The best memoirs combine gut-wrenching reality with good writing. They leave you feeling as though you’ve actually gotten to know the writer, or at least how they experienced life during the period written about.
The three compelling new memoirs I review here show that a young woman who lost her memory can still find a way to move forward, that a woman who barely slept for a couple of the years she spent caring for her disabled son can still find her way toward love and meaning, and finally, that a woman born without legs and with a less-than-perfect childhood can have a gratifying life.
All three are eye-opening.
I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia by Su Meck with Daniel de Visé:
Su Meck’s compelling narrative makes you think about what a “self” is. Is it all based on memory? What if you lost, forever, all memory of who you were, what you’d done, and everyone you knew before you were 22? And found yourself starting anew with a husband and young children you didn’t recognize at all?
An overhead fan fell on Meck’s head when she was 22 (and perhaps a previous concussion from an auto accident played a part). She spent weeks in a hospital, ending with doctors scratching their own heads at the lack of brain damage visible on multiple MRIs.
It took many years for Meck to arrive where she is now. Her children are grown, but she’s still coping with profound deficits, barely recovered from what she finally learned about her husband and marriage. At last she recognized how truly not normal she is, having been able to hide much of her constant fear and confusion from the world for a surprising long time.
Now she’s learned how to learn (she had to relearn how to read and write and nearly everything else we take for granted as adults) and is able to look forward to a more fulfilling future. The writing is smooth and the narrative reads like fiction. I don’t doubt that we have to thank her co-author for that.
It surprised me to read that, according to the Brain Injury Association of America, http://www.biausa.org “more than 3.1 million children and adults in the U.S. live with a lifelong disability as a result of TBI.” That very likely represents a lot of confusion, hiding, and even shame on the part of the injured and their families. Thus, this deeply felt memoir from the inside, so to speak, may help bring understanding, perhaps hope, to many.
Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours by Maria Mutch:
This is one of the most idiosyncratic memoirs I’ve ever read. First let me say I enjoyed reading it due to the superb writing and linguistic flair of Maria Mutch, whose poems, essays, and fiction have appeared in numerous journals. My enjoyment was unexpected, though, because this is a book about the awfulness of getting through two years of sleepless nights, while caring for a screaming autistic son who also has Down Syndrome.
Mutch’s first son could speak before he lost the ability. When he could no longer communicate in the usual way, Mutch tried everything to understand him with what I would call only minor and infrequent success. She took him to see and hear jazz performances at all hours, which often engaged him. And yet, those long lonely nights were hellish. She writes:
Not every night has to be tackled in fragments, hour by hour, but most of them do, so that insomnolence has made it hard to grasp the one thing that energizes me regardless of day or night, which is meaning.
As humans, and certainly as writers, we work hard to find patterns in our lives, even when what we’re dealing with is beyond explanation—and even beyond a normal range of hope. What Mutch does is discover, delve into, and perhaps one might say obsess, over the similarities of her own life during these years with that of Antarctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd’s months-long solo journey.
I get how the author used these comparisons to make some sense of what she was enduring through so many exhausting nights, tending to her son’s screeches, throwing of things, and covering of himself in feces, while her other son and her husband slept deeply in nearby rooms. Still, personally, I found the interwoven Byrd sections less involving. A listing of his preparations for his icy excursion, descriptions of his life in his little hut, and commiserations with his fears and his hope for survival: while fascinating as a story on their own, it mostly felt superfluous here
What’s really good, though, is Mutch’s accommodation to her evolving reality, and her ability to call what she feels for this difficult child love. Knowing how even a minor sleep deficit can distort one’s ability to cope, I can’t imagine how she does it. I’m gratified to have been able to share her well-told story.
Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience by Eileen Cronin:
Born with one leg ending above the knee, one leg just below, Eileen only realized her plight when she was about four years old and left behind when her very large Catholic family went on vacation. Perhaps if she'd had a wiser and more knowledgeable upbringing, she would have had an easier time adjusting, with or without her painful artificial legs. But she was persistent and resilient and overcame enormous challenges, both psychological and physical.
Now a writer, a mother, a practicing psychologist, and assistant editor of Narrative, Cronin's story is, in many ways, the story of all of us who didn't feel we fit in during our teens. It's those everyday details about her early loves and losses that make this tale utterly believable and totally intriguing. As she rises above what I'd call an extraordinary set of handicaps, Cronin demonstrates grace and a sense of humor.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of the novel Kylie’s Heel