest way.
When stories don’t look good at the end
One of the issues that I find with Christian writers and readers is that we look too readily for a certain kind of salvation in our stories. We look for the “testimony,” the form of memoir that circulates so easily around Protestant circles, which focuses on a conversion experience, a “before and after” plot of a person’s life. My writing students named their tension with this kind of story this past spring: “It’s like I didn’t know how to deal with dark or scary parts of my life,” they said on more than one occasion, “because I thought that testimonies were supposed to be about God turning your life around. I thought that it was all supposed to be a certain kind of victory.”
Lament moves through complaint and petition, grief and hope—it expresses angst over a current condition, wonders how God will act, mourns a particular loss. In the Scriptures, the psalms of lament cover more than a third of the Psaltery, and while some end in petition and praise of God, there are others, like Psalm 88, whose final lines end in despair, not with a false sense of triumph.
And then there are the words and actions of our Lord, who simply wept for Lazarus, whose words on the cross are echoed in the Psalms as well: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is part of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s struggle in his book Lament for a Son, a landmark text in the world of Christian memoirs. Wolterstorff’s memoir is a commonplace book of grief, an account of his thoughts, notes, and words following the sudden death of his son Eric, who died in a mountain climbing accident. Wolterstorff’s fame put him in a public place to name and know this loss, which lingers more than twenty-five years after his son’s funeral (italics are mine):
The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides.
To include grief as not only part of our testimony, but the foreseeable end of that testimony, sounds alarming to us. We say, in truth, that Jesus reigns, that the dead shall be raised, that every tear will be wiped away. But one of my students put it this way:
We tell others to “be well, be well!” in the face of sadness. We say “Christ has the victory!” as if our faith depends on showing people we are happy. And that is not the truth.
The truth, for Wolterstorff, is that he had hope in the resurrection, but he also missed his son. “A friend said, ‘Remember, he’s in good hands,'” Wolterstorff recounts. “I was deeply moved. But that reality does not put Eric back in my hands now. That’s my grief . . . what consolation can there be other than having him back?”
Wolterstorff is a pioneer in Christian lament because his memoir not only offers a theological treatise on lament, but embodies it in full. There are other memoirs, by both Christians and others, who touch on lament, the most popular being Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion’s memoir recounts the sudden death of both her husband and her daughter, and in Didion’s signature distance, tragedy displays itself through the collection of images: hospital scrubs, hotel receipts, memories of her husband reading aloud to her, the pauses that she takes to name her place as writer, as person:
I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account . . . the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the center of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic.
Some have criticized Didion because her stylistic coolness makes the memoir feel more like an autopsy report than a narrative. But what Didion’s memoir offers is something that many Christian writers struggle with—the openness of events, the “meaninglessness” of grief, the ways in which we anticipate healing and then find ourselves in the wilderness of our sorrows, the “heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is.”
We can learn from Didion, and from Wolterstorff, what it means to wrangle with grief, its strangeness, its violations. We are so quick to claim that Christian testimony, as it is displayed in memoir, is about a life that looks good at the end. We are quick to say that our sorrows make sense to us, but we do not know how the stories of our lives will be bent towards glory, and Christians need to write, and read, in such a way as to mourn the losses and hurts that we carry before we tell others to “be well.” If we do not mourn, we do not tell the truth, and we can hurt ourselves, and others, in ways too deep and painful to imagine.
For that is also the power of lament; it can reshape our imaginations, rename what it is we hope for, pray for, look to see happen. I used to pray that my parents would stop drinking because I thought that, once that stopped, our family life would fall into a perfect harmony. What it took me years to see was that the drinking, though it created many problems, was a symptom of a deeper hurt; it took me years to see how those hurts affected me, what kinds of healing were being worked into my life. Through lamenting the grief of my family life, I was able to feel and know the deep movements of the Holy Spirit, who knew and held my grief in a way that I could not see.
Memoir lends itself to the individual story, but the genre itself presupposes that the single story of the writer hooks onto the stories of others, and we desperately need our stories to hook together. We need to sit next to one another. Mary Karr writes:
People don’t know how to be in a family. The culture we’re in is so mobile, we don’t live in communities, and we don’t know what’s going on in other people’s houses. Memoirs are a window into family, imagination . . . I think memoir is dealing right now with how you continue living with people despite being broken by them. Or how you survive after that.
Survival. We are here, with our stories, and what will we do with them? What would it do for us if, instead of skipping over the difficult stories of our lives, we put them on paper? How could memoirs of lament help us to approach the lives of our neighbours, or the daily churn of news headlines, with the compassion and reverence that Wolterstorff himself exudes? “To comfort me,” he says, “you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”
Our stories, as we know them, are credible and true. And our understanding of these stories, their difficulties and their ends, requires that we come close to them. Sit with them a while. Put them on the page, for everyone, so that we can comfort one another. Name our sorrows for what they really are. See the larger truths of hope and mercy emerge from our laments, coming in due time to surprise us, to make all things new.