Tag Archives: Gregory Orr

Emily Rapp’s satisfying memoir

Her tale of physical disability depicts an inner transformation.

Poster Child: A Memoir by Emily Rapp. Bloomsbury, 226 pp.

This semester my freshman honors students and I have read six memoirs and Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir (reviewed) in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” As with novels, coming of age stories are common in memoir. It has pleased me to see students who hadn’t read a memoir, or who had read one bad one, come to admire the genre.

By far the students’ favorite memoir has been Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, followed by Darin Strauss’s Half a Life (reviewed), followed by Gregory Orr’s The Blessing (reviewed). We read them in that order, too, followed by Veronica Chambers’s Mama’s Girl, Emily Rapp’s Poster Child, and now we’re into Kevin Sessum’s Mississippi Sissy.

I respect The Glass Castle for its craft. Though I’ve taught it to two classes in a row and am weary of rereading it, this tale of epic parental dysfunction rivets students and is a thematic and symbolic cornucopia for their analyses. Half a Life and The Blessing are two of my all-time favorite memoirs—deep and sad, reflective and bravely hopeful—and fast reads, too, which make them useful in a required reading lineup. The semester’s surprise for me was Poster Child, which I’d never read and which I’d expected to be a straightforward tale of a girl’s struggle with her birth defect.

Emily Rapp was born in 1974 with her left leg too short, from a rare condition that caused her femur to develop abnormally. She learned to walk with a brace, and before her fourth birthday doctors amputated her foot, the first of dozens of operations that left her with a stump just above knee height. Born to highly supportive parents, a Lutheran minister and a nurse, Rapp attacked life, buoyed by their optimism and emotional support. As she grew she wore a series of crude (by today’s standards) prostheses. She swam and skied and, at age six, became a March of Dimes poster child.

She also became a little monster, as Rapp explains:

            The feeling that I was a very real burden who was never made to feel like one or treated as such did not make me a sweeter child; rather, it made me a quick-tempered terror. The more attention I received as the poster child, the more attention I expected and demanded from everyone else and, in particular, from my family. Mom and Dad were afraid to say no to me. I sensed this and pulled out all the stops. The older I got the worse it became. I was an expert at the silent treatment game. Door slamming and screaming fits were simply commonplace. I was sweet in my appearance as the poster child, of course, and I learned always to be good and nice and accommodating in public, but my anger flared at the slightest provocation . . . I claimed to hate everything and everybody, but more than anything else, I began to hate myself.

Though she was spoiled rotten, one can see her parents’ dilemma in coping with her and her disability. Her childhood struggle sowed guilt, shame, and anger that became Rapp’s alone to bear. What makes Poster Child rare and valuable is its tracing of how she painfully changed, casting off, in her attempt to be fully human, the mask of perfection she’d worn over her fear and grief.

You might think that tales of such inner transformation are commonplace in memoirs, but you’d be wrong. Stories of overcoming hardships, yes, but not examinations of how defenses adopted in such struggles are rooted out. Far more than a story of a girl’s physical disability, Poster Child dares to go inward. Of course this approach requires the perspective of the memoir genre’s vaunted “distanced narrator,” the writer at her desk now, musing on meaning, but this technique doesn’t dictate the nature or quality of a writer’s reflection. What makes Rapp’s story relatable, as my students say, is the fact that most people can grasp having to come to terms with their childhood selves. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the child is father of the adult.

Unfortunately Rapp’s story has a tragic coda, now playing out. Her son, Ronan, was born with the genetic disease Tay-Sachs. While pregnant, Rapp was tested for Tay-Sachs and other genetic problems, but apparently a mutation in Ronan’s version allowed the disease to escape detection. Tay-Sachs is one of the cruelest diseases I’ve heard of: born normal, babies regress into a vegetative state, losing all their senses, before becoming paralyzed and dying by three years old. Rapp has written that she expects Ronan to die this year.

Her memoir about parenting him, The Still Point of the Turning World, is to be published by Penguin in March 2013. “This is a love story,” she writes in a column for The New York Times, “and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss.”

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Filed under craft, technique, memoir, REVIEW, teaching, education

Gregory Orr: memoir as ‘lyric invitation’

In our correspondence about his memoir The Blessing, I asked Gregory Orr about the accusation sometimes leveled in the literary world that memoir is mere “therapy,” whereas in fact memoir writing may stir the psyche in disturbing ways. His response appears as a guest post.

Guest Post by Gregory Orr

Gregory Orr, poet, essayist & memoirist

Therapeutic—that term has such a bad odor among us. I wonder why? “That’s not art, it’s therapy.” You hear that a lot, but I have to wonder what’s going on with that distinction. Why not say that it’s “human utterance” fashioned in a way that tries to engage other people’s interest and to reward their attention with the grace of the writing and the pleasure of the sentences or even the marvel of the story it tells (“Do such things really happen? Do people really act that way?”). Why not say autobiographical writing connects the writer to the larger human community by trying to speak to them and engage their attention. And it connects readers to other individuals through their curiosity about the story and/or through their potential identification with the teller of the tale?

