Essay: The Politics of Memoir and the Making of Memoir Madness
|Jennifer Semple and Jeffrey Brown|
While my ex-husband Jeff might feel uncomfortable with my treatment of him, my memoir isn’t about our life together but our life apart at a time when we wanted to be together.
~ Jennifer Semple Siegel
When Frank McCourt published his poignant coming-of-age memoir Angela’s Ashes, he did not set out to enrage readers and the people he portrayed. Certainly, a cursory check on Amazon for book reviews, one would be hard-pressed to find too many negative reviews for this Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece. However, in Ireland, specifically Limerick, controversy regarding the veracity of the book continues. On Limerick (Now a revamped Limerick Leader, whose online articles begin in 2006), journalist Kevin Cullen describes an incident at a local book signing:
In July , when [McCourt] did a book-signing at O’Mahony’s, a Limerick bookstore he got thrown out of as a child, one of his contemporaries, Paddy Malone, stood before him and denounced him while tearing up a paperback copy of the book. Malone was a classmate of McCourt’s at Leamy School, which McCourt portrayed as a place where most teachers delighted in humiliating the students, especially those who came from the lanes, the slums that housed the poorest of Limerick. (Note: The Telegraph covers some of this controversy in Frank McCourt’s 20 July 2009 obituary, albeit without this direct quote.)
Cullen notes that Malone’s complaint may have more to do with money than truth. Malone claimed that McCourt had purloined a schoolboy photo that Malone owned and used it for his book cover without permission, and, subsequently, McCourt’s old school pal has hired a lawyer. This legal battle continued, at least through 1999.
Brendan Halligan, editor of the Limerick Leader from 1970-2006, notes some specific “inaccuracies” in the book, such as references to Mrs. Clohessy’s notoriously bad housekeeping, also implying that McCourt was insensitive including that detail, given that she, at 94, was still alive. Also, McCourt’s old scoutmaster claims that he had offered the boy a job fixing bicycles, contradicting the author’s insistence he could not find work. But Halligan does, albeit begrudgingly, accept the artistic qualities of the memoir: “It’s the truth. Despite its factual inaccuracies, it faithfully captures the impressions of a child who grew up [in Limerick] in the 1930’s and 1940’s.”
Most of the local complaints had to do with how McCourt portrayed Limerick negatively, without mentioning any of its positive aspects. Gerard Hannan, a Limerick bookseller, has published Ashes on Amazon, a self-published book that looks at the 1930’s and 1940’s Limerick from the other side, and, according to a September 16, 2000, PR-Archive.com press release, originally e-published in 2000 by GreatUnpublished.com (website now defunct).
“I loved Angela’s Ashes,” Hannan said on Limerick, now Limerick Leader whose online articles only go back to 2006. “It was beautifully written. The problem with it is that it’s just one side of the story. Frank McCourt had a miserable life. Lots of people grew up under the same circumstances and don’t consider their lives miserable.”
In an 8 June 2002 interview for Irish Media Man, Hannan offers another viewpoint, albeit more negative, on McCourt and his memoir.
Herein lies the problem with memoir: honesty requires the writer to write about what he or she knows. And if Frank McCourt experienced only misery, then that is the perspective he must take. To do anything else would have been false. Perhaps that is why he waited over 50 years to write about his experiences, after his parents had passed on and the dull edge of time softened the pain. Unfortunately, the passage of time also dulls the memory.
So how does a memoirist arrive at absolute truth if she cannot remember too many of the details?
Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir, grapples with the issue of truth:
In memoir, the author stands behind her story saying to the world: this happened; this is true. [But] It is up to you to decide how imaginatively you transform the known facts – exactly how far you allow yourself to go to fill in the memory gaps... [W]hatever you decide about that, you must remain limited by your experience, unless you turn to fiction, in which you can, of course, embrace people, places, and events you have never personally known. While imagination certainly plays a role in both kinds of writing, the application of it in memoir is circumscribed by the facts, while in fiction it is circumscribed by what the reader will believe. [Writing the Memoir, page 27]
Barrington further says, in essence, a memoirist enters “into a contract with the reader...and if you are going to honor that contract, your raw material as a memoirist can only be what you have actually experienced.”
Much of my own memoir Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment has been reconstructed – honesty demands that I disclose this. The reader, then, can decide what he or she chooses to believe. Although I remember bits and impressions of that time, especially the profound anger at having been committed against my will, actual memory of minute details is sketchy; letters to and from my boyfriend Jeffrey A. Brown (and others), court records, and mental health records have jogged memory and filled in significant gaps. Without any one of these pieces of the puzzle, I would be hard-pressed to write much of anything, let alone the truth.
But I base this memoir on these absolute truths:
· In the late 1960’s, I went to California, and fell into a “hippie” lifestyle of drugs and sex.
