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Whatever happened to memoir?

By Keir Graff

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  What happened to the memoir, I wonder. Once upon a time, the memoir was the capstone to a well-lived life, a vanity affair, a chance to brag a little or set the record straight, perhaps throw in a few photos of the family manse, offspring and significant acquisitions. The adventurer, the industrialist, the head of state, the inventor, the soldier; anyone who'd made it big could exercise his autobiographical prerogative.

It's hard to say when the ice broke, but it did, and the forbidding sea of this publishing realm began to warm. Was it "Mommy Dearest," the first big celebrity offspring diatribe? It sure wasn't Conrad Hilton's "Be My Guest." The memoir's former functions have begun to change, from recording the wisdom of a lifetime learned to getting back at mommy and daddy to confession -- always a big one, confession -- to chronicling everyday life, everyday dweebs and their flailings. I don't understand this trend, to be honest, though it seems to go hand-in-hand with reality TV and Jennicam. I've always felt too busy with my own plodding existence to want to pick up a how-to pamphlet by someone of my own generation. Some may enjoy the flush of recognition -- he's just like me! -- but I've always thought the purpose of art was to entertain, inform or inspire, not to simply reflect.

Patricia Hampl's "I Could Tell You Stories," thank God, sidesteps those pitfalls. Still, she's my parents' age and therefore not a member of the full-frontal revelation generation. Though Hampl is a memoirist and a poet, she's also a critic, and the engaging collection of criticism, articles and memoirs in "Stories" provides a well-rounded discussion of memoir and the reasons for committing it.

In the essay "Memory and Imagination," she discusses the nature of memory as it relates to writing about oneself, and in the next two pieces -- both memoirs -- we find ourselves scrutinizing her recollections that much more carefully. Clever positioning, that. "The Mayflower Moment" does a particularly fine job of using Hampl's young adulthood to examine America itself and Hampl's place as an American, a far finer rendering of the Vietnam era than I've seen for some time. Subsequent criticisms, on the autobiography of Catholic martyr Edith Stein, on the journals of Sylvia Plath, the "Confessions of St. Augustine" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," are lively, each chiseling a different facet of a sparkling dialogue. And, in "Other People's Secrets," Hampl insightfully discusses the toll exacted by publishing material that family and friends may wish to keep quiet.

In several places, Hampl writes passionately of the memoir's importance, of its worth as a political gesture. Totalitarian regimes, she points out, subjugate the populace by manipulating a nation's memory. "If we refuse to do the work of creating this personal version of the past, someone else will do it for us." This sort of thinking comes to a head in the discussion of the memoirs of the poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose thoughts on the matter seem to have been a great influence on Hampl's own writing. She writes, "He has located the best grace of the memoir: a method which allows the self to function not as a source or a subject, but as an instrument for rendering the world."

I can't argue with that, and in fact I'd direct any aspiring memoirists to read carefully this part of Hampl's book. But my mind keeps drifting back to a sentence in "Memory and Imagination," in which Hampl asks why she or anybody should write a memoir. The answer? "It still comes as a shock to realize that I don't write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know." Now, only a real jerk would suggest that writing as a journey of self-discovery is not a worthwhile endeavor. After all, people use drugs, sex and extreme sports to find themselves, certainly with a higher casualty rate than scribbling in a leather-bound journal of handmade paper. But this is the road, I fear, too many are taking.

Take "All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy," Internet maven Spike Gillespie's memoir through her mid-30s. Please. A breathless recounting of her many failed relationships with men, we're told up front that she "will wade through the pain to get to the relief of these truths"; and so will we. It's memoir as catharsis, a ceaseless vomiting of failure in which every kernel of self-revelation is spilled on the cafeteria floor for all to see.

In the first chapter, Gillespie analyzes her unstoppable compulsion to fling herself at losers by telling us about her unloving father. "It is the simplest of psychologies. Embarrassing to me now that I understand it. Reject the daughter and she will search for you elsewhere. She will spend forever, kill herself, if need be, looking for love." As she evokes this throughout the book, there's no mystery to be solved, no arc of character development to take the reader along for the ride, just a stupefying litany of bad choices. Memory is not an issue for Gillespie. She informs us repeatedly of her perfect acuity of recall ("a remarkable memory," she calls it, and "my too-damned-accurate memory"), and chooses telling terms to do so (as if confessing her inability to make sense of her life, memory is simply a "big shoebox in my head"). The writing is thin, with relationships and their attendant mishaps recollected in blow-by-blow minutia, but she seldom draws a picture of the surroundings, or takes a breather to muse on the greater importance of it all. On a basic, grammatical level, her lack of prose prowess heightens the feeling that we're still listening to a petulant teen, not reading an adult's remembrances. Occasional bursts of originality are outnumbered by clichés and lazy mannerisms ("fucking like bunnies" or "I was beyond sick of his shit"). She's just not eloquent or introspective enough -- not writer enough to make all this catastrophe worthwhile.

