Category Archives: Memoirs

Weekends at Bellevue

When I was growing up, the name “Bellevue” was shorthand for the hospital that took in the crazies. Reading Julie Holland’s new memoir, Weekends in Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER I learned that it still has that reputation. It’s the place where the police bring the naked guy who’s barking like a dog in Times Square, along with the bridge jumpers, the violent schizophrenics, and the ones feigning psychosis in order to get a meal and a warm bed. Holland, a psychiatrist, was always drawn to the extreme cases and enjoyed working two fifteen hour shifts each weekend to have the week off with her family. Her cool-girl, tough talking exterior served her well, or so she thought, with patients who were verbally and physically violent until she realized she wasn’t coping with the pain those traits masked. My favorite medical memoirs combine good storytelling with insight about the teller; Holland does both those things well.
I’ve put together a list of additional memoirs by doctors that I think are particularly interesting.

Memoirs for discussion, continued…

I was delighted to see a post about my book on Book Group Buzz, the Booklist blog, especially since I’ve just been thinking about the qualities that make a memoir appropriate for book discussion groups. For me, it’s the relationship between character and story. If you’ve read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, you’ll know what I mean. Wolff writes about his teenage years, when he’s trying on identities, giving in to bad impulses, hanging out with the wrong crowd but also dealing with his divorced mother and the series of wildly unsuitable stand-in fathers she lives with. His mother loves him, but she’s clueless about the appropriate way to bring up a child. His real father is a con artist who’s never on the scene. Wolff learns to define himself in opposition to his stepfather, making bad choices along the way, but he always has a dream, a core of himself that’s inviolate. Somehow he believes that despite his wildness, his acting out, he will escape unscathed into a better place; he’s somehow smarter, better, destined for other things. His memoir is far more than the recounting of abuse and bad choices that fuels so many dysfunctional family memoirs. Wolff’s self-awareness, his ability to make us understand how he fought to invent himself,  and the way he uses humor to defuse and describe the most scary and poignant episodes give This Boy’s Life depth and style. It has always intrigued me that Wolff’s next book, Old School, picks up where This Boy’s Life leaves off, but the story continues as fiction. Hmm, now wouldn’t that be interesting for a book group–to read and discuss those books together.
I’ve put together the first of several reading lists of memoirs that I think book groups would enjoy discussing. It’s  .pdf so you can print it off and take it with you.

 

Memoirs for book discussion groups

At my book group, one of the best discussions we had was about the memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan. We couldn’t stop turning it around, looking at it from various angles. It’s filled with great storytelling and wonderful set pieces about family and friends that are funny and emotionally piercing. Boylan is writing about her sexuality, the way she knew from age 3 that she was trapped in the wrong body, but while there’s pain and struggle to her story, it’s a joyous, eye-opening book.
There are so many memoirs that are ideal for book group discussion. I just did a Q&A session on this topic for the blog at ReadingGroupGuides.com with Shannon McKenna Schmidt, so you’ll find title suggestions there. There’s an icon in my book, Read On…Life Stories to identify memoirs that are good for book groups. I’ll come back to this topic in the next few weeks with more titles of memoirs that are great for discussion.

Teens Need to Read Memoirs, Too

I read so many wonderful memoirs over the course of writing Read On…Life Stories, and a number of times I thought about how much I would have enjoyed many of these books as a teenager, how the stories of real lives are comforting, inspiring, enlightening, informational and often deeply satisfying because we know they’re written by the people who lived the experience. They’re heartfelt. I’ve posted a list of some memoirs that I think teens would enjoy–try them out on teens you know!

I’m not denying/ignoring the power of fiction here, which we all know, is undeniable. Certainly fiction can provide some of the most powerful reading experiences of our lives, but a good memoir is never a dry recounting of facts, a great memoir is literature, like fiction. A good memoir has a beginning, full of exposition and character development, a middle, often with climactic events, and an ending that ties up what came before, often with a satisfying resolution. If you think about Angela’s Ashes—that certainly is a piece of literature with all those qualities. We know that in fiction a writer has used memory, experience, and imagination, all the tools of creative writing. What we sometimes forget, is that memoirs are also shaped by these same literary devices.

There’s also a lot to be said for reading the right book at the right time. The teen years are a time when we need to read the right books–we need guidance from wherever we can get it! Memoirs and autobiographies, stories of real lives by the people who lived them—and survived to tell the tale—can help teens navigate a formative period when they need a bridge to the adult world. Many memoirs are coming of age stories that specifically deal with those years where teens are trying on identities and trying to understand what seems like the secret language of the adult world.