· I was committed to a mental institution, for almost two months, against my will.
· My intense anger at my grandparents and the state of Iowa was profound, persisting for several years.
· I possess excellent documentation that supports the verifiable facts of my case and fills in the gaps. Some pieces of potential documentation are missing: in a March 7, 1969, letter, I refer to a missing diary, which has never been recovered. Also, some letters from my grandparents and friends are also gone.
As I wrote the first draft [this essay was a part of that very large draft], substantial memory of that time returned, and I was able to fill in many of the gaps that I thought was gone forever.
ELUSIVENESS OF MEMORY
At first, my actual memory of that tumultuous time at Cherokee was sketchy. I was that girl, Jennifer L. Semple, but she seems so far removed from me now that I often think of her in the third person; still, I decided to develop the main thread in the present tense, from the perspective of the 18-year-old Jennifer. On the one hand, much of my behavior then is an embarrassment now, but I do admire young Jennifer’s spunk and refusal to give up her quest for freedom.
How did she end up being committed in the first place? I remember that Jennifer, upon her return from California, was feuding with her grandparents, attempting to assert her adulthood, while they hung tight onto her childhood.
Her rebellion must have confused them; although she had been a willful child, she had never given them much cause to worry – her adolescent turmoil had mostly been fought inwardly, awaiting the magic of 18 to free her. Outwardly, Jennifer was passive-aggressive, smiling a lot, but inwardly, she was angry at her mother, who had been unable to raise her and her younger sister Robin and barely able to raise the two sons who followed.
But this new Jennifer, outwardly angry and hateful, must have left them scratching their heads and wondering what had happened to the sweet girl they had raised. I now understand how they must have panicked and the agony they must have experienced, but, back then, Jennifer saw two elderly people mired in the “olden days” – they stood in the way of her freedom and happiness, whatever that meant. I don’t think she really knew. Maybe she was angry just because they were old and her young alcoholic mother had been incapable of keeping her and younger sister Robin together.
Filling in the Memory Gaps. I have recreated dialogue, a standard memoir technique, but used only when I recalled an actual similar conversation taking place.
I have reconstructed some scenes based on events remembered by other people and passed on to me. I have noted and reconstructed only those scenes that coincide with other known facts and feelings. For instance, Robin, my baby sister, and I were separated when I was seven and she, about 20 months old, a life-changing event that continues to cause me profound sadness. Our last childhood moments together have been recreated based on a description by my late stepfather, who witnessed those moments. He had no reason to lie, and I have every reason to believe his account.
I have recreated my late grandparents’ “voices,” based on what I know about them, their personalities, and their relationship with me, other family members, and with each other. Also, my mental health records contain a wealth of information regarding my grandparents as informants. I don’t pretend that these narratives are verbatim transcripts of what they told my doctors, but I believe these recreated voices do capture the essence of what they said during their interviews. In these recreated voices, I have tried to be fair and gentle with my grandparents – I love them, after all, and whatever they did, however misguided and bungled, they did out of love. Besides, young Jennifer is often brutal and hateful toward them. And as I grow older, I better understand how my behavior must have frightened them; on some level, they must have felt relief when I was committed to the Cherokee Mental Health Hospital.
Finally, I have used supposition and “what if” scenarios, mostly to clarify and place what is already known into a larger context. These, too, are clearly identified.
Letters. I had convinced myself that I was madly in love with Jeff Brown and wrote him letters nearly every day. After my release from the hospital, I escaped to Pennsylvania, where we eventually married and had one son together. When we divorced in 1980, he got the house, and I my letters to and from him. We shared custody of our son. He was going to toss the letters and wondered why I wanted to keep souvenirs of a failed marriage.
I’m a pack rat; I save everything.
Besides, I don’t view our marriage as a failure, just a union entered into at a too-young age.
In 2002, I reread those letters and entertained (briefly) the notion of publishing them exactly as I had written them, but I was astounded at their repetitiveness, immaturity, and obsession with the minutia of daily life.
In them, young Jennifer rants about being committed against her will and discusses, using the slang of the day, the ordinary preoccupations of a teenage girl (boys, clothes, food, rock music, and a generalized anger at “The Establishment”), extraordinary apprehensions (her fears of never getting released from the institution), and her raging anger at her grandparents for orchestrating her incarceration into what she considered a prison.
I nearly fell asleep – that is, until I remembered the subtext behind the letters.
I’m no longer that 18-year-old girl; reading all of her letters word-for-word in a published book does not interest me. But some passages – some with minor editing and word changes – are quite revealing about her, the hippie subculture, and the popular culture at large, and I have presented a few without editorial comment from me, the current Jennifer.
