Writing Bridges: Memoir’s Potential for Community Building


Stephanie Hammerwold


I start seeing all these cracks, these things that don’t fit. People pass as though they were average or normal; however, everybody is different. There is no such thing as normal or average. And your culture says: “This is reality!” Women are this way, men are this way, white people are this way. And you start seeing behind that reality. You see cracks and realize that there are other realities.
-- Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands: La Frontera

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.
-- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

The women memoirists discussed in this essay are writing in the cracks Anzaldúa refers to, against the grain of a reality that defines one way to think, act, speak, and write their stories. These cracks are admitting difference and allowing for connections within that space, connections that do not necessarily imply a sameness, but bridge the differences Lorde addresses in the epigraph to this essay. Later in Sister Outsider, in her well-known essay “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde reminds her readers, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, not the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist” (112). Community can be a tricky and problematic word. It can at times be totalizing or damaging, but it can also stand for a way of identifying or connecting. For the sake of this essay, I use community to stand for the thing that informs the “I” of autobiographical writing; the relationship formed between writer, reader, and text; and the way the writer’s story exists in connection with the stories of others. As I will show in this essay, connection to/with others is a vital aspect of memoir for both reader and writer. It is in realizing a story that both writer and reader are inextricably linked.

The need to write one’s story can be defined as the autobiographical moment. Janet Varner Gunn looks at the autobiographical moment in terms of three things: impulse, perspective, and response (12). Impulse is the attempt to make sense of experience, perspective is the process of writing the impulse, and response is the way the reader and writer react to the text (12-13). While Gunn’s description of the autobiographical moment allows us to understand the process of writing one’s life, it is missing the initial trigger that is so important for those who feel alienated by dominant modes of storytelling. When the need to tell a story is squelched by forces like sexism, racism, and heterosexism, there needs to be a part of the autobiographical moment in which the writer realizes her potential to make her stories and experiences real through writing them. Therefore, I add a fourth part to Gunn’s autobiographical moment: realization. Realization begins where Gunn’s response leaves off. By realization I mean a connection to others and recognition of the role writing the self plays in creating a space for others’ own stories. Through realizing the necessity of personal and political self-definition and self-determination, memoir becomes a means for writing the self and others into existence. The writer feels compelled to write, because she comes to the realization that my life matters. My life not only deserves to be told, it needs to be told. In both content and form, stories are drawn from this moment of realization.

In the stage of realization, the writer and reader become consciously aware of their own potential for telling their own stories. The writer and reader realize their ability to make their lives real through putting words to experience as is implied in the word realization. Realization is the glue that holds the auto/biographical moment together in a way that makes it about the individual writer and the readers of her story who are inspired to give voice to their own lives.

Writing is most often seen as a solitary act. Regardless of the method of writing memoir (legal pad and pen, typewriter, computer, dictating into a tape recorder, etc.), unless there is a deliberate attempt to collaborate with another in the text, the writer works alone. Yet, to assume that writing remains a solitary experience from the first idea to the moment that it lands in a reader’s hands denies the connective role of reading and writing a life. Sharing stories through memoir leads to new possibilities for connecting with others. With the exception of Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, I have chosen to focus specifically on memoir written since 1990 because of its growing popularity in recent years and because it is a genre concerned with drawing meaning from experience, rather than merely recounting a chronology of important life events.[1] The memoirs I use in this essay counter traditional modes of autobiographical writing.

For the sake of this discussion, I will speak of ‘autobiography’ in general as a genre, before taking up memoir, a specific type of autobiographical writing. Moving on to the concept of realization, I will then demonstrate how writing the memoir not only comes from the writer’s own realization that she has a story to tell, but that it also creates the possibility for the reader’s own realization. In this sense, memoir writing has a tremendous transformative potential, which allows the reader to see her own story (or pieces and feelings of her story) reflected in memoir and to see the experiences of others represented in memoir. In the final section of this essay I will explore the ways memoirists engage the reader in the process of telling life stories through memoir.

The transformative power of words in this project is evident in Susan Stanford Friedman’s view of autobiographical writing as a project where “taking the power of words, of representation into their own hands, women project onto history an identity that is not purely individualistic. Nor is it purely collective. Instead, this new identity merges the shared and unique” (76). Autobiography, as implied in the auto of the word, writes an individual voice, but it also connects to a collective voice. Memoir, a type of autobiographical writing, is a site for recognizing collective voice as well as the individual’s unique life story and experience in the world. It is in this space, in the cracks of a reality that defines things in one way, that a sense of community can be born through memoir writing. Rather than seeing memoir writing as an individualistic endeavour, viewing memoir in the context of fostering community brings to light its bridge-building potential. This is a type of community that comes from seeing stories and the hidden things in those stories in concert/conflict with each other, blending, harmonizing, and sometimes creating dissonance.

Questioning the Conditions and Limits of Autobiography

Autobiographical theory in the mid-twentieth century focused on autobiography as a site of creation, rather than merely as a place to record the past (Smith and Watson, Reading 128). Classic autobiographers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and St. Augustine wrote autobiography in order to gain meaning from experience through revisiting and interpreting the events of the past (Gusdorf 37). Such attempts often traced an individualistic story. Despite the fact that everyone’s life is filled with experience, autobiography was a type of writing considered by theorists and autobiographers to be accessible to only a few because,

an ideology of the autonomous selfhood of autobiography [underlay] much of the theorizing … and inform[ed] the texts privileged and the practices of self-creation valued. The focus on self-referential narratives as narratives of autonomous individuality and representative lives narrowed the range of vision to the West. (Smith and Watson, Reading 128)

This ideological self-referential and “west-referential” understanding and privilege of exclusion contributed to the cultural and epistemological making of right and wrong subjects, or better, subjects and non-subjects. Such an ideology of self contributed to the exclusion of people whose lives did not fit the cultural scripts represented by a western and masculine ideal.

James Olney’s anthology of essays about autobiographical writing, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, was published in 1980 and shows a trajectory of modern autobiographical theory. Those not fitting the middle-to-upper-class, white-male profile receive little or no mention in Olney’s anthology. In fact, Georges Gusdorf’s essay in this anthology refers only to “great men, and even some not so great—heads of government or generals, ministers of state, explorers, businessmen” (28). Although Olney’s anthology helped establish modern autobiography studies, it does so at the exclusion of the myriad ways writers might engage in writing their lives.