Lots of things come to mind: I wouldn’t rush to say that therapeutic writing is limited. Etymologically “therapeutic” has to do with healing and curing. Is that a small or insignificant thing? And if the self should try to heal itself by speaking its story, is that an insignificant or unworthy human project? And if a self (the memoirist) tells her or his story and in the process experiences healing and deeper understanding of their life experience isn’t that terrific?

As for the reader, I think of memoir as being like “personal lyric” (lyric that often features an “I” speaking or acting). One secret of personal lyric is that it extends a “lyric invitation” to the reader: identify with me for the length of this document (poem/memoir)—“become” me and see through my eyes, think with my thoughts. It’s what Whitman does in his quintessential personal lyric/American poem: “I celebrate myself and sing myself (i.e. ego or “pride” as Whitman would call it) and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman is going to “assume” other identities in his poem: the identities of other people he meets or sees or reads about who fascinate him. He’ll assume their identities (Keats says the poet is a “chameleon” and has no identity, assumes other identities). Whitman assumes identities and he invites us readers to assume his and “go along for the ride.” Or William Carlos Williams puts it this way in the beginning of “Spring and All”: “In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say ‘I’ I mean also, ‘you.’ And so, together, as one, we shall begin.” (Imaginations; pg. 89)

The trick is: we readers will only “accept” this lyric invitation if it interests us. If we can’t or don’t or won’t enter into “sympathetic identification” with the speaker of the poem or memoir, then we just stop reading. We’re bored or turned off. But if we decide to accept it, then we go along for the ride. Who knows what realms of experience will open up to us, vicariously but vividly? Who knows how much our knowledge of human experience will be expanded by the journey?

This business about “art”—what do we really mean by it? That we, with our personal taste, think that it is well done? Great. But when I started out reading, with my limited knowledge of possibilities, I thought lots of things were “art” that I later thought weren’t as impressive, and I read lots of stuff that was too much for me and dismissed it. I’m not sure at all what is “great art” or “great poetry” any more. I’m happier using the criteria of how it makes me feel: am I very impressed by the writing, by the insights? Do they move me? Do I feel deepened or expanded or exhilarated by the experience of reading it? Who cares if someone else doesn’t care for it?

But when someone else doesn’t like something they often say: “that’s not art, it’s therapy.” Or better yet: “That’s not even poetry”—which is what they said when a) Wordsworth published his poems, b) Whitman published Leaves of Grass. It’s “not even poetry”—it’s “not art.” Maybe. Maybe you just think it isn’t. We all pretty much agree that Wordsworth and Whitman wrote poetry, though we still may not care for it. Who knows? Who knows? Life is a really long and complicated journey. To me, writing a memoir helped me understand a lot of the darker early parts of my journey. And if my story is of interest to some other people, so much the better.

(This is something I came across: “sympathy” is a key concept in Whitman and I think Adam Smith’s book is where he got the term: In the 18th century, the notion of Sympathy (or Sympathetic Identification), what we would now call either empathy or identification, was put forward by the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. He’s concerned with the fact that our senses “trap” us inside our own bodies and in order to connect emotionally to another human being we must transcend these sense through an act of imagination as sympathy/identification. Here is an excerpt from the opening page of his book:

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our sense will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. . . . By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him . . . —Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

One of the neat things about the Smith passage is that it gives a large role to imagination, which is what all we poets specialize in.

Also, this: we give sympathy when we read (i.e. we identify with what we read, with our speaker, at least partly) and we solicit sympathetic identification from our readers (i.e. we ask them to identify with us, we hope they will at least enough to hear our story). This give and take of identification is a lot of what lyric art is about and it’s a hugely important human transaction.

 See also my interview with Orr about his memoir The Blessing.

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Filed under emotion, memoir, poetry

Q&A: Gregory Orr on ‘The Blessing’

Orr has distilled the anguish of his youth right down to its holy bones.—Booklist

The Blessing: A Memoir by Gregory Orr. Council Oak, 209 pages.

Gregory Orr’s The Blessing is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read. There are tons of good memoirs and more than a few great ones, but this one did it for me. It joins a select handful that thrilled me to my toes: Lee Martin’s From Our House, Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

In its subject, The Blessing is reminiscent of Darin Strauss’s fine memoir Half a Life—both authors caused a death when they were young—but The Blessing necessarily covers much more ground, involving as it does Orr’s family, especially his parents, on an extensive level. When Orr was twelve, he shot to death his eight-year-old brother Peter in a hunting accident. This horrific event shattered Orr; it may have shattered his parents, but it is hard for Orr to say, since they’d already lost another son, in a preventable household accident, and were troubled separately and together. They presumably also harbored their own guilt for both deaths.