As memory has surfaced, I have added sections which amount to interior monologue – feelings that Jennifer felt, but couldn’t or wouldn’t share with Jeff. Some interior passages have been taken from the letters but rewritten and expanded upon so extensively that they cannot really be attributed to having appeared in a letter. I’ve tried to retain the essence and voice of that girl, including the slang of the day and even clichés.
I also have Jeff’s letters, an important counterpoint to mine. He was an amazing insightful 18-year-old, his letters filled with discussions of literature, philosophy, history, and great ideas. Also, they also offer an interesting, humorous, and mature, though sometimes immature, take on the popular culture of the late 1960’s. His letters, in their entirety, would be an interesting read – perhaps including his own interior monologue – but that would be his project, not mine.
In the first draft, I quoted extensively from Jeff’s letters, long excerpts, with no changes except minor editing for clarity – his letters, beautifully written, did not require extensive editing, but I avoided including (1) gratuitous information, and (2) anything potentially damaging. In the end, I ended up cutting most of those letters – they are, after all, his story, and I needed to concentrate on recreating my story.
Another letter, a rambling missive (for some unknown reason, this letter was returned to me) I wrote to Cynthia (her name changed to protect her privacy), a childhood school friend (the letter that started the chain of events landing me in Cherokee), ended up being cut entirely. Ultimately, I focused on recreating that letter in a series of shorter scenes.
As a counterpoint to the recreated 1969 voice of Harley Semple, my grandfather, I included two of his letters, written to me when I was seven.
My own letters, many not quoted directly, have been used as sources of information, helping to recreate and compress my youthful voice in the interior monologues; sometimes, these monologues represent “how Jennifer really felt” and are often contradictory to what Jennifer actually wrote to Jeff.
The letters have proved to be a rich source of cultural references to the time – both Jeff and Jennifer were surprisingly up-to-date with current events, despite their personal obsessions and drug use. I have taken the liberty of adding some additional cultural references – events mentioned by neither but were likely to have been known by one or both.
In the first draft, I included many historical “news clips” at chapter beginnings. However, I soon realized that they were a distraction from the actual story line, so I cut most of them and weaved the important ones into the text.
Despite the jubilant photo/painting (thanks to Adobe) at the top of this post, Jeff and I have moved on, divorcing in 1980, and establishing other relationships and new careers.
Our divorce was civilized, if not always friendly; we shared custody of our 10-year-old son and engaged in no property or custody battles.
Interestingly enough, my extensive work with these letters have brought to the surface some of those past feelings for Jeff – in fact, it was almost necessary to recreate those feelings all over again; otherwise, how would I ever be able to recreate that youthful voice?
However, all parties involved can rest easy; at the end of the writing day, I was back in Skopje, North Macedonia (where I wrote the first draft), enjoying my time with my terrific husband Jerry and the cultural delights – and difficulties – of the Balkans.
Court and Hospital Records. I have decided to make portions of these documents public, mostly to demonstrate how the judicial system can abuse its power, imposing its mores and values upon the helpless, the ignorant, and the young. I would hope that such abuses no longer take place, but I suspect otherwise.
From a memoir standpoint, the records offer a chronology and valuable information about my case not available to me years ago. Obtaining my own legal and medical records has been a fairly easy process, which may have not been the case 50+ years ago.
This memoir, then, chronicles, through scattered and recreated memory, court and hospital documents, personal letters (most of them to and from my first husband, then boyfriend), and supposition, my two months in the institution and the events leading up to my involuntary commitment.
To protect privacy, especially that of my fellow patients and childhood friend, I have changed their names, marked with an asterisk (*) on first mention. I have also changed some minor identifying details about them.
However, I have used actual names from the court and hospital records; these were the public officials responsible for the well-being of the most vulnerable of Iowa citizens, so their names ought to be made public, for both good and not-so-good actions.
Perspective. Frank McCourt’s memoir was subjected to some criticism because the work was based on his experiences and memories of 1930’s-1940’s Limerick. Paddy Malone’s experiences would have been different, so would his perspective. Gerard Hannan’s Ashes reflects the author’s happier memories of that particular time in Ireland.
This book deals with my experiences, my story at a particular time in my life, the late 1960’s, which also happened to be a volatile time in our history: changing/shifting morality, the Vietnam war, and burgeoning feminism – in April 1969, Gloria Steinem published, in New York Magazine, her first overtly feminist article: After Black Power, Women’s Liberation, in which she states, “Liberation isn’t exposure to the American values of Mom-and-apple-pie anymore (not even if Mom is allowed to work in an office and vote once in a while); it’s the escape from them.”
But not everyone got caught up in the changing times as I did. When I told my Aunt Colleen about this project, she said, “I vaguely remember your being in Cherokee, but I didn’t give much thought to it. I was busy raising my [five] kids, and it was all I could do just to keep up.” Colleen wasn’t being insensitive, just honest from her perspective. If she were to write her memoir of that time, I, and the changing times, would likely be barely be blips on the page.