Gusdorf’s essay “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” (1956) is considered by many to be an influential piece in the study of autobiography. Although Gusdorf’s theories are nearly 50 years old, his writing has served as a foundation for much modern autobiographical theory. As I will show later, feminist scholars have taken up Gusdorf’s claims to show the deficiencies in the beginnings of modern autobiographical theory. He claims that the subject needs to be aware of the self situated in history as an individual before autobiography can happen; he calls this the “autobiographical condition” (30). In fact, he claims that a lack of individualism means that autobiography is not possible. A collective or community-oriented subject, with an “unconsciousness of personality, characteristic of primitive societies” simply cannot write autobiography (30). Not only is autobiography a product of the liberal individual mind, it is also uniquely Western:

Autobiography is not to be found outside of our cultural area; one would say that it expresses a concern peculiar to Western man, a concern that has been of good use in the systemic conquest of the universe and that he has communicated to men of other cultures; but those men will thereby have been annexed by a sort of intellectual colonizing to a mentality that was not their own. When Gandhi tells his own story, he is using Western means to defend the East. (29)

Here all autobiographical expression is Western, and in order to be seen as legitimate in the genre of autobiography, the writer must adopt western modes of writing. Gusdorf does not allow for other ways to tell the story outside of western modes of thinking and writing. Gusdorf’s claim, then, is that the genre of autobiography is limited to a few and “asserts itself only in recent centuries and only on a small part of the map of the world” (29).

This construction of selfhood is problematic in that it excludes a large number of people who do not see their lives existing as an individualistic quest narrative. In her critique of Gusdorf, Anne McClintock states, “Possessive individualism was a rhetoric of selfhood invented by certain elected males and defined at the expense of the autonomy and freedom of other disempowered groups, most notably women, but also certainly including men” (314). Although autonomy is part of understanding one’s self in the world, it is not the only way to understand experience. Yet, historically and contextually, this idea starts from and is centered around the idea and practice of conquest and the formation of the West by the colonization of other histories (McClintock 313). Gusdorf's model also privileges a non-contextual, non-relational sense of autonomy and contributes to a false sense of independence.

Feminist theorists have challenged the foundations of modern autobiographical theory and argue that the subject exists simultaneously as individual and part of a community or communities. Caren Kaplan’s approach to the study of autobiography asserts that “instead of a discourse of individual authorship, we find a discourse of situation; a ‘politics of location’” (119). Kaplan argues the individual is influenced by her own life and her situation or location. Autonomy and connection to others are linked. It is the realization of both and their overlap that is part of making a person want to write her life (Kaplan 117).

Gusdorf’s theory of autobiography presents further problems by claiming that the life written in autobiography is unified and coherent. He argues, “autobiography properly speaking assumes the task of reconstructing the unity of a life across time” (Gusdorf 37). This line of thinking assumes that there exists some kind of unity in lived experiences. He also asserts that “[man] is the essential agent in bringing about the situations in which he finds himself placed. It is his intervention that structures the terrain where his life is lived and gives its ultimate shape” (37). As revealed here, an autonomous, individual intervening, owning, controlling self is at the center of Gusdorf’s theory of autobiography. This self is on an imperial path toward dominating nature, territory, and time, masking the messy, unpredictable, and conflict-filled reality. It is on a path toward unity where all the events of a life are written down in a way that shows a clean, clear trajectory. It is a sort of quest toward a set destination of a life that is unified and autonomous. If one did not see herself as the autonomous self, she would never be in a position to write autobiography, according to Gusdorf’s model.

Sidonie Smith is critical of theories of an Enlightenment self similar to the one Gusdorf discusses precisely because women are left with little possibility of reflecting on their lives (Smith, Subjectivity 15). According to Smith, a woman “harbors no unified, atomic, Adamic core to be discovered and represented … She cannot find herself as universal man does in his romantic journey inward to the core of his being, except through those social roles already defined for her” (Subjectivity 15). This can be expanded to incorporate all those marginalized by traditional approaches to autobiography. The implication for any form of personal narrative is that many stories are not considered worthy of the label autobiography. The universal erases the experiences of those who do not adhere to a single universal script. The idea of a universal presents further problems in that it has no representation in reality. Lorde refers to this as the “mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ In America, the norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure” (Lorde, Sister 116). The mythical norm is a myth: It does not exist beyond being an idea of what the norm should be. If we think of writing a life in a single way based on the mythical norm, we mute the many different ways a story can be written.

In “Women’s Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice,” Friedman is critical of the claims made by traditional theorists such as Gusdorf and Olney. She opposes the notion of an individualistic self that reinforces patriarchal and imperialistic practices that silence the marginalized (72). These theories also tend to obscure the connection to community or any sense of collectivity that comes from writing an individual life. Friedman states, “individualistic paradigms of the self ignore the role of collective and relational identities in the individuation process of women and minorities” (72). Many social justice movements organized around race, gender, and sexuality show us that the role of the collective is essential in resistance, revolt, and liberation. For an imperial ideology then it is not surprising that collective and relational identities are not given social credit. Thus, those whose experience to create the self in writing does not match the dominant paradigm are not even afforded the opportunity to tell their stories within the theoretical framework of Gusdorf and Olney. Smith calls this “a patriarchal as well as imperial self [that] marks the hegemonic space of a white, male territory of selfhood” (Smith, “Self, Subject” 11). Not only do traditional models eclipse the role of any collectivity in the writing of a life, they also reinforce a predominantly white, male, western voice. Patriarchal practices seek to silence the collective in an attempt to enforce an economy of the same. For the marginalized, the consequence is that their stories will remain hidden and obscured.

Memoir is a specific type of autobiographical writing, and in this essay, I will show how several memoirists use the genre to put forth stories often hidden and obscured by dominant and traditional modes of thinking and writing a life. In the act of writing memoir, the memoirist, retelling experience, reproduces a new space of exploration to create the self. As Vivian Gornick writes,

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. […] What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. (91)

In other words, the writer uses memoir to make sense of the life lived. In this way, the memoir becomes a site for delving into the self and creating the space for that self to exist. Memoir puts a life in the world, in written form, vulnerabilities and all. In memoir, the writer takes up a particular time in her life to gain greater meaning. The modern memoir differs from traditional autobiography in that it is about more than recounting the events of a life. As Patricia Hampl explains, “Memoirists wish to tell their minds, not their story” (18).

As this essay will demonstrate, the experience of gaining meaning from stories is not the sole domain of the memoirist. While my examples in this essay are memoirs, it is important to note that memoir is just one type of autobiographical writing that explodes the boundaries of traditional autobiography. My aim here is to show how memoir is a possible way to do this. As I will demonstrate later, various forms of experimental autobiographical writing (i.e. Lorde’s biomythography) are very similar to the way modern memoir can operate and exist. Such genres, while not called memoir, are the author’s way of rupturing traditional modes of autobiographical writing. Throughout this essay I will speak of autobiography in general using the term ‘autobiography,’ and I will use ‘memoir’ when specifically referring to the effects and impact of stories like those of the memoirists discussed in this essay.

