February 8, 2011

Appearances vs. “Reality”

My wonderful mother-in-law Jean has been visiting all week. She was going to be helping look after the kids while I was at AWP, but we got to visit instead. She’s a book fan-atic from way back, and she belongs to at least two book clubs, so we have a grand time talking books and authors.

She was telling me about David Pelzer’s A Child Called It. I hadn’t read it. It’s a memoir about David’s childhood. His mother singled him out from his brothers for significant abuse (making him eating feces and puke, making him drink ammonia, burning him, and much more). Really rough stuff.

As an aside, I told Mom that after having kids I couldn’t stand to read these horrible things any more. It just tears me up too much. This may be lack of courage on my part ~ I know the world’s a horrible place sometimes, but being so starkly reminded of it is hard. This is the reason I hardly ever read the newspaper any more.

Anyway, Mom and I were looking David Pelzer up on the web and came across the controversy surrounding the book. The parents are dead, and one brother claims it never happened and another claims it did and once David was taken away to foster care the mother focused on this other brother, who is now coming out with his own memoir. Another part of the controversy is that people claim that David made it up almost entirely and only for money (a la the unscrupulous James Frey).

One thing that struck me was the vehemence of some of his detractors. It was as if they felt personally betrayed by David, that he had said something that offended them way beyond the claims of a mere book. The very act of reading the book violated them in some way. Often, they would point out things that seemed factually incorrect, such as that David could remember some things, but he couldn’t remember exactly what his mom looked like. Well, if I had a mom that was that horrible, I’d forget as much about her as I could. They pointed out a bunch of other things. It was as if they so wanted the world to be black and white, not the complex thing that it is. Plus, it is a huge case of blaming the victim ~ which is very very wrong. So what if both are true: that David stretched things just a bit and he is good at self-promotion yet he was horribly abused as well?

I also read a New York Times review of the memoir called A Box of Darkness by Sally Ryder Brady. It’s about Sally and her husband Upton, who was a publishing executive and was also closeted and gay but had affairs. Much like the Pelzer memoir, what went on within the home was very different from outward appearances. There was the life of the family and then what the world saw. And not only that, each member of the family saw family life differently.

Which brings me to: You just don’t know what goes on in a family. Just because someone doesn’t look like an abuser ~ and what does an abuser look like, exactly? ~ doesn’t mean they aren’t. (Which reminds me of Mary Gaitskill’s wonderful story in this week’s New Yorker). Just as you don't know what goes on in a family, you never know what’s going on inside someone either.

And that’s why I’m a writer.

Questions of the Day: Where’s the line of truth and fiction for you in memoir?

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