I used to refer to my dark times as the IWTDs, when the mental refrain I want to die so dominated my thoughts that I took to writing the acronym in the margins of books I was reading. It was a huge improvement when I began scribbling STFA—stay the fuck alive—in my books instead. One problem depressed writers face is how to manage what William James called the “metaphysical tedium vitae” of the writing life that looms when they find themselves face to face with unstructured time, a big project, and their own rebellious minds. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, indeed.
Any number of recent memoirs—most, but not all, by women—face down the question James posed in his essay “Is Life Worth Living?” Should we go on living, and if so, what will our lives look like? If terrible things have happened to us, is healing possible? Each of the four writers under discussion here—Jessa Crispin, Jacqueline Rose, Rachel Moran, and Sandra Cisneros—confronts these questions to varying degrees. Constructing a life, like constructing a memoir or a biography, involves asking how to live. Any reader confined to her bed by depression may find whole communities of fellow travelers in the ranks of memoirs published during the so-called memoir boom.1 Best-selling examples of this trend include Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2006), Jeannette Walls’s Glass Castle (2006), and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012). Although Walls and Strayed face serious issues including poverty, homelessness, and addiction, Gilbert’s own memoir has been taken to exemplify a genre of narrative we might call “first-world white girl problems.” It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who treats her depression with trips to Italy, India, and Bali, even if we empathize with her grief at ending a marriage.
Other notable, if less famous, entrants in the “Live Through This” genre include three memoirs about surviving difficult parents. Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004) is probably the best known, and documents with lyrical honesty his relationship with his homeless father. Domenica Ruta’s With or Without You (2013) is a stunning portrait of a mother-daughter relationship shaped by addiction and violence in an Italian working-class neighborhood near Boston. And Ariel Gore (publisher of Hip Mama) writes tenderly about caregiving and emotional boundaries in The End of Eve (2014), when she finds herself tending to an insane and impossible mother dying from cancer. Through the crucible of the parent–adult child relationship, each of these writers struggles to find a way to live “with or without” their parent’s influence. That the struggle feels like life or death is best exemplified by Nick Flynn on his father: “If I let him inside I would become him … If I went to the drowning man the drowning man would pull me under. I couldn’t be his life raft.” Memoirs like these feel taut with necessity, as if the author had to write them or die.
Still, it is hard, as a memoir writer, to avoid charges of narcissism. How does telling you about my life—however healing it may be for me to write it—help you live yours? A newer strand of memoir/biography hybrid turns to literary and artistic forebears for answers. Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (2012), Kate Bolick’s Spinster (2015), and Olivia Laing’s Lonely City (2016) all explore their authors’ inner lives through the lives of other artists and writers, mostly but not always women, often but not always modernists.
In The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries, Jessa Crispin, the scrappy founding editor of Bookslut and Spolia, finds herself at an impasse when a suicide threat brings the Chicago police to her apartment. She needs a reason to live, and turns to the dead for help. “The writers and artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night: I needed to know how they did it.” How did they stay alive? She decides to go visit them—her “dead ladies”—in Europe, and leave the husk of her old life behind. Crispin’s list includes men and women, exiles and expatriates, each of whom is paired with a European city. Her first port of call is Berlin, and William James. Rather than explicitly narrating her own struggle, Crispin focuses on James’s depressive crisis in Berlin, where as a young man he learned how to disentangle his thoughts and desires from his father’s. Out of James’s own decision to live—“my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”—the rest of his life takes shape. Crispin reconstructs what it might have felt like to be William James before he was William James, professor at Harvard and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. If he can live through the uncertainty of a life-in-progress, so too might she.
Part of the pleasure of reading a memoir/biography like Crispin’s is in arguing with the writer.
But not before checking in with Nora Barnacle in Trieste, Rebecca West in Sarajevo, Margaret Anderson in the south of France, W. Somerset Maugham in St. Petersburg, Jean Rhys in London, and the miraculous and amazing surrealist photographer Claude Cahun on Jersey Island. Through each biographical anecdote, each place, Crispin analyzes some issue at work in her own life: wives and mistresses, revolutionaries with messy love lives, and the problem of carting around a suicidal brain. Crispin travels with one suitcase, but a good deal of emotional baggage. While she focuses on each subject’s pain, what she’s seeking is how these writers and artists alchemized their suffering into art, and how that transmutation opens up an individual’s story to others.