Realization

In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf tells the story of Judith, the hypothetical sister of William Shakespeare. At the end of her book, she explains that Shakespeare’s sister “would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while” (Woolf 114). Leaping off from Woolf’s command, it is in this moment of writing the self and connecting to the past that the connection beyond the writer’s life is born. She and her text reach a moment of realization. The writer becomes conscious of her potential to tell her story and her potential to make the story real through writing. In this way, realization can also be seen as something that comes in at the beginning of writing because it is in the moment of realization that she has a story to tell that a writer picks up her pen. It is the moment when she matters to herself. It is also something that takes place at the end as the reader possibly experiences her own moment of realization for telling her own story. Realization is what makes the autobiographical moment cyclical and connected to other individuals beyond the writer. This act brings Shakespeare’s sister back to life in that women are writing their stories rather than ending up “buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle” (Woolf 48). In the essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” a response to A Room of One’s Own, Alice Walker points to her own connection to the past through her mother’s stories that take many different forms. Through connecting to her mother’s stories and to the stories of women in the past, Walker is brought to realization. As she explains, “Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength – in search of my mother’s garden, I found my own” (Walker 2382). Toni Morrison writes about her experience writing the death of her father. She was able to write of his death through reading the writing of others like Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, and Simone de Beauvoir. Morrison states, “these people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life” (304). The writings of Douglass, Baldwin, and de Beauvoir inspire Morrison to realization. For both Walker and Morrison, looking at the stories of others brings them into connection with their own stories and histories. The dominant events and feelings of a reader’s life at a particular moment when she reads a memoir or any form of autobiographical writing are the trigger for the realization she will come to when she reads the story in its pages. In other words, the lens through which she reads the memoir comes to shape her realization.

Realization, in the sense discussed above, comes partially from connecting to the stories that others tell. The writer’s story is informed by the community around her. Not only can reading another’s story lead one to a moment of realization, but it also brings the self in contact with the stories of others. Jeanne Perreault charts the transformative power of community through writing autography. Perreault uses the term autography to refer to “a kind of writing that can and should be identified in order to foreground the suggestive and flexible processes of both autos and graphia … [It] invites the reader to reconsider the imbrications of subjectivity, textuality, and community” (2). She counts many genres within this category, including memoir, poetry, fiction, and other forms of writing that extend beyond traditional notions of autobiography (Perreault 2). She argues, “It is in the mutable, capacious space and time of the written (that is, the public, published) text that feminist discourses of selfhood, ‘freedom,’ and ethics, recombine under, or through, the sign of ‘I’” (Perreault 3). In other words, it is in the shared space of public discourse that the “I” of self-writing is written into existence. The community shapes the “I,” which in turn influences the “we” to moments of realization. Because Perreault’s notion of autography includes memoir as a sub-genre, it provides a method for understanding the type of memoir written by the memoirists in this essay. The narrative of these memoirs is informed by the community metaphorically and physically surrounding the memoirist, whether positive or negative.

In her memoir, The Last Time I Wore a Dress, Daphne Scholinski tells how she was forced to live a life written by medical diagnosis. She is trapped in a master narrative that enforces two genders and punishes those who do not fit into one of its rigid categories. In Scholinski’s words, “In the hospitals, I lost my ability to trust myself. In any interaction I’m always thinking, I must be the one screwing up” (Scholinski 196). She is taking a chance in telling this story, because this story is in part about the shame produced by hospitalization in a mental institution for a gender identity diagnosis. In both form and content it is writing against dominant gendered scripts. In an appendix at the end of her memoir, Scholinski includes the text from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders that tells what the criteria for Gender Identity Disorder are. Here she is providing the version of her life written for her. The whole book tells it the way she experienced and interpreted it. Scholinski’s initial perception of her identity when she first learns of the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis is to question herself. She internalizes the negative attitudes that are tied to this diagnosis. In The Last Time I Wore a Dress she writes, “If my sickness wasn’t mental illness I wondered if it was tied to my badness and the fact that I did not choose to wear a dress and that Dr. Browning said I was not an appropriate female” (Scholinski 88). The “I” as shaped by the medical community and those around Scholinski as she grows up is one that points to her “badness” and blames her for her problems in her life. This same community also shapes all others with stories similar to Scholinski’s as bad. In writing her story, Scholinski is reclaiming the “I” and the “we” as she writes her version of her life. In reclaiming she is coming to a point of realization that Dr. Browning’s assessment of her badness is not right and does not fully articulate her struggle in her story. Thus, she is also writing a story so that others with a similar struggle may connect and realize that they are not alone.

Elizabeth Hampsten envisions the relationship between reader and writer such that the writing is a contract between the two (135). In order to satisfy the desire and need to have new stories told, she contends “we may need to invent ways to make new contracts between writers and readers” (Hampsten 135). Reader/writer/text are inextricably linked, especially when the text reveals a life lived. When a reader connects with autobiographical writing, the text links reader to writer precisely because it presents a story that happened or could have happened to the reader. If the writer’s intent is to get at the “what I know” that characterizes memoir, then the reader’s objective is to be moved to realization. Realization leads to others becoming aware of their own potential for selfhood, for claiming identity and voice, and for connecting with others through telling stories. This does not necessarily imply a moment for the reader where she sees her own life reproduced on the page, but instead it is a moment of connection where the reader comes to realize her own potential to tell a story or to even feel something that puts words to her possibly unarticulated experience. Likewise, it does not imply a guaranteed community where reader and writer will join hands in a physical space. It is a metaphorical connection and sense of connection through story that comes about in the reader/writer/text contract.

Lakota Woman documents Mary Crow Dog’s own process of realization as she connects with her own story and shows how that process brought her to a point where she can say “I, a white-educated, half-blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness” (260). Lakota Woman moves from Crow Dog’s youth to her discovery of her history, culture, and genealogy. The journey takes her from her early years on a reservation, to boarding school, to the standoff at Wounded Knee where her son was born. She must forge her identity in a world that seeks to destroy her history and story. As she explains in Lakota Woman, “If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male. It is not the big, dramatic things so much that get us down, but just being Indian, trying to hang on to our way of life, language, and values while being surrounded by an alien, more powerful culture” (4-5). The alien, powerful culture in this case uses physical force to silence alternate stories, stories that often speak against the voice of patriarchy and colonization. In the process of writing her story, Crow Dog is finding herself, a culture, and a world at the place where all three interact and connect. In this way, she is writing simultaneously about self and community. At the end of her book she writes:

Ho Uway Tinkte.
A Voice I will send
Throughout the Universe,
Maka Sitomniye,
My Voice you shall hear:
I will live! (260)

In these final lines of Crow Dog’s narrative, it is clear that her story is not just connected to the individual. It is a writing of the self that is sent out into the world to connect with other people who are similarly struggling against the destruction and murder of a culture, thereby revealing the potentially transformative power of modern memoirs like hers.

Crow Dog also emphasizes the need for new stories. She writes, “you can’t live forever on the deeds of Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse. You can’t wear their eagle feathers, freeload off their legends. You have to make your own legends now. It isn’t easy” (Crow Dog 11). She calls for new narratives of history that account for the voices silenced by the dominant version of history. In writing her memoir, she is showing that she is still fighting against the dominant forces that seek to kill her history and her story. As demonstrated by Crow Dog, very few Native Americans have made it into the pages of history books. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and a few others are taken to represent the entire history of the Native American population. Crow Dog is speaking within this to say that there are more stories, despite what makes it onto bookshelves and into classrooms. In writing her own memoir, based on the need to make her own legend, she uses the written word to demonstrate that multiple stories exist. It is as though there is a community of stories within the pages of Crow Dog’s memoir. Even within her memoir, there are many stories being told because she constantly tells her story in relation to the other people (past and present) in her life. Crow Dog is setting up the moment of realization here by acknowledging the other unwritten stories out there.