Orr’s father, a charismatic and careless rural doctor, is a drinker, drug addict, and philanderer. He may be haunted by a tragedy that happened in his own childhood. In the wake of the family’s second boyhood death, if any comforting of Gregory Orr is to be done, it will have to come from Orr’s mother—but she fails to do so. He’s abandoned to intolerable and almost unbearable guilt and shame. Soon his father moves his family to Haiti, where they work with the poor, and there another tragedy befalls them. It’s yet another death that might have been prevented.

For all this, The Blessing isn’t accusatory, nor is it close to being ascore-settling expose. Late in the book, a fascinating stage opens when the teenage Orr, hoping to atone by serving penance, drives to Mississippi to help black Americans. It’s 1965, the year after the famous Freedom Summer, and overt law enforcement brutality has abated. Yet what happens to Orr, the humiliation and violence he suffers at the hands of state troopers and in a small-town jail, is hateful and shocking. And, in its coldly planned nature, evil. It all happens calculatedly behind the scenes after he’s arrested, and his account is the most moving and compelling I’ve read from the Civil Rights struggle.

The prose in The Blessing is spare without ever being jarring, evocative without being flowery. The book is concise, and broken into forty-five very short chapters, yet feels complete. Its structure appears straightforwardly chronological, with two exceptions, the second striking. After the shooting, discussed from the opening and which is shown occurring in the third chapter, the story flashes back to fill in family details. Then it moves forward to the eve of Orr’s departure for the South—but suddenly it flashes forward to show his nearly suicidal emotional state upon his return, before flashing back to show what happened. The Blessing concludes with Orr moving toward the art that might save him.

He became an esteemed poet, the author of some ten collections and also books of critical essays, the winner of prestigious awards and fellowships. He teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded its MFA program in writing. I asked Orr some questions, below, followed by his answers.

Why did you write The Blessing?

I think I’m going to be answering this question later on. My wife had encouraged me to write it for many, many years. But I lacked the courage and only did so when I felt I needed to for my own survival. This had to do with my father’s illness around 1995. At the time of his diagnosis, he was told he wouldn’t live six months, though in fact he lived another five years in relative comfort. But our lives, my father’s and mine, were oddly entwined. We were opposite personality types—he a social extravert who loathed self-reflection (“navel-gazing” as he referred to it) and myself a brooder and shy introvert. I had my own traumas—my responsibility for a younger brother’s death in a hunting accident when I was twelve. But my father, otherwise so unlike me, had also, when he was about twelve, killed his best friend in an accident with a rifle. A bizarre and unnerving repetition across generations, further complicated by the (insoluble) question of why I was raised with guns in my childhood house. A tragedy, a mystery, a dark place in human brains or hearts. Who knows? But there we were—my father and I with the same burden or a similar one. I’d always hoped we could speak of this mystery and enter a mutual forgiveness pact of some sort, but my father wasn’t able to talk of his story and didn’t want me to talk of mine. Other than that, I think we loved each other a good deal—but that was a deep and unspeakable deadlock between us much of my life. When I knew he was dying and still wouldn’t speak of it, I got worried. I felt a need to untangle this thing between us before he died, because I didn’t want that guilt to weigh even heavier on me. I felt it I couldn’t talk it through with him, I needed to write it out and sort it out that way. And so, the book began.

When that need to communicate directly is balked in the world, as it so often is for so many reasons, then many of us turn to writing in order to relieve that need and also to understand ourselves and our world. How many memoirs must get written that way.

How did you decide on the book’s length and structure?

First, you’d need to know that I wrote it three times, so it varied as to what the length and structure would be. On the other hand, I think I knew pretty early on where the book would end. Shortly after I came back from working for the Civil Rights movement in the South and just before I returned to my sophomore year of college, my old high school librarian took me to visit the rural house and sculpture field of the recently-dead sculptor David Smith. The experience of those sculptures in that setting was pivotal for my sense of my life—until then I’d been drawn to political activism as well as writing, but after the trauma of my experiences in Mississippi and Alabama and the strangely moving positive experience of David Smith’s field, I knew that writing was going to be my main path. I wanted to end there. I also sensed that I needed/wanted to start with my brother’s death, in another field, when I was twelve and killed him in a hunting accident. I was very daunted by the idea of writing narrative, and so the idea of “framing” or structuring a book around two fields—a field of death and a field of the life of art (which moves beyond individual death)—that appealed to the lyric poet in me (we often make meanings bycreating imagistic “echoes”) and also reassured me that there would be some structure that I, as a poet, might be able to work with.

Did your voice and scenic technique develop, or were they as effortless as you make them appear?