A productive tension emerges from this dialogue between memoirist and biographical subject, especially in moments when the reader wonders whose life is really the focus. This tension is particularly interesting in the chapters on Margaret Anderson and Jean Rhys, where Crispin’s biographical subjects refuse to conform to script. Anderson was the fearless editor of the Little Review, the journal that dared publish the first 13 chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses and was put on trial for doing so. A Midwestern outsider whose magazine changed the face of modernist publishing, Anderson is clearly a hero figure for Crispin, so much so that at one point Crispin admits, “I have lost track of whether I am writing about Margaret Anderson or about myself.” The complexity of the biographical memoir arises from this transference; Crispin wants to write about Anderson’s escape from Chicago, which mirrors her own escape from Chicago. She then resists actually writing about Anderson in the south of France (her supposed focus), where Anderson studied with spiritualist George Gurdjieff and where she lived out the second half of her life. There’s nothing there for Crispin to identify with. Sometimes biography teaches us more about the biographer than her ostensible subject.
How you feel about the presence of transference between a biographer and her subject will determine how much patience you have for this genre. I loved Crispin’s chapter on Jean Rhys precisely because of how much Rhys irritates Crispin. Crispin hates Rhys’s learned helplessness, her dependence on men, and her “lost girl” winsomeness, even as she loves Rhys’s fiction. And Crispin makes the excellent point that while Rhys’s novels portray women as victims, she could as easily have written about her own sense of entitlement as the daughter of British colonialists in the Caribbean. Part of the pleasure of reading a memoir/biography like Crispin’s is in arguing with the writer; I think Rhys’s representation of aggrieved female passivity is angry, not helpless, and that her anger stems from her complex social status. Nonetheless, Crispin is a delight to argue with, because Dead Ladies preserves the raw, ragged edges of a writer’s mind in search of answers. Also admirable is how Crispin makes her journey in search of kinship and community among the dead feel so very necessary. In the end, learning how other women and men decided to live helps Crispin decide that suicide is a failure of imagination. “Here is something else you could do,” Crispin’s ladies tell her; here is some other way to live.
Jacqueline Rose’s Women in Dark Times offers something of a political prescription for contemporary memoir by resuscitating the second-wave feminist idea that “the personal is political.” The biographical subjects Rose discusses transform personal trauma into political and artistic engagement with the world, even if they are cut down by history, like revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (murdered by the German state), artist Charlotte Salomon (murdered in Auschwitz), or teenager Heshu Yones (murdered by her father in a so-called “honor killing”). But because these women express the truth of their inner lives in words or art, they are not victims. “Feminism gains nothing,” Rose argues, “by swamping women in their worst fates.” Radical politics demands a radical investigation of one’s inner life, and Rose believes that women “force to the surface” the unconscious, unspeakable, and invisible ways women suffer under patriarchy. Connecting our private and public lives is political, and suggests a way for contemporary memoirists to think about the significance of the narratives they tell. No doctor can cure me, we might say, “unless he can cure the whole world.”
Rose structures her book in three parts: the first section details the ways Luxemburg, Salomon, and Marilyn Monroe draw upon their wounded inner lives as a source of political energy. The central section investigates the complex scandal of “honor killing” in Britain, with special attention to the testimonies of women who put themselves in danger by speaking out against the violence. The final section documents the art of three women—Esther Shalev-Gerz, Yael Bartana, and Thérèse Oulton—whose work makes space for a plurality of voices, “telling stories that need but do not want to be told,” that must be told in order to heal the world, however much we would rather not hear them. “Something vile is increasingly coming to light,” Rose argues when examining statistics concerning violence against women and the sexual abuse of children in the UK, or thinking about global issues like female genital mutilation or the use of rape as an act of war. Trauma silences, sometimes for decades, and the struggle to put words or images to those truths is, in fact, a matter of life and death.
Rose’s most compelling case of a woman teaching us how to live in the face of death is Charlotte Salomon, whose miraculous Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater?) is a visual and aural autobiography of roughly eight hundred gouaches completed between 1941 and 1943, while she was in hiding from the Nazis.2 Faced with death, Salomon painted her life and the lives of her family, recording their history with passionate urgency. That family history is itself a tragic one, comprising seven suicides, including that of Salomon’s mother. Salomon learns her family’s secret history of suicide only once World War II has begun, from the grandfather who may have sexually abused her mother. Salomon survives the twin horrors of her family history and the threat of the Nazis by trading one insanity for another: “In order to stop herself from going crazy, she must create something mad.” Salomon vows to “live for them all” and sets about recreating the lives and voices of her lost family. Although Life? or Theater? is painted, it is structured like a theatrical drama, and assigns each character a popular song, a refrain, that accompanies their presence on “stage.” Therefore, using what she has (watercolors and paper), Salomon gestures toward the multiplicity of voices, people, and songs weaving through the Jewish Berlin of her youth. She crowds her pages with the dead and the lost—people, songs, and houses—and by doing so remains fully alive until her murder at Auschwitz. This is, Rose tells us, “painting against terror,” an act of creativity that shows how bringing painful knowledge to light might teach us how to stay alive long enough to create a better world.