Creepily, "All the Wrong Men" is bookended with letters to Henry, her young son. I'm sure Gillespie felt she needed to acknowledge the danger of publishing her sexual history when Henry's still got middle school ahead of him, but her rationale ("We have to remember things") is weak. And, given her neediness, it's a little chilling to think about her being a parent. "I needed so much to be loved and forgiven for my stupidity the night before. And my little man always did those things for me, which eased and reheated my pain simultaneously -- How comforting, though, to have him, and all that unconditional love--" He's not even allowed to be a boy; he's a "little man." I worry for him, being anointed his mother's lord and protector, her boyfriend surrogate, at such a tender age.

In some ways, Greg Lichtenberg is Henry, all grown up. "Playing Catch With My Mother: Coming to Manhood When All the Rules Have Changed" is about what happens to boys who suffer through the confusion of nontraditional childhoods. The child of a sixties marriage, as a 5-year-old his vocabulary included "contact high," "counterculture" and "SRO hotel." His mother clued him in to the sexism of "Sesame Street."

The first half of the book centers on Lichtenberg's childhood, his father's temper problems and, sometimes, physical abuse. There's a fracturing of self as Lichtenberg struggles to distance himself from the parent he's been told is no longer a role model. When he plays catch with his mother, he feels, "baseball was strange -- boys were strange for playing it, and I was strange for being a boy."

Later, in the pre-teen to teenage years, the focus shifts to sex. Against the backdrop of a broken family, steeped in his mother's feminist views, an almost preternaturally rational young Greg struggles with hormonal tent-pitching and maternal commands of respect toward women that echo through his mind. But by and large, as we move past the powerful trauma of his early years, it feels like a lot of regular growing-up anecdotes, with knowledgeable, sensitive-guy line readings. Speaking of a girlfriend with body issues, he writes, "Who was I to tell Rosa she could relax around me? Wasn't I her problem?"

Lichtenberg is a far, far better writer than Gillespie, and though his metaphors sometimes betray his training at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he does an amazing job of recreating adolescent and teenage conversations and mindset. It's an ambitious project, to chronicle seventeen years of male development in the hyperaware modern era, but I feel it falls short for several reasons. First, I think few adults would peg seventeen as manhood. Personal growth starts to rocket as soon as we leave home, while we're still emotionally young, and yet the book doesn't go that far. Secondly, though Lichtenberg may in fact realize feelings of isolation are a near-universal experience in growing up, too much of the book centers on his alleged uniqueness in feeling torn between both masculine and feminine modes of thought.

But above all, and this is going to sound terribly snide, I fear, much of the material just doesn't seem important enough to warrant memorialization. With Gillespie, I felt like I was hanging out with a teenager; with Lichtenberg's writing skill, he puts me in his room, in his bed for seminal fumblings and, frankly, it wasn't worth it. I'm not the Great Santini, but I do think that parts of life are unpleasant, you get over them, and as adults we're better skilled to make our own way. Lichtenberg himself evokes this in the epilogue, when he seems to be saying that, turmoil and all, he survived with the skills to make a good marriage. He never stops to infer that, perhaps, his growing pains were felt by the whole nation and we're all better off for them.

Lichtenberg makes quite a deal of his youthful reputation as a Don Juan; while he halfheartedly denigrates himself for his willingness to suck up to the girls, some small amount of pride at the number of his girlfriends seeps through. In the epilogue, he relates how shocked everyone is to hear Greg Lichtenberg is getting married, he who held out until 30.

Now, in eighth grade I had an epiphany: contact lenses. Formerly a four-eyes, a geek outsider in a homemade haircut and a chunky retainer; formerly Most Likely To Painfully Interpret The Latest Trend, suddenly I found the girls taking notice. Ah, for simpler times; no silver-rimmed glasses, no longer lower caste. This simple boost in my self-esteem allowed me to so wholly reinvent myself in high school that I quickly found myself going out with girl after girl, garnering something of a male "reputation." I was mocked by the girls I didn't go out with (and some I did, later), castigated in song by a local band, and threatened by older brothers, but I was not mindful. Armed with a punk rock haircut and a silver tongue, I persisted in the arts of seduction, never mind what I'd been taught. My mother called me a "serial monogamist." In my home town, this reputation hung in the air so long that, four years ago, upon hearing of my engagement to be married, a guy I hadn't seen for ages confidently pronounced, "It'll never last." But somehow, in spite of those years of unseemly male behavior, those many young hearts broken, I've managed to make a happy marriage.

But that's more than you needed to know.

  • I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, by Patricia Hampl (W.W. Norton, $23)
  • All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy, by Spike Gillespie (Simon and Schuster, $23)
  • Playing Catch With My Mother: Coming to Manhood When All the Rules Have Changed, by Greg Lichtenberg (Bantam, $23.95)

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