Tag Archives: Kevin Sessums

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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Filed under emotion, honesty, memoir, MY LIFE

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