Rose is adamant that none of her subjects be seen as victims, even when they are targets of a history or culture that threatens them with violence. Her focus is on speech, because “you cannot, even by killing, stamp out words.” This is especially true in the chapter on honor killings in Britain, when she focuses on the dangerous speech acts of women determined to bring this violence to light. The central voice in this chapter is that of 16-year-old Heshu Yones, murdered by her father in 2003 for attempting to escape an arranged marriage. In the farewell letter she writes her father, she voices the difference between them: “maybe you expected a different me and I expected a different you.” Where Yones acknowledges the differences between modern daughter and traditional father, her father would suppress that difference with brutality. Rose’s discussion of the problems for feminism in speaking of honor killings is particularly nuanced: if we refuse to intervene on the basis of “cultural difference,” we allow for violence against women to continue. But in Britain, much of the outcry against honor killings has been co-opted by right-wing anti-immigration parties. The partial solution, as Rose sees it, is to seek out the “intimate” voices of Muslim women, and to listen carefully when they—often at grave risk—speak in public about their private lives. Listening is the necessary corollary to telling the story that needs, but does not want, to be told.
Rachel Moran offers such a story in Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, her stunning memoir of life as a teenage prostitute in Dublin. The problem with writing this memoir as an adult, she says, is that it forces her to “journey into somewhere I don’t want to go, but must.” Bringing her private life into public discourse is thus both an act of personal healing and a political move (Moran is now an anti-prostitution activist, and her book is blurbed by Catharine A. MacKinnon). Moran was the oldest child in a family doubly marginalized by poverty and parental mental illness; she writes beautifully of how separate she always felt from the world, set apart from other children by her soiled clothing and lack of schoolbooks. Teenage homelessness lead inexorably to a life on the streets, where the habits of secrecy, addiction, and exclusion she learned in childhood seamlessly merged into the new world of prostitution.
Perhaps when we struggle with the question of whether life is worth living, we simply require a change of focus.
Moran’s explicit purpose in this work is to explode the various myths she sees surrounding prostitution (myths of the “happy hooker,” and so on). But I think that her real achievement lies in how she “alchemizes” her individual experience into a work of art meant to illuminate the experience of other prostituted women: “It was a common, shared, collective experience, this separation of self.” For one woman to give voice and shape to the inner experience of a marginalized, silenced community is in itself a political act. Perhaps because she considers her story a collective one, Moran never once considers suicide: “It is my life and I have always loved it.”
Perhaps when we struggle with the question of whether life is worth living, we simply require a change of focus: away from the individual and toward the community, or away from our suffering lives and toward their redemption in art. While Sandra Cisneros’s “jigsaw autobiography” A House of My Own touches on trauma, poverty, and struggle, an overall spirit of joy and loveliness animates her book. Even the material form of the book—its glossy, substantial paper and full-color photographs—testifies to the power of beauty and creativity. “We tell a story to survive a memory,” Cisneros writes of these autobiographical essays, “the same way the oyster survives an invading grain of sand. The pearl is the story of our lives.” In these essays, Cisneros examines the tension between memory and art, embodying Rose’s call for women to bring their inner lives to the surface.
Cisneros’s art, as it emerges in her best-selling The House on Mango Street (1989), comes from “discovering and naming my otherness,” by finding her voice as a Mexican American, female, working-class writer. Yet the paradox, as Cisneros sees it, is that writing the life stories that became Mango Street exile her from her own origins. The artist drifts away from her roots “on that little white raft called the page.” This is why houses become so important to Cisneros, and why they are so lovingly depicted here. From Hydra House in Greece, where she writes the first draft of Mango Street, to her beloved purple house in San Antonio, they are the “home in the heart,” where she lives and works. Art becomes her home and her salvation.
“I Can Live Sola and I Love to Work” is the title of Cisneros’s manifesto for women writers, and seems as good an answer to the problem of the IWTDs as any other. For each of these four writers, telling life stories connects the individual to a larger human community. Reading them, we embrace and learn from our dark times.