Transformative Stories: Merging the Shared and the Unique

The connection between text, writer, and reader is blurred in contemporary women’s memoirs. In fact, some of the writers I discuss in this essay beckon their readers into an intricate web of connection through their life stories. Crow Dog’s call at the end of her book is an invitation to others to seek out and listen to her voice so that they too may realize their stories and live through speaking and listening. Gloria Anzaldúa posits that “Identity formation is a component in reading and writing whether through empathy and identification or disidentification” (Anzaldúa, “To(o) Queer” 257). This connects to the act of realization within the autobiographical moment. There is both a realization of self/community for the writer and the reader through the text. AnaLouise Keating explains that as readers,

we engage in new convers(at)ions—transformational dialogues between writer, reader, and text. As we recognize ourselves in the various others we encounter as we read, and these others in ourselves, we define ourselves differently. Binary oppositions between self and other break down. We cross over, rewriting culture, rewriting self, as we go. (187)

In the reader/writer/text relationship, there is both conversion and conversation. This is a relationship that expresses both change (conversion) and dialogue (conversation). While the reader/writer/text relationship can be an empowering, self-affirming connection and realization, it can also be a moment of disidentification, as Anzaldúa states. It can lead to a moment of connecting through common experience, or it can be a moment of not agreeing with the text at all. Both identification and disidentification can be empowering in that each can bring the reader to new understanding about their own experience. Regardless of the reader’s response, the text still acts as a possible site of dialogue because it brings both reader and writer to share ideas.

In Lying, Lauren Slater recounts the story written for her by the doctors who diagnose her with a variety of illnesses throughout her life: epilepsy, Munchausen’s, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, and more (220). Over time, diagnosis of the same symptoms changed. Slater calls diagnosis “a narrative phenomenon” precisely because it simply becomes many ways to tell one story (220). Although Slater’s symptoms may have remained constant, the narrative that labelled those symptoms changed. This makes the telling of a life lived with possible epilepsy and/or other illnesses a bit precarious. Medical diagnosis, for Slater, is the narrative structure of her story told through medical science. Writing of how her memoir is different than the typical survival tale told in an illness memoir, Slater writes, “For me, the authority is illusory, the etiologies constructed. When all is said and done, there is only one kind of illness memoir I can see to write, and that’s a slippery, playful, impish, exasperating text, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark” (Slater 221). Slater questions the authority of dominant story lines and the ideology that defines one way to voice a story. By invoking metaphor as the framework for her story and toying with the idea of truth, Slater shows that the idea of authority speaking for the individual’s reality ultimately leaves that story with very little credibility. Slater’s memoir is an example of the voice of someone who might have had epilepsy speaking/writing for herself, rather than letting the “expert” speak for her as they have done in her youth. In Lying, all authority is illusory. Slater’s memoir is a book that has the potential to leave readers feeling uncomfortable and a bit put off because of her unconventional approach to writing epilepsy, yet it encourages a response in the reader. Regardless of the type of realization and connection that occurs, there is still some form of convers(at)ion, because the text, and by extension the life written in the pages of memoir, has still entered into the reader’s consciousness.

The power of putting one’s story out in the world carries an added weight when the story told comes from someone whose voice and story have been silenced because of something like Scholinski’s Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis. Scholinski’s story has the potential to transform her own view of her story as well as others who have had relatively little exposure to these issues. In Scholinski’s book, she is writing what she can afford to remember having experienced in her own story. In doing so, she writes to show that living with a Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis is a reality for her and may be a reality for others who have not been able to write or publish their stories. Her story provides a language for others who have not been able to speak or define their experiences. Referring to 2 West, a ward at Michael Reese Hospital, Scholinski writes of the other patients, “The people looked as if their bodies and minds had been separated so long that all communication had broken down. Their clothes were skewed, their hair wild, their faces twisted up with all the terror that wanted to spill out” (55). Although these patients are suffering from a myriad of diagnoses, they share the common bond of stories silenced within the walls of Michael Reese. Scholinski’s stories escaping these walls, not only give a language to all those inside the mental hospital who are separated from such communication, but they also speak with those on the outside who are ruptured from their bodies and ability to self-define and speak.

The transformative power of memoir writing like Scholinski’s lies in its ability to bridge difference through the moments of connecting with someone else’s story even if that story bears little resemblance to the life of the reader. Regardless of the reader’s location, she is invited into Scholinski’s story by picking up the book. Such an interaction allows for the potential of the reader to gain a deeper understanding of a life like Scholinski’s. Writing about the self “invites a consideration of relations of difference as self and community embody (each and both) difference from and difference within” (Perreault 130). Neither self nor community exists autonomously. Memoir is a site of transformation and building bridges across difference because it allows the reader to get inside the experiences of another person. It is a dialogical relationship, existing both individually and collectively, which “suggests that changes in thinking may be accompanied by changed actions and that altered experiences may in turn stimulate a changed consciousness” (Collins 30). Reading memoir has an influence on the reader, whether positive, negative, or indifferent. As Trinh T. Minh-ha says, “To write is to become. Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become, intransitively” (Trinh 18-19). Expanding this definition to include the reader’s experience, to read is to become or transform into something else. Regardless of the type of response the reader has to a memoir, it has some influence on her life, whether minute or large. This is part of the reader/writer/text relationship.

Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name is pivotal as an autobiographical story that explodes the boundaries of traditional autobiographical writing. Published in 1982, it challenges the idea of autobiography even on its cover where it labels itself a biomythography. While Lorde creates a new genre for her story, it exhibits qualities similar to the memoirs discussed in this essay. Lorde sees her own writing as both individual and connected to something much greater. Zami is constructed as more than a story of Lorde’s individual life. It also recounts the lives of the women around her as well as an individual body situated in connection to the past. Zami starts from the stories of the women who came before Lorde and shows the history of the United States from a poor Black lesbian’s perspective. She simultaneously inscribes an “I” voice and a “we” voice. In the prologue to Zami she writes, “My body, a living representation of other life older longer wiser” (7). Who Lorde is goes beyond the individual self; she writes an individual, a connection, and a community. In Keating’s words,

She posits an interconnection between her private experiences and an over-arching “life force” that establishes an interpretive context for her life: She can “read” each event that occurs as a lesson to be learned from rather than an obstacle to be overcome. Moreover, by maintaining that each person is similarly connected to this life force, Lorde finds the confidence that this self-exploration leads inevitably to individual and collective change. (47)

This does not mean that everyone is connected to the life force in a similar way; rather, it creates a connection across the different experiences connected to the life force. The life force connects through time and space. Lorde’s idea of life force is useful in this discussion of memoir, because it offers a way to see how connected stories are. In other words, it offers an explanation for how the stories of both reader and writer are connected, and how one can lead to the realization of the other. For Lorde her realization comes at the moment of connecting with the stories, voices, and lives connected to her own. In the opening lines of her biomythography, Lorde asks, “To whom do I owe the power behind my voice, what strength I have become, yeasting up like sudden blood from under the bruised skin’s blister?” (3). Her response a few lines later is, “Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home” (Lorde 3). Lorde’s response and connection to the life stories in her histories lead her to realization that she has a story to tell about her own life, an experience that alters her consciousness as she gains meaning from the experiences in her life. She is writing from the perspective of the “I” (Lorde herself) informed by the “we” (the stories before and around her). Her writing is transformative in its potential to create change beyond the writer’s individual life. Zami exposes the reader to a struggle with racism, sexism, and homophobia from the perspective of a story actually lived and interpreted by the author.

