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Memoirs Require More Than Just Facts

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As children, we often look up to our parents; one reason is because it's out of necessity due to height constraints, but secondly because we are simply too young to know how to discern their failings, whether they are minor or major failings. Then as we become adults, having survived the cantankerous teenage years, we begin to accept the flaws, realizing that no one is perfect. Sure, parents can drink too much, lose their patience without explanation or expect too little or too much from us, but we usually end up loving them just the same. However, what if our parents did something more egregious? How do we square that part of their lives with how they loved us? It seems Jennifer Mascia, author of Never Tell Our Business to Strangers (Villard), was attempting to figure that all out in her memoir, a long-winded exploration of wanting to make sense of who her father was between the times he lived with her and her mother and his long absences.

The memoir has the makings of page-turning drama, especially since mob-related names are sprinkled throughout the story, where a father's criminal record isn't swept under the rug, but researched by a curious daughter. Without a doubt, it's prickly reviewing a memoir since it comes across as if criticizing the protagonist, but one wonders why the editor didn't instruct Mascia to cut, cut, cut. The story should have ended on page 281 when the author ostensibly comes to terms with what transpired in her young life. She writes,

All the mistakes my parents had made--detours outside the law, the hand-to-mouth lifestyle honed from years living as fugitives, the guilt at having respectively committed and abetted murder, and the outsider status it had fostered in all three of us--I had somehow transcended them.

At that point, one wanted to expel a long sigh of resignation and close the book, but that wasn't the case since it went on for over one hundred pages more, which made me feel as though I were reading a very lengthy diary. This is one case where less would have been more, especially when the author used many dialogue exchanges that occurred long ago. I didn't question whether those exchanges actually happened, but I did wonder why they were so important to share. They may be interesting to those who lived it but for the rest of us, why would we really care? Naturally, it's the author's job to make us care, but in reality it felt more like her need to justify herself for loving a father who did some heinous deeds and a mother who chose to look the other way. Yet, she doesn't need any justification. For better or worse, she was born into a seriously dysfunctional family, but as though trying to convince not only the reader but herself, kept repeating, through a variety of devices, what her father had done, as though we missed the point the first few times she revealed what she'd discovered.

I don't believe in keeping skeletons in the closet, but I also do not find other people's dirty laundry interesting when it is told in such a pedestrian manner. In one of my previous book reviews, I wrote that writers don't need to write "important" stories, but rather, they need to give each story importance. In spite of what could have been an important story, it felt lacking. Maybe it's because, after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Mascia worked at the Times as a news assistant on the Metro desk and knows only how to report the facts without emotion. Perhaps she is still working through those emotions, which makes it easier to simply report the details; unfortunately, though, a memoir requires more than just the facts. With that in mind, "never tell our business to strangers" was good advice, at least until the author worked out her issues of being the daughter of less-than admirable parents.