The naked truth in memoir —Two approaches to facing your fear

The Naked Truth In Memoir: Facing Your Fear

Almost everybody who writes memoir faces the same fear: if I tell what really happened, my family (or my ex, or my friend) will never forgive me. In fact, this concern can thwart your impulse to write your story at all.

It’s a well founded fear, because many memoirs deal with trauma: having lived through it, being crushed by it, and how the author overcame it.

When the people who inflicted that trauma are part of your current life —as it usually happens with family— you have to consider the effect that telling the truth will have on them and your relationship. If you don’t give a hoot about them, perhaps there’s no concern at all. But family relationships are complex. Often the people that hurt you also loved you, and you loved them back. You may not be willing to give them up.

In most classes and books about memoir, they tell you to forget this fear while you’re writing. You’ll deal with it in your rewriting, they say, perhaps by changing some names or dates, or obscuring some facts.

That sounds great in theory, but there’s only so much obscuring you can do. If, for example, your father raped you, or your mother abused drugs and neglected you, there’s no way to disguise it. These are monumental facts that set in motion the person you are today and that you’re trying to explain to yourself and the world.

It may be helpful to think about writers who have published excellent memoirs with uncomfortable truths, and who have dealt with this issue with courage, although with very different approaches and results.

“You owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself.” —Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr is a great example of an author that goes all in with hard truths. In her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, she talks at lenght about her mentally unstable and alcoholic mother, and the hell she put her and her sister through. However, the mother still comes across as a sympathetic figure, because of her brilliance and creativity (at least that’s how I saw it.)

Karr went out of her way to ensure that her memories were truthful. She even sent her manuscript to her sister, to double check that she was remembering scenes as they happened, and not as she rewrote them in her mind. She’s also a proponent of not sparing yourself when writing the harsh truth.

“Your memoir’s real enemy is blinking back at you from the shaving glass when you floss at night—your ignorant ego and its myriad masks.” —Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

As a memoir writer myself, dealing with the fear of sharing uncomfortable truths, I admire the fact that Mary Karr not only forgave her mother (who later in life became sober and more stable), but ended up having a close relationship with her.

To me, since I care about my family, this is the ideal path, if only I could gather the courage to follow it. To have the guts to share with them beforehand what I’m writing about, instead of perpetuating our ingrained tendency to stick to silence. Not to drop a bomb in a published book. (To clarify, I didn’t have as traumatic a childhood as Karr had, but I had my share of pain, like everybody does.) I want to feel and show compassion. There is no need to present people as devils. They were just human, with their defects and foibles, just as I was.

Then there is the opposite approach, which is equally admirable when the circumstances warrant it. In her gripping memoir Jesus Land, author Julia Scheeres reveals the cruel abuse that she and her siblings suffered at the hands of their fundamentalist Christian parents, and the staff of the Christian reform school Escuela Caribe, located in the Dominican Republic, where her parents sent her and her brother David.

There are no redeeming qualities to be found in these strict disciplinarians. Scheeres reveals the truth of their abuse in all its savageness, damned be the consequences. And consequences there were. The memoir sparked an Internet campaign by Escuela Caribe’s former students who publicized its history of child abuse, and the school closed in 2011. As for the parents, Scheeres hasn’t seen them since the book came out. And who could blame her for her brutal honesty, no matter the fallout? Some things are unforgivable.

As I ponder how to face the fear of exposing my naked truth, and the possibility of opening up about my past with the people who shaped it, I find comfort in looking at the leafless winter trees. They may look bare and harsh, but their intricate lace is what allows the greenery to grow back with vigor again.

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