Reading stories about someone else’s life has the potential to change thought and action in that it allows readers to see their own stories reflected in the stories and histories already written, while at the same time allowing readers to see the stories and histories of others. It is not necessary to have shared experience, because “without shared direct experience, one can still develop an ethical consciousness and a political understanding for action through empathy” (Cemali 50). It is not necessary to have the same experience as someone to connect with her story. Empathy and action are possible through similarity and difference. There exists a potential for transformation in thought and action as readers/writers come to know the self and the other.

Seeing the Self Reflected in Memoir

Through sharing the stories kept hidden, memoirists allow others to realize that their own adversities and struggles are not isolated. Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress is a memoir that can be read several ways. It could be read as a confessional tract that does little more than blame others for the individual’s problems. The danger of this type of assessment is that it casts off those stories that do not adhere to a traditional story line where the individual overcomes all adversity and, to use the cliché, pulls himself/herself up by the bootstraps. By looking at Scholinski’s book as something other than a chance for her to blame others for the events of her life, it is perhaps better read as a story where Scholinski is able to give voice to an alternative to the story that had previously been written for her by psycho-medical discourse. Writing this story becomes a way for Scholinski to take back control of her identity, an identity that others attempted to shape and change to fit the gender binary. After writing in her journal “I think I like girls,” one of her doctors reads it and questions Scholinski (96). When the doctor confronts her about the line in her journal, she states, “Like him, I wanted to erase the words I had written in my journal. I thought if I could avoid talking about the tingle in my stomach when I roller-skated with a pretty girl—if I could avoid this long enough the tingle might disappear” (Scholinski 97). Internalizing the labels of “not normal” and “gender deviant,” Scholinski at times just wants to suppress all the feelings and emotions she has that go against the norm. She confesses it is easier to try to live as “normal,” rather than being perceived as different and wrong, and to avoid being systemically institutionalized.

Key is Scholinski’s struggle against this pressure to conform, taking the power to name her experience, rather than giving into the story told by the doctors, her family, and the diagnosis - a narrative phenomenon of its own. The worth of the memoir lies in Scholinski’s own naming of her experience and disarticulating the story written by the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis. In response to a passage about Gender Identity Disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, she writes:

The words are ludicrous, but not if it’s you they’re talking about, not if it’s you they’re locking up. Not ludicrous at all for the ones who continue to be diagnosed as mentally ill. A mouthy girl in cowboy boots or a boy who drapes a scarf on his head to pretend his hair is long like a princess – well, they are targets for the Dr. Madisons of the world. (196)

Scholinski needs to write her story precisely because the story written for her by her diagnosis does not tell her story, nor does it tell the stories of countless others diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder. A story like The Last Time I Wore a Dress has tremendous political implications because it claims space to tell an alternative version of the Gender Identity Disorder story. It is not merely an account that reminds readers that this is a “ludicrous” diagnosis; it is a story that tells of a real person living with the reality of a society that does not accept her perceived gender deviance.

Even when there are more traditional narrative models to base one’s story on, sometimes such models are “expert” texts that claim to be speaking the story of a certain group or individual. Crow Dog’s memoir details the contradictions between her life and the typical Native American life represented in the pages of anthropology texts written by White scholars. Like Scholinski, Crow Dog is also writing in the face of so-called “expert” writing that attempts to explain her life in removed, formal prose. Since Europeans first landed on American shores, Native Americans have been written about as a savage, uncivilized, and underdeveloped. Rarely in traditional scholarly texts about tribal life do Native Americans actually speak. In response to one such text, Crow Dog writes, “I read somewhere in an anthropology book that we Sioux ‘thrive on a culture of excitement.’ During the years from 1973 to 1975 we had more than enough excitement for even the most macho warrior, more than we could handle” (192). She continues by talking about the wave of fire bombings, killings, and other such violence directed toward members of AIM and the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) that came as a result of an oppressive tribal chairman who was allied with the government against the movement. (192-193). Crow Dog’s memoir is an intervention in the downplay of genocide seen in the anthropology text; hence, it is the antagonism in Lakota Woman that creates the entry point of connecting to a community. In addition, there is a sense of alienation that comes from seeing the story told in an anthropology text as the model for one’s own story. What the reader sees is not her own experience reflected back at her, but an inaccurate, alienating portrait of her life informed by ideologically dominant forces. Rather than leading to connection with story and history, the result is alienation from one’s own story and history.

In writing a story that adds dimension and meaning beyond the claim that Sioux “thrive on a culture of excitement,” Crow Dog is claiming that “I”/“we” have a voice and can tell the story. The sarcastic tone of her statement is reinforced by the “excitement” that she describes: violence brought on in an attempt to silence those struggling for survival of their culture. To simply say that the wrongs committed against Native Americans are atrocious is not enough. The stories not only need to be told so that we can realize that those atrocities are someone’s reality, but also so that others who have been alienated from the texts they read, like Crow Dog has been, can see their lives reflected in print. Similar to Scholinski’s book, Crow Dog’s story serves as a reminder that there are countless others who could not tell their stories because their reality became one where they were silenced through violence and force.

Writing memoir builds bridges between those who may share something in common but have been isolated from others. In Living Between Danger and Love: The Limits of Choice, Kathleen B. Jones looks at the implications of silences in relation to the neglect of domestic violence. Andrea O’Donnell, a student at San Diego State University where Jones is a professor, was murdered by her boyfriend. Andrea was also a self-defence instructor and a student organizer against domestic violence. Prior to the murder, many knew very little about Andrea’s relationship. When Andrea decided she needed to leave San Diego to take care of “some stuff at home,” it later becomes clear that she was trying to escape something much bigger (Jones 16). Jones writes, “We didn’t know what she was trying to leave behind, or how tired she was, or how lonely. We never knew, really. Later, this not knowing would haunt us, because of what we did not know and wished we had but, at the same time, because of what we did not want to know or have to talk about” (16). For Jones, the realization of what has been silent and hidden in Andrea’s life becomes a means for putting words to her story. In doing this, Jones writes in the face of patriarchal violence that shames and isolates women who suffer the blows and punches of domestic violence.