There’s often raw emotion and vulnerability in memoirs, like the music teens listen to and the poetry they write. There’s also the fascination of reading about how the world looks through someone else’s eyes, from inside someone else’s skin.

Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult by Jayanti Tamm

Jayanti Tamm starts her wonderful memoir with the story about how her parents, total strangers to each other, were married by Guru Sri Chinmoy after a meditation session, agreeing to dedicate their lives to his cult. Tamm, the child of their supposedly celibate Cartwheelsunion, was hailed as the Chosen One, with a coveted relationship with the charismatic Guru. She grew up wearing saris, spending her nights at meditation sessions, competing for Guru’s attention and signs of his approval. Guru controlled the lives of his followers, distorted family relationships, chased after fame for himself, and eagerly sought celebrity converts. As a teenager, Tamm saw the hypocrisy in Guru’s world and desperately tried to separate herself from the cult. With the hard-won insights of a survivor, Tamm tells how she endured the ostracism of friends and family and the anguish of losing the only safe haven she had ever known. This is an unusual and very absorbing coming-of-age memoir.

I heard Jayanti speak about Cartwheels in a Sari, read the book, and was delighted when she agreed to an interview. You can find out more about Jayanti and her memoir at www.jayantitamm.com

Roz: What made you decide to write a memoir at this point in your life? Was it a difficult decision?

Jayanti: When I was banished from the cult in 1995, all of my energies were focused on trying to create a life in the ‘outside’ world. Attending college, forming relationships, and discovering the realms that had been forbidden to me, took all of my energies. I was also too angry and confused to be able to clearly analyze everything that I had gone through. In fact it wasn’t until after my parents were banished from the cult in 2002, that, for the first time, we were able to speak openly about our experiences. Prior to that, as ‘good disciples,’ we had always kept our concerns and feelings about the cult to ourselves. Therefore once my parents left, I felt as though it was safe to explore my past. I began therapy, which was extremely helpful. During that period, I realized that if I was ever going to be able to fully understand and process all that had happened to me, I needed to examine my past. As writing was always something that I had enjoyed—I’ve been keeping diaries since I was five—it seemed that writing my story would be a way to better understand my own life, and to possibly be able to help other people by sharing my story.

Roz: You recall some very personal memories in your book. Would it have been easier for you to fictionalize the names and places and write it as a novel?

Jayanti: I believe the best memoirs are the ones that honestly and openly head directly into the areas that are deemed as the most shameful, personal, and hurtful. It is exactly there, riskily venturing into those hidden and secret memories, that the writer finds the most important lessons.

For me, writing my memoir was part of my own healing, so I knew that trying to hide my truth through fiction would not serve my true purpose.

Roz: Guru discouraged normal family relationships: the most important relationship for you, your parents, and your brother was the one each had with Guru. Once you left Guru, how hard was it for you to understand what a good relationship between parent and child could be?

Jayanti: Since I never had a ‘normal’ family—the guru was the central figure in our lives, the one who made all our decisions—my family never partook in traditional family activities—weddings, birthday parties, and barbeques. It is only now that I have my own family—I’m married and have a baby daughter—that I am learning and testing out what it means to have a family on my own terms.

Roz: How did your parents react when you told them you were going to write a memoir? Have there been any unexpected consequences?

Jayanti: Because my parents had left the cult in 2002, when I told them that I was writing a memoir about growing up in the cult, they were incredibly supportive. Both my mother and father were gracious and generous about sharing their stories with me for my book. I’m so grateful for all of their support. Without their input, it would have been impossible to have fully told the story of my family.

However, not everyone in my family has been supportive. My brother and my aunt are still devout disciples, and they have not spoken to me in years. When the news leaked out that I was writing a memoir, my brother sent my mother an angry email, chastising her for supporting my efforts.

Roz: Has writing your memoir changed your view of that time of your life? Did you learn something new about yourself from writing your memoir?

Jayanti: Writing Cartwheels in a Sari has been a life altering experience. I have gained so much by the entire process, and I feel so humbled to have had my story published and to have received wide-spread critical acclaim. From both writing and later in speaking about my memoir, I have gained an understanding about just how complicated the subject matter truly is—there are no easy answers.

