Sherry Early over at Semicolon notes of Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land:
The most appalling abuse that Ms. Scheeres documents in her book is spiritual abuse. Counselors and house parents force teens to mouth words of repentance and faith in Christ in order to earn “points” toward release from the school. Even though the James Frey debacle has placed a pall of suspicion over the memoir genre, and even though I have grown up around evangelical, fundamentalist, and Calvinist Christians and have never witnessed anything like the kind of abuse that Ms. Scheeres tells about in her book, I am forced to believe that New Horizons Youth Ministries has been guilty of a serious betrayal of the trust placed in its program by parents and their children.
In the ongoing debate over whether memoirs are “true” or not, this is certainly a good point. When one’s experience is translated and reconfigured upon the page and the words, in turn, become shocking or even run counter to conventional wisdom, at what point must we send in the journalists to corroborate or disclaim a person’s experience? Part of me tends to think that, at least in Jesus Land‘s case, there might be a tad too much scrutiny being applied here, which is an understandable impulse after the James Frey scandal.
But I think Early unearths a far more substantial issue in her questioning. Have today’s memoirs become too subjective? (And by “subjective,” I mean to suggest centered almost exclusively around the memoirist’s redemption. Perhaps “solipsistic” is a better word, although this is, in my judgment, a mite too harsh a modifier.) Part of me suspects that most memoirs published today are near-Pavlovian experiences. The memoirist tells his tale of abuse and the reader is then obliged to feel pity and/or moved for the memoirist, until the inevitable film adaptation, in which the reader transmutes into a filmgoer and is obliged to sit through a five-hankie Hollywood tearjerker of the same experience, the contents further divested of integrity.
This might be oversimplifying the problem, but one need only look at the pre-scandal marketing of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces to see this wholesale celebration of bathos. Consider the sentiment expressed by Oprah in which she declared to Frey that, while reading the book, she flipped back to the cover to see if he was all right. Is this really the stuff that makes memoirs so rewarding?
Allow me to put forth the following hypothesis: Is the memoir so locked in the personal experience of one that it is now impossible or less likely, due to current market conditions or what is currently expected from contemporary memoirs, for the memoirist to even get inside the head of her abusers or those who she would decry as evil, much less herself?
What, for example, makes Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story or Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind good memoirs? I would argue that it isn’t the personal salvation component, although the aftermaths of both women are certainly comforting to hear about, but that it’s the humility and candor that Knapp and Jamison contribute when describing their respective experiences. Both writers are self-critical and both are unafraid to reveal their behavior, warts and all. But simultaneously, they don’t completely demonize themselves or others, nor do they paint themselves as total victims. They are respectful enough to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Indeed, it is the very lack of solipsism that makes these two memoirs striking.
So what happened to the memoir in the past ten years? Was it Dave Eggers sullying the memoir genre with his endless pop cultural references? Was it Angela’s Ashes demanding that all memoirists up the existential ante if they earned the right to chart their experiences?
Whatever it was, I think some sincere component was lost along the way. The memoirists forgot that their purpose was to paint important portraits of human behavior, rather than cater to a specific marketing niche or impress the crowd with stylistic pyrotechnics. Which is a pity, because before all this nonsense (and even after), I always thought that the memoir was one of the most promising places to read about the human experience. And so did William Zinsser in On Writing Well.
(Major hat tip to Brandywine Books)