Jones speaks an individual voice and a collective voice in the way that she tells more than just her own story. She also delves into Andrea’s story, her mother’s story, and the stories of other women around her who have dealt with abuse as well as issues of power, control, and care. Domestic violence is often seen as an individual problem, and its solution is frequently put in the form of a question asking why the woman did not leave sooner, instead of asking why the abuser hurt her in the first place. The blame is placed on her, rather than the person who beat her. When she comes forward with the story, the law is more concerned with the physical evidence of what happened than the story of what happened (Jones 136). Jones writes:

The deadening sound of the law’s rational calculus beats rhythmically and repeatedly until it silences the memory of her earless heart’s wounds. The law’s measured portrait of who is right and who is wrong is so finely drawn that her eyeless mind’s fuzzy image of her hurt disappears, leaving only the barest, whispery traces, too random to make sense. (136)

The woman is often left with not even her own story to tell because her story has been told for her through the legal system’s strict standards for determining right and wrong. Just as Scholinski’s memoir counters the diagnosis that attempted to write her story, Jones’s book counters the tendency of the legal system to write a woman’s experience with domestic violence. Jones’s memoir is an intervention in the legal system and societal norms that leave little room for the lived experience of the woman at the center of the story. It is within the notion of rupture that Jones finds the words and space to tell her own story that takes off from her own realization within Andrea O’Donnell’s story.

On the surface, it may appear that Living Between Danger and Love is solely about the issue of domestic violence, but a closer reading reveals that it is much more about stories from the past and about power and care that often exist in secret until written on the page. Although a murder is the impetus for the book, it is the notion of rupture that holds the stories within the book together. Domestic violence in and of itself is a rupture and rending of a life. It has the potential to rip someone from the foundation that keeps them tied to others. The stories told in Living Between Danger and Love speak from ruptured spaces and open to a collective voice through something more than just the single issue of domestic violence. At the conclusion of the memorial service for Andrea O’Donnell, Jones is confronted by a reporter who asks, “Why wouldn’t someone as powerful as Andrea be able to protect herself; why didn’t she leave?” (28). This takes Jones back to “another time” where she confronts her own past in an abusive relationship and a time when she was taken prisoner in jail (28). The moment of writing Andrea O’Donnell’s story brings Jones to a place where she responds to her own secrets and asks new questions. In the connection to the stories of others as well as the rupture within each of those stories, she is brought to reflection on her own life. Jones has found her own story within the ruptures created by moments of violence, power, and control, and in this process, she recognizes the connections we all have to each other, however painful or even unwanted this connection might be:

I won’t exempt myself from wanting to mock this penumbra of guilt brought on by haunted shoes, by the ghosts in a stranger’s warm bed. Of course, I’d rather say it has nothing to do with me. How could it? I won’t deny wanting to avoid the threatening, enveloping despair that surely follows from something so simple, so stunningly stark as the thought that we share the burden for what happens in others’ lives by merely not thinking about our own. I, too, would rather be bereft of memory. I, too, want the comfort of limning, once and for all, the boundaries between good and evil. (163)

Through writing this memoir, Jones is brought to realization that her story does not exist in isolation. To think otherwise denies the responsibility we have to each other.

Living Between Danger and Love moves between Jones’s own life, Andrea’s life, and the lives of other women. It moves beyond an us/them mentality that turns domestic violence into an it-can’t-happen-to-me issue. Jones writes in the final pages of her book, “The thing that catches me up again and again is the enormous energy we invest in proving that neither the victim nor the victimizer is one of us. Might have been, but no longer is. Now it’s them, not us. And we want to be especially sure you can tell the two apart” (175). Jones’s book counters the idea that domestic violence is an issue that happens to someone else. It shows the reader that domestic violence is not just an issue that happens to a mythical “them.” Through Jones’s own story and the way that it (and Andrea’s story) lead her into the stories of others, the reader is given a picture of how pervasive this issue is. Although there are plenty of studies done on domestic violence, memoir offers a visceral connection for the reader. Memoir reminds the reader that there is a human at the center of the story, something that often gets lost when a story is couched in a medical text, a diagnosis, legal jargon, or academic rhetoric. While such texts do have their place, I argue that memoir should be given equal credence as a site for knowledge production. Andrea’s story could have died with her on the night she was murdered. In many ways it did, because she is no longer here to tell it, but Jones’s book offers a non-traditional way to think about her story. The story could have been swept away in the drama of the courtroom that only told the story in complex legal terminology and courtroom theatricals.

Living Between Danger and Love directly counters the desire to say “It can’t happen to me,” precisely because it creates a community in the need to address an issue like domestic violence in a way that does not imagine a victim/perpetrator binary. By connecting stories, it shows the many ways this issue weaves through lives. Jones takes her readers through care, choice, responsibility, and sharing secrets. Thus, there are numerous points where a reader enters her own story reflected in the pages of the book even if she has not experienced domestic violence firsthand. As Jones says toward the end of the book, “Only accidents and memories have driven me past the point of seeing the story only one way or the other” (Jones 175). If we see Living Between Danger and Love as a book only about domestic violence, we miss the potential for connection through similarity that is present in all the issues raised in the book. In the final page, Jones writes what is key to understanding the stories relayed in her memoir:“And knowing that love won’t save us, or power, or hope. Only living will. Finally, we can live by taking up our place among all those others who have started to breathe in and out and into the world and without whom we cannot even imagine being alive. Without all those others” (178). The survival within Jones’s story comes here in understanding that we do not exist and our stories do not exist in isolation. It is in the moment of realization and connection that living takes place.

Communities of Difference

Memoir is a means of bridging difference. In picking up a memoir, a reader is creating a bridge. Even in a story that is markedly different than the reader’s life, there is still opportunity to connect and realize that even in a life that appears to be different, there are similarities and points to connect with. In Scholinski’s book, for example, the reader may not have dealt with being diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, but she may be able to connect to the struggle Scholinski experiences with her identity. Alternatively, the reader may make little to no connection, but she is still exposed to someone else’s interpretation, thus breaking down the Self/Other dichotomy.

Community, like the construction of self, can become a universalizing project that ignores differences. If community in the general sense is based solely on similar identity, the potential for change becomes stifled because certain parts of identity can become swallowed up in the monolithic, universalizing “we.” Hertha D. Sweet Wong argues that community typically becomes a “monolithic center of identity, belief, and culture” (172). The emphasis is placed on commonalities in identity. Instead, using Lorde’s idea of the life force, I argue that when it comes to reading and writing memoir, conceptions of community need to be organized and viewed along the lines of similarity and difference. Lorde’s idea of a life force linking all stories opens up the space to share stories that are different. The similarity is that we all have a story to tell. In telling these stories we connect to something beyond the individual self and reach out to “the whole expanding universe of sensation and thought that flows beyond the confines of narrative and proves every life to be not only an isolated story line but a bit of the cosmos, spinning and streaming into the great, ungraspable pattern of existence” (Hampl 18). Here connecting to others comes from sharing stories, not necessarily from sharing a common part of identity. The emphasis on having identity in common is replaced with an emphasis on telling many different stories and learning across difference. The community constructed here is not a group of people lumped together in the same geographical space; instead, this is a metaphorical community where stories exist in connection. This is a space where stories of difference and similarity can dialogue, just as the reader of memoir dialogues with the story of the memoirist.