That’s a joke, right? Remember the three (separate and complete) drafts mentioned above. What to say about technique? I do think that as a lyric poet I tend to take crucial moments in an implied narrative and dramatize them as vividly as possible. That may have led, in the memoir, to short chapters, concentrated events, and little commentary on the scene. I remember being very unsure of my descriptive technique and the rhythmic and sonic texture of sentences and paragraphs (as contrasted with the lines of a poem) and reading at random in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to saturate myself with someone who seemed to write a sensuous and observant prose that made for sinuous and interesting sentences. “Saturate” would be the right word—not an analytical thing, but an osmosis.

As an experienced poet, what did you learn about writing from The Blessing?

To be very respectful of prose writers for their descriptive skill, their ability to keep things moving, the whole art of story-telling in an extended narrative form. I never for a moment thought prose writing was easy, but there’s nothing like actually trying something for the first time to increase your respect for professional practitioners. I think I also learned that a lot of human experience is revealed more fully by following a thread (narrative thread, I guess) through time—that it takes much time and many different scenes to let certain major aspects of human experience accumulate their full power. Being a lyric poet, I’ve always wanted everything to be revealed in a single, crisis moment or a single focused dramatic encounter. Art (lyric art) can be like that, but life itself isn’t always that way. So, I guess I learned “patience” with a theme, letting a theme ease out a bit at a time. Patience is not an easily-acquired virtue or insight for lyric poets. We have very, very short attention spans.

How long did the memoir’s actual composition and editing take you?

I think it took about three years of sporadic work. Plus, I had been avoiding writing it for most of my life.

In writing so intimately about your family and about yourself, were you concerned about reactions to the book from friends or family, or about forfeiting your own privacy?

My own privacy didn’t concern me particularly, since I’ve written an autobiographical lyric for much of my life, so I am committed to the power and authenticity that can (theoretically) result from writing in that mode, writing about the incidents of your life and trying to wrestle them into meaning.

I began writing the memoir shortly after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My whole life, I had hoped to talk with him about the early traumatic events, including my brother’s death. I had always imagined we might resolve some of that suffering in conversation, and I tried one last time after his diagnosis, but he was quite adamant that there was nothing he could or would speak about. I felt very uneasy about that stance. For one thing, I felt (irrationally) that my father and I were linked by my brother’s death and by the deeply uncanny fact that he had also killed someone in a hunting accident (his best friend) when he was around the age I was when I killed my brother. This unnerving fact was a kind of unbearable but also unshareable secret between us. No, I could speak of my experience but he couldn’t and wouldn’t speak about his. Which was his prerogative, but when his death approached, I panicked and felt I needed to try to tell the whole story out as I understood it, so as to untangle my identity from my father’s. I was afraid he’d take me to the grave with him. (That sounds a bit odd, but so be it). So, I began to tell the story so as to sort it out once and for all as best I could with what I knew and what I could learn. If you want to call that therapeutic, go ahead.

Of course, I worried about my family’s response, since the whole approach in my growing up was to hide the secrets and bear the shame of it all (whatever it was). There were complicated reactions from my family over time. My father lived long enough to see a draft of it, and was not happy about it, though in all other ways I think we parted with love, as best the two of us understood it at that time and in those circumstances. My siblings had understandably complicated responses, ranging from tears and gratitude to not speaking to me for several years as they worked through their feelings. The ethics of memoir is deeply complicated. I think I’d start by saying: I think everyone should have the right to tell our own story, the story of his or her own life. That said, things get complicated and concern for other people should be there also. The memoir of revenge isn’t very pretty, nor much of a gift to the world. What does Chekhov say: “compassion down to your fingertips?” That would be nice: compassion for others. But the lyric (poem or memoir) is also committed to the notion that the self telling and dramatizing its own truth can be an important human act. Not just for the self but for others also. My teacher Stanley Kunitz has a line where he speaks about “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.” That’s a social contribution out of a situation of lyric solitude.

Were other memoirs helpful to you as models in writing The Blessing?

Steve Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind is a beautiful memoir and he told me he wrote it by thinking of the chapters as prose poems—I can’t remember if that was before or after my writing my own book, but it’s a wonderful way to think for a poet writing a memoir. Floyd Skloot has also written wonderfully in an autobiographical mode and he was very encouraging of me and to me—we first “met” through the mails when I had a year-long struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and he wrote me with information, compassion, and a model of courage. I’m not as well read in the genre as I should be, though one of my favorite books ever is Maxim Gorki’s trilogy of autobiography/memoir: My Childhood, My Apprenticeship, My Universities.

Next: Gregory Orr on how memoir “connects the writer to the larger human community” and on memoir as therapeutic “lyric invitation.” Read Orr’s guest post here.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, REVIEW, structure