“I, too, am a human being”: on intimacy and memoir

Art & Lit Culture Literature

I recently read an article outlining the difference between the genres of memoir and autobiography. A memoir, it stated, is a non-linear narrative, one more focused on a particular topic or event in the writer’s life, while an autobiography is a work written in chronological order that covers the author’s entire life. This is a basic difference (there are, of course, more), but it is an important one, because it determines just how intimate a look into the author’s life the work will be. Lady Gaga once defined songwriting as open-heart surgery; a memoir is perhaps both heart and brain surgery. It is an intimate conversation with the author and one in which they detail their experiences, their thoughts and their feelings on a subject.

A memoir can be sober or it can be funny; it can be written as a way to process an event (or series of events), a defence or as a statement. Some memoirs are general, and some are on very niche subjects. One example is Pamela Paul’s memoir My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues (Henry Holt and Co., 2017). Paul is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and a lifelong reader; naturally, her memoir is about the importance of books in her life, and one book in particular (her Book of Books, Bob).

Another example is Peter Jordan’s In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist (Harper Perennial, 2012). Jordan’s book is part-history and part-memoir, revolving around his love for bicycles. In the case of subjects as specific as these, the personal, or more intimate, aspect of the book, is what makes it more accessible to the general audience. The story of the person, their connection with the subject, is what appeals and connects them to the reader. Here, it should be pointed out that another key difference between memoir and autobiography is that the latter (like its cousin, the biography) tends to tell the story of a notable person. A memoir, on the other hand, can be written by anyone – it is its topic of discussion that is most relevant here.

Paul and Jordan are good examples of this, but an even more excellent example is Tara Westover. It would be fair to say that before 2018, nobody outside of Westover’s circle had ever heard of her. Yet, by the end of 2018, Educated (Hutchinson, 2018) become an international bestseller and Westover – a household name. Why is that? At its most basic, Educated is a story of struggle and perseverance. Westover describes her growth through her education, and her struggle to find her identity as she learns about the world beyond her family’s constructed reality and extreme religious teachings. Westover’s story is unique, but many of her experiences are not that uncommon at all – an example being the violence and abuse she endured from one of her older brothers. She connects to the readers through letting them see some of her most personal (if, at times, horrific) experiences. At the same time, one gets the sense that Educated is intimate not only because Westover shared her life story, but because writing it may have been a way for her to process everything that has happened to her.

A memoir…. can be written by anyone”

This same reciprocal intimacy can be found in Alan Cumming’s memoir Not My Father’s Son (Dey Street Books, 2014). When I first heard of this memoir, I was intrigued: Alan Cumming is one of my favourite actors, and the opportunity to learn about his life and what has made him the person he is today was really interesting. Like Educated, Not My Father’s Son is a reflection on the author’s childhood and life-defining experiences. While Westover narrates in a linear manner, Cumming alternates between his past (memories of his father’s reign of terror and violent outbursts) and the present, when he is shooting an episode of the series Who Do You Think You Are, in which he is learning about his ancestry. As the book progresses and he learns more about his family history, Cumming also comes to terms with his father’s character and his past.

Yet again, a narrative which allows the reader into the author’s heart and mind, and at the same time helps said author to think and reflect. A notable difference here is that unlike Westover, Cumming was already a well-known public figure at the time of his memoir’s publication. This would inevitably guarantee some attention for the book, but more importantly, it gives it another layer of relevance: namely, that in opening himself in this way, Cumming inevitably reminds the world that he is not simply Alan Cumming, the stage and television, and film star. The message is: “I, too, am a human being,” but also, “Hey, I have been through this. You are not alone.”

This extra layer plays an interesting role in political memoirs in particular. There was much discussion in the aftermath of the publication of Michelle Obama’s memoir. Becoming (Crown, 2018) follows the overall thread of overcoming adversity in the sense that it is a story of a young African-American girl from the South Side of Chicago who grew up to become a successful lawyer, career woman, and then First Lady of the United States. This side of her story (hopefully) is well-known by now, and Obama does talk of her loving, close-knit family, of her hard work and the barriers she had to get through in order to get her education, her relationship with her husband, her time on the campaign trail and at the White House.

Here, the sharing of intimate details is yet again a reminder that Michelle Obama was a person with a life and a career before becoming First lady. She discusses the realization that being a lawyer is not what she loves to do after all the effort she put in getting herself through law school; coping with a miscarriage; balancing the life of a career-woman with motherhood; the loss of her father; and addressing the problems her marriage developed as a result of his absence and the pressures she had to face alone. These are problems many women face in their lives, but as she rightly points out, are not talked about as openly. In writing Becoming, Michelle Obama not only shares her story, but, like Alan Cumming and many others, uses it as a platform to discuss larger issues.

There has been a tendency by political figures to publish memoirs with the purpose of driving the discussion or straightening the record.

Yet this is not necessarily a typical example of the relationship between intimacy and political memoir. James Comey’s Memoir A Higher Loyalty (Flatiron Books, 2018) is an example of a different approach. Comey became prominent on the international stage after he chose to re-open the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails in 2016, and later as Donald Trump fired him from his post as FBI director in May 2017. His memoir, unlike Michelle Obama’s, is really about his career as a prosecutor and public servant, and is structured almost the way a legal case would be, with examples aiming to demonstrate (and, in the aftermath of the email scandal, also defend) Comey’s character and Trump’s incompetence and amorality.

In illustrating the former, Comey shares a few memorable stories, such as a funny encounter with an employee at the lunch line at the FBI’s cafeteria. The reader learns that the Comeys lost a newborn son, due to the doctors failing to identify an easily treatable but (at the time) lesser-recognized infection. This tragic moment is among the (if not the) most intimate glimpses into his private life. In a career-focused memoir, it stands out in its personal nature; but, interestingly, it is not the most memorable moment in it. Sure, it reminds the reader that Comey is human, that he is a family man, and a human being, and that is important. But this is not the point of the memoir; in fact, he reminds us of his humanity through a self-critical look at his work and actions. He does not sidestep his mistakes, but openly discusses them. So here, intimate, private moments are a part of the larger fabric; they play a supporting role.

This is not unusual in political memoirs. There has been a tendency by political figures to publish memoirs with the purpose of driving the discussion or straightening the record. Hilary Clinton published a book before her recent presidential campaign (Hard Choices; Simon & Schuster, 2014); Senator Kamala Harris published one, days before announcing her own bid for the presidency (The Truths We Hold: An American Journey; Penguin Press, 2019); President Obama’s memoir (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; Times Books, 1995) was re-published after he was elected in the US Senate in 2004. This type of memoir does feature personal anecdotes and insights, but they illustrate a larger argument, that is, to show why the candidate holds the views and policies that they do. In many ways, a memoir of this type is a campaign manifesto. It serves to introduce a candidate to the larger audience, and often help drive the discussion during a campaign. There is also the type of political memoir, like Hilary Clinton’s What Happened (Simon & Shuster, 2017), which serves the purpose of straightening the record post-campaign, and is more reflective. The role of intimacy in that type of political memoir is essentially the same – it is part of the larger fabric, and it supports a larger argument and narrative.

Ultimately, intimacy is a integral part of a memoir – without intimacy, there can be no memoir. Whether brain surgery, heart surgery, or both, a memoir is an author’s personal take on a subject. It helps authors to think, reflect, maybe heal; and it also allows readers find an important connection to said author, as fellow human beings.

Image Credit: David Flores