The “we” of writing the community can be a bit problematic because it can assume a unifying and coherent group that appears to erase difference. “We” is something that is, according to Barbara E. Johnson, empowering and universalizing (43). Ultimately, “we” is an unstable construction. In Jane Flax’s words, “the categories or concepts by and through which we structure experience are themselves historically and culturally variable” (Flax 452). The idea of a unifying “we” that leads to community holds little possibility if we are to see the construction of a community where all voices can speak and stories can be shared. It is easy to see how this “we” can be constructed through power and can also obscure and render invisible experiences of those whose lives do not strictly adhere to the experience of “we.” Borrowing from Victor Turner, Keating uses the term threshold to discuss the work of Paula Gunn Allen, Anzaldúa, and Lorde and defines threshold identities as “transitional, in-between spaces where new beginnings and unexpected combinations can occur—Allen, Anzaldúa, and Lorde use their movements ‘betwixt and between’ worlds to establish new connections among apparently different people” (2). The “we” can be seen as a threshold identity, or one that encompasses a variety of connecting and conflicting selves, the myriad of voices begins to take on multiple lives that is both “I” and “we.” This is where the construction of community begins. Bridging differences that are sometimes conflicting and overlapping, the community that Lorde alludes to when she speaks of “examin[ing] the words to fit a world in which we all believed” in the epigraph to this essay is born. For example, the memoirs in this essay tell many different stories. In putting them in dialogue with each other, we can see how being entirely the same is not necessary for the formation of community.

In speaking from the cracks in reality, it is imperative that new conceptions of community are forged that create spaces that bridge difference and connect through something beyond everyday identities and interactions. It is not a matter of finding out who “I” am, but where “I” am. As Elizabeth Martinez says in a discussion with Angela Y. Davis, “There is a tremendous tendency in this culture to establish rigid categories, and not to have any kind of dialectical understanding of the society or its forces; this tendency makes us incapable of seeing that something both is and isn’t at the same time” (James 300). In other words, it becomes necessary to see more than just identity, thus opening up the possibility to encompass difference. This can be achieved through the writing, reading, and sharing of stories, a process that puts our stories in connection with others.

Instead of being built on an authentic identity, community needs to be seen as a location of bridging difference and being in rupture together while incorporating and claiming those differences and ruptures. This involves reading the stories of others and accepting that the reader’s experience might not match the writer’s, which can then become a site of dialogue across difference. Lorde commands others to listen and read the stories of others when she says, “where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives” (Lorde, Sister 43). We have a responsibility to search for other stories so that we do not just limit ourselves to the stories that are comfortable and familiar. Lorde’s command envisions a form of community where people do not stay in their comfort zone. Without stepping out of this zone, racism, sexism, homophobia, and such will continue to exist and perpetuate hatred and mistrust for those who are different from us. When we see difference only as negative, “we do not develop tools for using human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives. We speak not of human difference, but of human deviance” (Lorde, Sister 116). Memoir is a site for creative change in that it allows us to read difference as something other than deviance. In moving away from ideas of unitary identities forming communities, readers are forced “to re-examine and expand their own personal and social locations” (Keating 3). Alliances can take place in locations other than similarities, thereby breaking down the barriers that cast those that are different as the Other.

Crow Dog expresses her link to others with different experiences in Lakota Woman when she writes of her experiences with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Although she disagreed with the movement on issues articulated by white women regarding abortion and contraception, she claims that “my white women friends had also taught me a lot which had influenced me in many ways. I was no longer the shy Sioux maiden walking with downcast eyes in the footsteps of some man” (244). Crow Dog’s memoir itself is also a tool for learning and bridging difference, just as Scholinski’s memoir might connect with those who have not experienced gender as she has.

The form in which an author chooses to write her story can reveal the interconnectedness of the individual’s story and the lives around her. Even though memoir is usually one person writing her story, it is inevitably linked to others in a way that speaks a collective voice. The autobiographical self does not have to move to a place beyond collective action, because even when speaking as an individual, the writing speaks many voices. As I have argued, this is evident in the memoirs in this essay and in many others that break from the traditional models of linear, individualistic autobiographical writing of the past. We need to perceive differences in new ways, “because difference is not a thing to be recognized but a process always underway” (Crosby 140). Viewing difference as process rather than seeing it as static and unchanging, allows for the construction and possibility of seeing the collective role of memoir writing. It is a process of coming to understand how others experience life and exist in the world. Rather than seeing difference as a negative, Crosby’s approach supports Lorde’s call for building bridges across difference. Seeing difference as a process and something that can be worked with, not against, the possibility for envisioning spaces of shared/sharing stories where difference exists becomes possible.

The dangers in envisioning difference as something that separates people can end up reinforcing those differences as something that should keep people apart. This is the problem with identity politics that seek to theorize and write stories based on shared identity. Keating argues, “When personal identities become reified and defined as monolithic, coalitions break apart from the inside as members begin focusing on the differences between what they perceive to be discrete gender/ethnic/sexual categories” (87). These categories are not clearly defined, nor are they fixed. Thus, creating community based on set identity categories leads to the exclusion of difference. This requires new ways to conceive of difference, ways that articulate the myriad experiences that exist. Rather than seeing difference as something between people, we need to conceive of difference as process (as proposed by Crosby) and a means of dialogue that contributes to shattering notions of Self/Other.

There is tremendous potential in sharing memoir for building bridges that take into account difference without erasing it. Further, writing in the in-between location, the memoirist allows for the possibility of imagining new connections across difference. Keating proposes transformational identity politics as a way to conceive of these types of connections in a new way. Keating defines transformational identity politics:

Unlike conventional identity politics – where social actors base their political theories and strategies on their personal sense of ethnic, gender, and sexual identity – transformational identity politics deconstructs all such notions of unified, stable identities. […] Rather than simply enabling alliances across differences, transformational identity politics employs these differences to generate new forms of commonality. (5)

In other words, seeing difference becomes not something that separates but instead something that has the potential to connect and create dialogue and the opportunity to learn of other experiences. As I have shown through the memoirs in this essay, memoir can be a way to engage the reader in such a dialogue precisely because it opens the reader’s eyes to what is sometimes a very different experience.