Terminology. Some of the slang used then has persisted to this day, such as “cool” and “gross.” But for a younger generation reading this memoir, meanings of slang terms having long fallen out of use can be gleaned from context: “groovy,” “far out,” and “grotty.”
However, the word “straight” (which now, of course, refers to a heterosexual), had an entirely different meaning than it does now – a “straight” person was a non-hippie, who wore his/her hair according to social convention: short for men and highly styled for women. Straight people dressed conservatively and bought into “Establishment” values of working hard and earning a living, even if one hated his/her job. In other words, our parents and (in my case), my grandparents – even other young people who chose to bypass rebelling against society. Not everyone of my generation bought into Timothy O’Leary’s notion of Turn on, Tune in, and Drop out.
The Players. Harley and Olive Semple, probably the major players in this drama, are the ones who started the chain of events. If they were still alive, I wouldn’t publish any part of this memoir; even though I better understand what happened, they are essentially responsible for my being committed.
I cannot dodge that reality.
For the most part, my anger at them has subsided, but I have had to recreate some of it for this book – which has brought some past issues to the surface. I would rather they not feel my anger, recreated or not, all over again. In their minds, this part of our lives would probably be a done-and-over-with-deal, and from their perspective, they might be right.
I can almost hear my grandmother saying, “Why would you want to dredge up all that old stuff for?” and my grandfather fleeing to his room, hiding, his face shoved into a newspaper.
I wouldn’t want to cause them any more pain. I would hope that my other relatives would understand that the events here reflect my perspective, which may clash with their own, but I also understand that published memoirs often cause strife in families, who may see events differently.
Jeff A. Brown was an integral part of my experience – for without our letters back and forth, this book would not have been possible – but he was 1,200 miles away, struggling with his own issues and decision of whether to find a job or go to college. He, like millions of young men, worried about the draft; the idea of killing – and getting killed by Vietnamese thousands of miles away – did not appeal to him. I suspect, too, that he may have had mixed feelings about my future escape to Pennsylvania.
No doubt his mother did – a lovely lady who passed away too soon and remained my friend until dementia stole her brilliant mind and sense of humor.
While my ex-husband Jeff might feel uncomfortable with my treatment of him, my memoir isn’t about our life together but our life apart at a time when we wanted to be together.
I can only hope that he understands this, though he did support my decision to publish.
I mention our marriage and divorce for contextual purposes only. On the other hand, writing about a time before our marriage and divorce feels odd, but pleasant too, a reminder of those sweetheart days, mostly forgotten during divorce proceedings.
Minor players, including my lover before Jeff, populate this book, and I have either changed their names or used only their first names or nicknames.
My present husband Jerry had no role in my life during the late 1960’s, but he has patiently accompanied me in my various quests to find information. It must feel strange to read about that other Jennifer, drug user, longing for another man, raging at her grandparents – not quite the Jennifer he met, courted, and married.
And don’t forget the people not around during that time: Eric, my adult son by Jeff; Rhia, our shared granddaughter; and even Casey, Jeff’s long-time second wife who passed away in 2015. They had absolutely no role in this drama, and yet they were a peripheral part of it.
I did not undertake this project lightly.
But there have been consequences, both positive and negative, the negative mostly by family members on my side who feel that “the past ought to stay in the past.”
Surprisingly, Jeff has been okay with my memoir, probably because I shared a pre-publication manuscript with him. I also offered to change his name and cut anything that could have posed a legal problem (although I had already done that on my own) or made him feel uncomfortable – it would have been a huge mistake to simply blindside him with the published work.
As it turned out, Jeff did not request a name change or any cuts. By empowering him in the process, I was able to go forward with my book without creating a lot of family drama.
My takeaway: unless a main player is deceased or seriously out of reach, it is a good idea to bring that person into the fold, no matter the consequences.
I’m not sure Frank McCourt could have done anything differently to avoid the controversy surrounding Angela’s Ashes. For all I know, he may have checked in with the main players – his still-living family members and close friends. But it seems that it was the minor players who complained and sued.
By changing the names and some minor details about the people around me at that time, I hoped to avoid any major drama.
So far, so good.
But unlike Angela’s Ashes, Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment (Excerpts) has not been a best seller, so it probably did not even reach those out-of-contact friends and colleagues.
If my memoir were suddenly rocket up the Best Seller list, it might be a different story.
What a thought!
“The Politics of Memoir and the Making of Memoir Madness” is copyright 2008 - present, by Jennifer Semple Siegel.
Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.
Article updated June 5, 2023
I added some more context, fixed some broken links, and changed others due to pay walls.
More Wikipedia links have been added because they do not disappear into the ether of the internet.
Also, Wikipedia often updates its links more often than I do.
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