Black and white and gray

Memoirist or monster? What gives writers the right?

When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.—Czeslaw Milosz

We all know that view. Talking last week to a friend about Emily Rapp’s Poster Child memoir, reviewed here, my friend mentioned Rapp’s forthcoming memoir about her disabled son who is dying, or possibly already dead, from Tay-Sachs disease. “I can’t imagine doing that,” she said. “I think I’d have other things on my mind.” I looked at her, trying to form a response and wondering if I should have addressed that in my review. Then my friend added, trying to be fair, “Maybe she had time . . .”

I was reading a different memoir by then, Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums. Even to a hardened memoirist like me, Sessums seemed a bit cold in writing about his father’s bloody, fatal head wound after a car crash:

Red thick yolks of the stuff oozed past his butch-waxed thatch of bristles and blackened even more the fresh asphalt, drawing the flies that buzzed over a neighboring pasture where they swarmed around cattle that looked up, for a second, at the sound of the crash then turned away to focus on their cuds.

Very graphic and unblinking. Writer friends are apt to admire and cheer on such prose—it conveys and does justice to what truly happened. Maybe his prose was colored by the fact that his relationship with his father, a bullying basketball coach, hadn’t been great. And, let’s face it, his father is beyond knowing or caring what his gay son says.

I remembered when I started to write memoir essays seven years ago. For the first time, I’d begun to tell the story of the traumas that shaped my father’s life, and that therefore shaped me. The worst of these was about how my grandfather killed himself and how my father, then fourteen, found his body. There was lots of romance and adventure in my father’s life, too, but often it was entwined with violence, blood, or early death. There was the train wreck that maimed his beautiful mother when he was an infant. When he was nineteen his fiancé, heiress to an automobile fortune in their hometown of Detroit, died of pneumonia when he was sailing around the world after his graduation from prep school. Then he got thrown out of Cornell, where he was studying agriculture, for landing an airplane on a campus lawn. He attended flight school in southern California before the war, and raced cars on oval tracks and airplanes cross-country. One night a drunken friend tried to drive Dad’s new coupe up a palm tree and Dad scooped his brains back in his skull. Serving as a pilot in the Pacific, Dad bombed Japan, and was the first American to land an airplane in Tokyo after the surrender. When he married his first wife, he spent their honeymoon cruise to Hawaii sobbing in their stateroom, the voyage having returned to him the memories of his first, lost love.

“Your father’s life,” my mother told me when I was a boy, “is the saddest story you’ll ever hear.” I can’t remember if that was before or after the Thanksgiving I was twelve, when Dad had the first heart attack that almost killed him, on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his father’s death.

Writing these stories for the first time, I ran to my keyboard each day. I loved Dad and believed in him and wanted to explain him, as Mom had tried to explain him to me. Explain his courage, his bone-deep integrity, and how, without trying, he commanded respect. Explain how, when he wanted to charm others, which wasn’t often, he could be as charismatic as a movie star, though his sense of humor was surprisingly silly, and he listened secretly to country music.

In the midst of my early memoir work, a friend of my wife’s came to dinner. She taught English, a seeming affinity that emboldened me to tell her of my writings about my father. “You sound like you’re talking about a stranger,” she said, looking shocked. Later I learned that her relationship with her own father was fraught. In hindsight, she’d looked more fascinated than shocked as she bored in, as people often do, when someone mentions something that haunts or afflicts them.

My far-flung siblings and my stepbrother and stepsister and inlaws have been supportive of my writing. But that might have been different had our mother not been so tough. If she hadn’t helped me tell our father’s story. If she hadn’t realized that their romance, during which she divorced him three times, was a good story. I’m grateful personally for one of their remarriages, because it was just before Mom delivered me; they were in Reno, where they were buying cattle for their ranch in California’s high desert.

I guess love is the key for me. This Thanksgiving, I thought as always of Dad’s stoic acceptance of that day and of Mom’s heroic efforts to overcome his history with her feast. And I felt, pain and all, blessed and grateful.

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11 Comments

Filed under emotion, honesty, memoir, MY LIFE

11 responses to “Black and white and gray

  1. If you’re a writer, there’s no way to NOT write a story after it grabs you. In the case of Emily Rapp, I’m guessing that writing is helping her to process what’s going on with her son. I’ve always needed to write in order to think through events. Without writing, the thoughts would get all jumbled up in my head and drive me crazy.

  2. You have it exactly right.

  3. What a strong and innovative person your father was, Richard! Though not every creative quality a person has is necessarily inherited from a relative, I think you could justifiably claim a kinship between his life talents and your own writing talents as you tell about him. I will be eager to read your whole memoir and history you write of your family.

  4. “Your father’s life,” my mother told me when I was a boy, “is the saddest story you’ll ever hear.”
    What a great opening line to a memoir (or novel for that matter). You have been gifted with wonderful material. No wonder you heard the siren call of memoir. I hope you write about this someday — the small sample you’ve given us here leaves me hungering for more.

  5. I’m so glad you’re writing about your father, Richard, and want to read more.

  6. Wonderful piece, Richard. Your parents are large on the page. Love the texture and depth of your phrase “. . .Mom’s heroic efforts to overcome his history with her feast.”

  7. Wow, I can’t imagine how much poorer we’d be in terms of understanding, empathy and sympathy regarding our fellow human beings if writers didn’t write out of their trouble, pain, sorrow and families! And I totally get Emily’s writing about Ronan and her experience of loving and slowly losing him. I can’t think of anything more natural for a writer, more consoling, more necessary.

    • Thank you so much for calling our attention to Rapp’s response to this very question. Her second paragraph is great:

      “I am a writer; I write. This has been true for the past 10 years since I’ve been publishing essays and short stories, and it was true before, when I was writing crappy poems with a flashlight in my closet after the rest of my family had gone to bed. I’ve written about what I know or about which I have an opinion—ranch life in Wyoming, pre-European Union Dublin, the experience of having a lifelong physical disability, particular political issues that interest and affect me and those I love, life at an international aid agency, sex, and Judeo-Christian theology. This single question, in both cases asked by men, reveals deeply held convictions about women (and women writers) and what they are expected to do and prompted me to ask (and answer) a series of my own questions.”

      By the way, I polled my honors memoir students and the dozen young women and two young men, ages barely 18 to 19, were all with Rapp and her efforts and her right to understand and to come to terms with her son’s decline and death in writing. There was not only unanimity, there was no gender divide, and having written their own first memoirs as well as analyses of memoirs, they were very passionate in their support for Emily Rapp. My friend who raised a mild doubt is a woman, and a mother, so maybe it’s a case of women being harder on women, though she did soften, as if her first response were a passing thought as she imagined how hard it would be to be that mother.