Engaging the Reader

In writing memoir, the writer connects to her audience through her own story. In Lying, Slater attempts to connect with her readers in non-traditional ways by writing a different sort of illness memoir. Slater uses the metaphor of epilepsy and lying to tell of her youth and her relationship with her mother, rather than simply writing a tract that details the day-to-day aspects of living with an illness. She connects with her mother and at the same time, she connects with her reader through using epilepsy as a metaphor to describe the complex relationships in her life and to her life. Rather than giving the reader an account of how things were, she is giving her an account of how things felt. Citing Max Black, Nancy Leys Stepan argues, “when we use metaphor, we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word or phrase, whose meaning is the resultant of their interaction” (267). In Slater’s words, “I saw my illness as more than a physical thing; it was also a metaphor, and that helped me make some sense” (157). Seeing the metaphorical relationship and interaction between her illness and other things in her life, Slater draws meaning from her experiences. Metaphor, then, is her way of telling her story to her reader in a way that shapes the text as the “question mark” she calls it at the end of her book (Slater 221). Rather than coming to a definitive understanding of her experience, she finds meaning shaped as a question mark and toys with the notion that there is an ultimate truth to her lived experience. Slater also claims, “if I were making the whole thing up—and I’m not saying I’m making the whole thing up—but if I were, I would be doing it not to create a character as a novelist does, but, instead, to create a metaphor that conveys the real person I am” (162). Her intent, as revealed here, is not only to derive meaning from a life lived; she also wants to convey who she is and her story to her reader. Slater is profoundly aware of the reader/writer/text relationship in writing this book. The way she tells her story is reflective of metaphor’s power to reveal or create meaning. Slater does this so that her reader can have access to her life lived with illness in what she feels is a more accurate way than traditional illness memoirs, which tend to take up illness as a heroic endeavour. Metaphorizing is a creative act in that Slater is calling for the reader to create her own metaphors for her own life.

Taking Slater’s relationship with her mother, epilepsy becomes the metaphor with the meaning reflected in the treacherous and tumultuous mother/daughter relationship. Referring to her mother, Slater writes, “she touched my head gently now, like it was hot, like it was cold, like it was warm, like it was whatever she was not, a wild and totally true world in there, a place she had forsaken for artifice, etiquette, marriage, mediocre love, and which I had returned to her; here, Mom; have my head” (23). Later, she describes her mother, “Her whole life she had fought to stay on the surface of things—to not argue with my father in public, to cover her emotions with a flash smile—and it showed in her face, where lines of deep fatigue were grooved beneath her makeup” (56). Epilepsy shows the reader how Slater’s body is the opposite of her mother’s body. During a seizure, her body is free. She sees her illness as a form of resistance and a mode of escape, and explains:

It was a secret door in the back of a Victorian closet, and when I went through it I entered something soundless and secluded, a place of pure float. Through the thin walls I might hear the other world, the difficult world where maybe women were cold, where there was chalk trotting across a blackboard, Latin verbs declined down to their raw nubs, the titter of frowning girls; I was free from that. I saw hot-air balloons and lovely ladies fed me salted limes, and in this place, my place, I stayed small forever. (74)

During her seizures, Slater is resisting the version of femininity her mother lives. Mother and daughter are opposites. Seeing the body’s freedom as reflected in Slater’s seizures prompts her mother’s resentment of Slater’s illness. Rather than telling her reader about the relationship, she is using the epilepsy to show the divide between the two women.

Slater’s memoir shows a strong awareness of her audience. In Lying, she is in constant dialogue with her reader. She employs metaphor as her main storytelling technique in order that she may connect with her reader on what it means to possibly live with epilepsy. In an aside to her reader following a story about her falling into a grave at a funeral, she confesses that she made up the story, and says, “I was just using a metaphor to try to explain my mental state” (60). The whole of chapter four is written as a letter to her reader, stepping out of the pages and addressing her reader directly. In a memo to her publisher, which is chapter seven in Lying, she writes, “I am so happy you are holding me in your hands. I am sitting far away from you, but when you turn the pages, I feel a flutter in me, and wings rise up” (163). Slater is implying a physical relationship with her reader by becoming the book and placing her self in her reader’s hands. This story is not solely intended for Slater’s own personal growth, but she also reaches through the pages in an attempt to connect and disconnect with her reader, making the writing of memoir more than an isolated act. Woolf appears to capture Slater’s use of lies in constructing her story in A Room of One’s Own: “Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping” (Woolf 4-5). The reader takes a very active role in reading a book like Slater’s. She must sort through the story that Slater writes in order to derive her own meaning. Not only is Slater writing a memoir intended to connect others to life with a possible neurological illness, she is also tantalizing and daring her readers into the story so that they too may take an unavoidable part in it as they sort through the lies, truths, seizures, and the stuff in between.

Conclusion

While the writer’s initial intent in memoir may be to find out more about herself, she is also, to some degree, aware of a place to share that voice. In publishing her story, her intent (although not the only intent) is to bring others to her view of her life and her world. In doing so, she is looking for her self, her world, and how the two interact. There is also the political role of self/world-writing that emphasizes the writing of erased experiences. As Adrienne Rich explains, “this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society” (Rich 2045-6). In the context of memoir, writing to gain self-knowledge is more than writing and exploring the individual self, it is also about voicing the silenced and refusing the forces that erase stories and experiences. In publishing a form of truly auto/biographical writing like memoir, the writer puts her story in connection with others because no person exists in isolation. Lives overlap and encroach upon one another. Hampl argues, “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world” (35). It is the acknowledgement that there is much more out there, and that the story being written is much bigger than the individual writer. In the process of writing and sharing stories, community is generated. The common ground is a need to tell a story. Difference does not need to inhibit community, but should instead be the process through which we conceive of community.

Publishing a memoir pushes the story further and brings the moment of realization to the forefront for the reader. We cannot underestimate the role of the reader in memoir. It is the readers who move the story forward once it is in the public realm. Through reading and acting on the story they read and creating further dialogue with others about the text, the reader is vital to the community building potential of telling life stories in the form of memoir. Placing a story in the public realm “means the breaking of a first seal, the end of a ‘no-admitted’ status, the end of a soliloquy confined to the private sphere and the start of a possible sharing with the unknown other – the reader, whose collaboration with the writer alone allows the work to come into full being” (Trinh 8). While there definitely is something to be said about the process of writing the self, the emphasis in publishing memoir is getting the story into the public realm. Collaborating in this process, the writer, text, and reader propel the story forward and collectively turn it into a tool for change. Memoir allows both writer and reader to imagine new possibilities for interpreting and understanding reality and the cracks within that reality.

The connections that are potentially established in publishing one’s story extend far beyond the local. None of us exists in this world entirely isolated from the experiences of others. Memoir is a genre in which the writer takes up the self in a particular time in order to gain meaning. In this sense, memoir is community building from a push and pull relationship, and it is about being in rupture and in struggle together. It is a way to create dialogue on both a local and global level: bridging difference, imagining new ways to interact in and interpret the world, creating potential for change, and opening up new connections. It is in these spaces and moments that realization is possible and the story moves forward outside the pages of the book.


Notes

1Memoir is certainly not the only genre through which women reclaim voice. Poetry, fiction, film, performance, art, and other visual arts are all sites for telling women’s lives, experiences, and stories. Similarly, other subgenres of auto/biography also offer sites for readers and writers to connect; however, this essay takes up this issue specifically in the context of memoir. For more on this see Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. back

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