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Why Memoir?

05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the two years since I began writing my memoir, Gonville, about growing up with an emotionally abusive father, the question I've been asked most often is "Why?" It's sometimes followed by a veiled complaint about the proliferation of memoirs by "anyone and everyone," and their supposed self-involved, self-pitying nature. This hasn't been a surprise. As literary memoir has gained popularity, it has received consistent scorn, often in the form of apologies and disclaimers attached to rave reviews, that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of why people are reading and writing memoirs.

There are figures in our lives who activate the inner struggles we all go through. Some of those figures are outlandish, like my father. Some are less difficult to deal with, some more so. Some aren't even people. But none of them are the true antagonists in stories like mine. They seem like they are, at first, but in any good memoir the real antagonist isn't a bad parent or a drug or a mountain. In Gonville the antagonist is fear, my fear. And anger, and confusion. My father was the focus of those things for me, but he wasn't those things. A lot of us are taught about fear, in one way or another, by mountains or drugs or fathers, but it's the fear, not the father, we ultimately battle with.

The first thing a frightening father teaches you is to pretend he isn't frightening--to not talk about it. It's a tempting but difficult pretense for a child to maintain, let alone an adult. When I was a kid I could feel the truth about my father looming in the shadows, see it in the eyes of our friends when they caught sight of my Dad's extensive gun collection, or heard him rant with pitch-black venom about the latest "monster" in his life--a boss, or friend, or rival he felt threatened by. But even when there were flat-out, over-the-top moments of intense fear and mortification for me, when he broke my mother's nose, when he threatened to blow my teacher's head off, I did my best to believe in the idea that we were living a basically "normal" life.

Eventually the truth became unavoidable. As I watched my friend's fathers make good-natured jokes about spilled glasses of soda or unfinished homework, my mouth would start to open in preparation to laugh, and then I'd realize that they weren't doing wacky send ups of normal people, they were being normal people. And then the more difficult truths about my father began to dawn on me, slowly and sporadically, like bits of a remembered dream, sometimes in remembered dreams, in young adulthood.

Some of those dream-like fragments were about violence, but many weren't. People ask me if it was "hard" to grow up with a violent father, but the violence wasn't the hard part. The hard part was the love. The hard thing was having my Dad throw his arm around my shoulder, kiss my cheek and tell me it was okay that I struck out in a Little League game. That's the stuff that pulled at me in a tug-of-war with the other stuff, the darker stuff. It kept me hoping for more, it amplified and extended my adolescent confusion, and made it feel unmanageable. I found myself wishing, often, for a Dad who was all bad instead of almost good.

The fundamental struggle for my siblings and me as children, as it is for all children, was to make that confusion manageable, to forge an identity amidst the chaos of our lives. Partly because of our father's maddeningly contradictory nature--avid gun-collector and peacenik, popular economics professor and wife beater, virulent leftist and fan of the British monarchy--he was a man who could beat his son mercilessly one day, and the next cry over putting our aged dog to sleep--we had a hard time feeling like we had a discernable family personality. Each sibling got very good at adopting the character traits of whomever we were standing closest to, trying on the tics and tastes and accents of every friend and acquaintance, hoping to assemble a comprehensive whole out of those borrowed bits and pieces. It didn't work, of course, but once we reached adulthood we were finally able to put our talents for observation and self-invention to better, more authentic use, to see the disparate pieces of our father and ourselves more clearly, to integrate them as best we could, and to create meaningful lives for ourselves.

That process, of seeing fragments, putting them together and finding meaning in the picture they created, was, fundamentally, one of storytelling. I couldn't have begun it--no one can-- without coming into contact with other stories when I was young and starving for them, stories that pointed the way home, especially personal stories, told in the first person. I didn't care if they were novels or memoirs or songs or plays or poems They all helped me tell my own comprehensible story to myself. They made the trip towards the truth less frightening, and my own sense of what was true more trustworthy.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby; Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat, Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia, Robert Lowell's The Dolphin, Richard Pryor's Live on the Sunset Strip---memoirs, every one of them. Except not, of course. But all told in the first person, by unreliable narrators interested in themselves because they are interested in the world around them. Concerned with the self? Absolutely. But self-centered? Hardly.

The warmth, immediacy and approachability of those first-person narratives may be fading from literary fiction, along with publishing opportunities for prospective novelists interested in those qualities, but they are still the currency of literary memoir. I couldn't have written Gonville without the perspective on painful memories those recognizable stories have helped me find. Sure, I had to go to some places while writing it I'd rather not--I don't usually wake up and look forward to thinking about how it felt to learn grotesque and terrible secrets about my father--but while I was writing the book I did look forward to it, partly because I'd read a lot of stories that were similar to it, not in their particulars but in their promise: of clear-eyed, heartfelt reckoning. The writing process was frightening and uncomfortable, of course, but also liberating, thrilling, and ultimately comforting, because I was okay. I was sitting here, all these years later, at my desk in the home I share with a woman I'm head over heels in love with, and our beautiful baby daughter, and those old fights had long since been abandoned.

My grandfather once said to me: "The best way to not become a monster when facing a monster is to not believe in monsters." A paradox about growing up with a Dad like mine is that, while fighting him seems like an imperative, it's of course the surest way to lose. Because the fight isn't really with him, it's with the parts of you that are afraid of him and that want to kill him. In fact, it's not really a "fight" at all, but a process of comprehension. And when you open your eyes to the fullness of yourself and the world, you have a responsibility to tell what you see. Not because your story is more important or terrible or wonderful than others, but because honest engagement with the world is the foundation of all morality. The telling of your story is the opposite of self-pity--it is the act of joining the human race, of accepting and appreciating your mortality, your responsibility to others, and the meaningfulness of your life.

Gonville is not a book about a terrible childhood. Most of the days of my childhood, like those of anyone who grows up in American suburban comfort, were frustratingly uneventful at worst. Some were terrifying. But many were wonderful. In addition to a troubled father, I had a terrifically resilient and loving mother and three brave, resourceful siblings. Our childhood differed from others in its details, but growing-up required the same things of us it does of everyone: open eyes, open minds and open hearts.