I’ve been a practicing psychologist for more than 40 years and an experience I had recently with a client gave me some insight about memoirs, maybe not about why I chose to write one, but about the value of that kind of project. A kind of retrospective view.
My client had somehow come across my book, read it, and had some questions and thoughts. His first statement to me was, “I thought you were evolved.” I know it can be tempting to see one’s therapist as a person who has arrived, spiked the ball, and done the victory dance. The structure of the relationship kind of supports that falsehood. So I was very happy to disabuse my client of that misimpression, telling him that I believe we are all flawed, all mucking around, doing the best we can; that there is no “evolved,” but that I hoped to be evolving. (Sidebar: A good book to read on this topic is the oldie but goodie When You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.)
The next thing my client said was that he didn’t think my story merited a full-length book. You can be the judge if you end up reading it, but I knew in that moment—and after the time I’d spent working with him—that my client’s lack of empathy for my history had little to do with me and much more to do with the very significant challenges he faced as a child. When I presented that observation to him, he cried for the first time in his eight decades about the pain of childhood. I think my book humanized me in his eyes. I think it might have been easier for him to own his pain because I was owning mine. Memoirs can do that: remind us that we are all flawed and complicated, all doing the best we can, none of us free from suffering.
I’m not sure I can articulate or even remember the reasons why I chose to write my memoir, what my initial motivation was. I don’t think I fully understood my desire to tell my story. Over the years, I’d read articles and books that try to answer the why-should-you-write-a-memoir question. Not one of them says: It’s because you are a special and unique snowflake and the world is holding its breath and waiting for you to tell your story. Of course, we’re all unique, and each of us has a story to tell. But I’m pretty sure no one wants to read a memoir written by an author motivated primarily by self-importance. The same goes for authors writing to impress readers with the severity of their woe-is-me narratives.
Another subcategory of the genre is the memoir-as-personal-catharsis, i.e. writing as a therapeutic experience. I’m in favor of journaling; in fact it’s something I often recommend to clients. But writing a memoir as a means of screaming into a pillow or crying on a therapists couch? Maybe. But I have a bone to pick with that sort of memoir. My old writing teacher always stressed the importance of fully digesting material—events from one’s life, painful experiences, etc.—in order to acquire the necessary distance to tell a good story: one that has broad appeal rather than one that reads like a diary entry. I was almost 70 when I started writing my memoir. I’d had tons of therapy, had thought about and worked on and turned over the issues from my childhood. I did not set out to write my book as a form of personal therapy. Rather, I wanted to write what I had learned after all that work. But, a strange thing happened when I finished writing. I learned new things about myself; I saw my experience in a different way; I was changed. Sounds like therapy to me. But I think there is an important distinction to be made between writing as a therapeutic undertaking and discovering that the writing process has been therapeutic once you’ve finished.
To me, memoirs that are brave, that reveal our vulnerabilities and deepest humanity are instruments of public service. I come at that from both the personal and the societal viewpoint. If someone does the hard work of examining her experiences and, in the end, grows as a person, that’s a spectacular result. And as people evolve and grow, they are more likely to engage with the world in an enriching way. Really, the only way for societies to evolve is for its individual members to grow. Individual change has a societal ripple.
So, why do we need memoir? In this world, and in our country—where so many of us feel a lack of connection, where the challenges seem so large—writers who dare to tell the brutal, honest truth about their humanity offer us a gift. When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I feel despair and rage. When I read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, I feel admiration and kinship. When I read Darkness VisibleDarkness Visible by William Styron, I feel sorrow. When I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I feel seen. When I read these books, I feel my inner experience reflected back to me. They remind me that we are all part of the human family. They echo the heartache, love, grief, despair, shame, longing, ambition, joy that we all experience. They remind us that we are more alike than different. They make us feel less alone.
Image credit: Unsplash/Cathy Mü.