Monday, July 28, 2014

Lacy M. Johnson on The Art of Mourning

In searching out the truth be ready for the unexpected, for it is difficult to find and puzzling when you find it.  — Heraclitus


I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately—my death in particular. This is a recent development. Ironically enough, it began when I stopped believing that I might be killed by a man I used to love. I haven’t seen him in fourteen years, but during all that time I believed — sincerely believed — that I was in danger, a lot in the beginning, less so in the middle, and a lot again at the end, which isn’t how you might think it should happen. It got to the point that I didn’t leave the house without scanning the street. I refused to travel abroad, or domestically alone. I enrolled my children only in schools with locked doors and pass codes, and even that seemed like insufficient security. Only after I finished writing THE OTHER SIDE could I convince myself that I should probably let it go. I was probably safe. He probably wouldn’t break into my house at any moment to kill me in my sleep. If I said it out loud it sounded preposterous, so I could probably admit he no longer posed any threat to me. My life was not, in fact, in danger. Which is exactly the moment I started thinking a lot about death.


Let’s begin with a brief and oversimplified history of memoir:

Memoir 1.0 begins, perhaps, with The Book of Margery Kempe, in the 1430s, and continues through many versions of spiritual and philosophical chronicles of religious figures, public thinkers and intellectuals. The emphasis of these texts is primarily on the extraordinary nature of certain events in a writer’s life, and therefore the extraordinary nature of the writer herself.

Memoir 2.0 ushers in the age of autobiography, which chronicles the life — from birth to the relative present — of an extraordinary person: this is what made me who I am. Notable examples include Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which recounts a personal history of good choices and well-made decisions (and conveniently leaves out a voracious love of prostitutes and political agitation). It’s not only a self-celebration of a meticulously constructed celebrity-self, but also a sort of advice book: a blueprint for future americans. Imitations of this form continued for many years — still do, in fact — with all manner of major political figures throwing their respective hats into the revolving autobiography ring, followed by works in this vein from major literary figures, then, simply, literary figures.

Memoir 3.0 is now, the present moment, when writers (more or less ordinary people) use memory as a lens through which to bring some aspect of human experience into focus. These works are often not simply a recounting of a complete, meticulously constructed, complete personal history (though those are still published) but rather an investigation into the major issues facing us today, and in this way, we could perhaps describe Memoir 3.0 as memory married to the essay. I would even go so far as to assert that Memoir 3.0 is very often a book-length essay. In the last few decades alone writers have increasingly used memoir as a form for investigating history, memory, thought and perception, and the nature of human experience. In this way we can see some of the most important philosophical work of our time played out in the pages of memoirs.


Tennessee Williams says that “Time is the longest distance between two places, ” which seems right and accurate. I wonder, though, if memory could be even farther? Since in memory there is always a kind of slipping, a kind of drift, or smear, or smudge.

When a friend of mine heard that THE OTHER SIDE was approaching its publication date, she asked for an advance copy. I gave it to her, since she’s in it. In the book I write that I call my parents from the police station after I escape a soundproof room my ex-boyfriend had constructed for the sole purpose of raping and killing me. I have clear memory of this, of calling my parents, of returning to my new apartment and packing my things and leaving for my sister’s place, where I stayed for two weeks. But my friend tells me I’m wrong about that. She says I called her from the police station. She says she came to the station and they let us talk in an interrogation room and watched us from behind a two-way mirror. She took me to her sister’s apartment that night and she remembers very clearly how I rode in the passenger seat and couldn’t stop watching out the rear window of her car.

I don’t remember this at all. I so don’t remember this that for a moment I think she must be lying to me and I am pissed that she didn’t tell me this before I finished the fucking memoir. But she’s a good person — a far better person than me — so why would she lie? I can conjure the vaguest impression of watching the light change on a ceiling in a strange bedroom once. How can I be sure it’s even the right ceiling? I have no way of knowing, though I do know nothing would have returned me to that memory without her calling it into question. It’s an island: located far across a sea of forgotting.

I think maybe that the distance between me and the memory my friend has is farther than time, since I cannot return to it, cannot locate it, and I have tried.


I tell my students that contemporary creative nonfiction (including and especially memoir!), at its most successful, combines elements of mastery (straight delivery of information) as well as mystery (investigation of as yet unexplained phenomena) and mania (obsession with the subject). So many successful contemporary memoirs balance these three impulses.

In The Reenactments, for example (one of my very-favorites) Nick Flynn weaves together three strands of narrative: the first strand (mastery) comprises published findings of certain neuroscientists, which establishes his authority as a writer to even begin discussing memory functions of the brain; the second strand (mystery) offers a history and description of the Glass Flowers Collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural Science, which allows readers to observe Flynn as he considers both how these flowers are made, and the ways in which the memory has slipped, smeared, drifted; the third strand (mania) recounts the experience of watching the filming of Being Flynn, Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Flynn’s earlier memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and in this strand Flynn recounts the experience of watching his most traumatic memories — the suicide of his mother — reenacted, returned to him in real life, filmed for anyone to see.

It’s by weaving together these three impulses (mastery, mystery, and mania) that The Reenactments investigates a set of questions we all seek answers to: what is the relationship between experience and memory? Between form and spirit? Between what I remember and the person I am? Between life and death?


Sometimes I’ll be driving along in my car and I can almost see myself crashing: a glimpse into one possible future. I can almost see the Ford F-350 (we have a lot of those here in Texas — the giant dualies, the long guns stacked up on gun racks), and how I’ll be mangled. How I lay for weeks unconscious in a hospital bed, my face swollen to unrecognizable proportions. Is unconsciousness sort of what death would be like? Like sleeping? I can imagine that. But no, I know death is not like sleeping. Maybe I’ll have an aneurism and die in my sleep. I’ll choke on a piece of salami I eat standing up in front of the refrigerator. I’ll die slowly or instantly. A light dimmed or blinked out. The mind will darken, and with it all thoughts, all dreams, all memory.

This is where I reach the limit of my imagination, though I continue to wonder what is on the other side of its border. I know life would go on: my children would grow older, though I can’t predict how, or for how long. Is it possible this is why I read and write memoir? To cast a projection of myself — what I know, what I wonder, what I spend my days obsessing over — into a future in which I don’t exist?


It is no coincidence, I think now, that the two words, “memory” and “memoir,” share a set of sprawling, branching roots: the Anglo-French memorie, something written to be kept in mind, from Latin memoria, a reminiscence, from Old Norse Mimir, the name of the giant who guards the Well of Wisdom; and from Old English murnan, to mourn.

Lacy M. Johnson is author of the memoirs THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House Books, 2014) — a B&N Discover Great New Writer Pick — and TRESPASSES (Iowa, 2012). She is a Houston-based artist, curator, teacher, activist, and is co-creator of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. Her essays have appeared in Dame, Tin House, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. She teaches interdisciplinary art at the University of Houston.

No comments:

Post a Comment