Often at book events, people ask me why a person would decide to join a cult? And why did the leader have such a powerful hold over the followers? In the memoir I explore those questions, and though I offer a series of possible explanations, there isn’t a single, clear answer. Much of what occurs in the memoir has to do with the amorphous issue of faith—when one possesses faith one views the world a certain way, and when that faith suddenly disappears, the world is permanently altered forever, even though, in a sense, nothing has actually changed. It’s truly fascinating.

Roz: Have your childhood experiences as a member of a cult made you skeptical about organized religion in general?

Jayanti: Currently, I have no desire to follow any type of religion. I’m extremely skeptical about placing my trust in any leader or teachings. I’m very happy enjoying the secular world and being my own teacher.

Roz: What was the one area of your memoir that you wondered if you should put in? Are you glad you did?

Jayanti: Every episode that I initially hesitated to use, that filled me with a sense of apprehension, even dread, was what I understood had to be included. A memoir is the last place to withhold and censor truth from the reader. It has to be open and honest, bearing all that has occurred.

Roz: Do you feel that your memoir is strictly faithful to what happened? Does it matter if memoir is not strictly faithful to what happened? Could it ever be?

Jayanti: Memoirs, of course, allow for the author to reconstruct events by splicing memories with emotions. The memoir presents the truth through a personal filter. My memoir is the truth as it happened to me and my family.

Roz: What are you reading now?

Jayanti: Because my new project is a novel, for inspiration, I am delving into novels by talented and prolific storytellers. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s Digging to America, and now I’m reading Nick Hornby’s About a Boy.

Making Connections

I just finished reading the memoir Bubuildinghome-largeilding a Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love by Rachel Simon. Don’t be put off by the title, which doesn’t even hint at the emotional richness of Simon’s story about renovating an old row house in Wilmington, Delaware. I had read her earlier memoir, Riding the Bus With My Sister: A True Life Journey and knew that she’s someone for whom personal relationships hold the key to life’s joys and heartbreak. Simon can’t walk down the street without making a friend. She’s genuinely interested in everyone’s life but most particularly in scrutinizing her own and telling us the universal truths that she unearths. Her husband Hal calls her “The Girl From Epiphanema” and no nickname could be more apt.

As she and Hal renovate their house, every phase recalls a part of her life. When she feels a sense of emptiness as the house is stripped and rooms gutted, she searches through her fractured childhood and difficult relationship with her mother and siblings to make a coherent narrative of their present relationships. When she and Hal move out during the renovations, Simon remembers the dislocating moves of her childhood after her parents’ divorce and her move out of Hal’s apartment years ago.  As the rooms of their house are stripped, gutted, and put back together, she examines her connections with parents, siblings, and friends. Simon learns lessons–and has epiphanies–at every step of the way. Her insights will have you thinking instantly about your own relationships and how forgiveness, love, patience, tolerance, and commitment will make them better.

If it seems strange to you that the renovation process is a catalyst for such a profound trip into Simon’s psyche, you only need to recall that in dreams, a house represents our inner selves, our thoughts about how we feel about where we are in our lives.  Dismantling and repairing a house has the same effect on Simon–it’s a waking dream that we share with her. There’s more about Simon on her website.

A good place for serious readers

Welcome to A Reader’s Place–a resource for readers of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and memoirs. In addition to blog posts  there’s a special section devoted to memoirs. Click on the Memoirs tab above or the links to the right and you’ll find Reading Lists, Award Lists, quotes, and other interesting information about the genre that keeps on giving. Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, or contact me about speaking.

Read On Life StoriesMy first book, Jewish-American Literature: A Guide to Reading Interests  was published in 2004 and won the Assoc. of Jewish Libraries Reference Award for that year. It’s still a good guide to the books that have made Jewish literature such an important part of the American literary experience. memoirs and autobiographies–Read On…Life Stories: Reading Lists for Every Tastewas published in 2009. It seems like everyone is writing memoirs these days and we’re all reading and talking about them. The booklists it contains will help you find memoirs you’ll enjoy reading, thinking about, and discussing with friends.

Women in the Lit LandFrom 2015 to 2017 I worked on a different sort of book, a history of women in the U.S. literary community from colonial times to today. A collaborative effort, the genesis for the idea came from the Women’s National Book Association, which celebrated its centennial in 2017. The book is titled Women in the Literary Landscape: A Women’s National Book Association Centennial Publication. I was asked to be the editor, but then ended up writing parts of it as well. It was published in 2018 by C&R Press. The book traces the contributions of women in all aspects of the book world and in parallel, the history of the Women’s National Book Association.