February 8, 2011
For some memoirists, the idea of doing research in order to broaden the scope of our work, to read our or our subjects’ lives against information we gather from other sources, may seem to be beyond the scope of memoir. Isn’t memoir about our memory of the past? Isn’t our memory of the past enough? Yet, I’ve recently read two memoirs that reminded me of how critical the role of research in memoir can be. And my own recent research for my book about my family’s experiences during World War II have underscored why it’s important for me to do research even as I rely, too, upon memory for my narrative.
The first is Sue Miller’s, The Story of My Father: A Memoir. Much of Miller’s memoir details her relationship with her father as he develops Alzheimer’s, though it dips, too, into the past to clarify family dynamics. But Miller doesn’t stick with her own experience and her father’s. She broadens her vision of her father’s behavior by doing extensive research into Alzheimer’s, and as she learns about this condition, so do we, her readers. This, then, becomes not only a particular story of Miller’s father, although that thread of meaning is stunning, but also the story of Miller’s father in the context of her inquiry into the medical research on Alzheimer’s so that she can better understand what her father is living through.
And the second is Patrick Cockburn’s and Henry Cockburn’s, Henry’s Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, a Father and Son’s Story. This memoir alternates Patrick Cockburn’s (the father’s) story with that of Henry Cockburn’s (the son’s). Henry’s narrative is told from the point of view of someone who is still experiencing life with schizophrenia. Patrick’s narrative includes what he’s learned about schizophrenia, again, so that he can better understand his son and how schizophrenia has hijacked the family’s life. Though Patrick sees Henry’s behavior as life-threatening – Henry wanders off, takes off his clothes, swims in ice cold water, sleeps outside naked in winter until he’s caught and taken back into custody, Henry relates to the reader the logic as he sees it of his behavior. Henry’s life, then, is portrayed against the backdrop of all those unnamed others with schizophrenia because of Patrick’s use of research.
Within the past few weeks I’ve found a book I know my mother read during World War II. It’s a book of advice to women by Ethel Gorham called So Your Husband’s Gone to War, published in 1942, before my father went to the Pacific, but at a time when many, many men were departing for foreign battlefields. And this book was a revelation.
For me, it’s important to try to climb back into a period in history by reading books, newspaper and magazine articles written at that time. It’s one thing to learn about how, say, husbands and wives and lovers kept in touch with one another by letters during the war from a history book. But it’s quite another thing to read a contemporary account written in 1942 and to realize that when a woman wrote to a man, she might not get a letter back from him for many months. And during that time, she didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
During that entire time, she was cautioned to keep writing letters to him. She was told that the tone of her letters should be cheerful, lest he get her letters, say, when he was in a hospital. Not getting a letter from a wife or a lover while a man was on the front lines was devastating; the man assumed his wife or lover left him for someone else. And so women, during World War II, were urged to write their spouses or their lovers regularly – to establish a routine (daily, bi-weekly, weekly) and stick to it, no matter what. To stick to it – and here’s the heart-stopping realization I had – even if she didn’t get a letter in return. And she was urged to keep writing until she had definitive news about what had happened to her husband, which could take weeks, months, or years.
Imagine what that must have felt like. Imagine sending a man off to war. Imagine writing to him, and hearing from him. Then imagine writing to him, and not hearing anything back. What must it have felt like to have this happen? And what must it have been like to sit down every day or every few days to pen a letter from home about the trivial and important details of life on the home front when you didn’t know whether your husband or your lover was dead or alive.
Reading Gorham’s description of one wife’s stream of letters that received no reply made me realize – for the first time – what it must have been like for my mother when my father was away, what it must have been like for all these women. I can’t “know,” of course. I wasn’t there. It isn’t my experience. I can’t pretend to understand what they went through. But because I’m writing about my mother’s life during the war, I can try to know. I think it’s my responsibility to try to understand to the degree that I can. And this is what research does for me. It helps me to know what I couldn’t possibly imagine otherwise.
For until I read Gorham, I thought of letters going to and from the front. But I never thought of what it must have been like to wait for a letter if you were a woman at home. I never thought of what it must have been like not to have a letter when you anticipated it was coming. Perhaps this is why so many World War II letters are so specific about when the writer will next communicate. (“I’ll write again Monday”; “I’ll write again on the weekend after a few days of double shifts.” “If you don’t hear from me, it’s because they’re moving our battalion.” “If you don’t hear from me, it’s because we’ll be very busy for the next few weeks.”) Whatever you write, Gorham cautions the women back home, never write that you don’t have the time to write.
(I was once waiting to observe a class at Hunter College. Students were talking about their cell phones and about how one of their classmates had recently heard about the death of a family member living overseas. They began musing about a time before cell phones. One man said, “I can’t imagine not knowing something like that; I couldn’t stand it.” I thought to myself how untold millions of people in the past had no choice but to stand it. They had to live with the uncertainty about their loved ones during World War II and how many, even by the end of the war, never learned about what had happened to them.)
So Your Husband’s Gone to War describes the wives who haven’t heard from their spouses haunting the sites where casualty lists were posted, looking for their husband’s names while they then go home and spin out chatty letters. “The months go on,” she writes, “and no word arrives to confirm or deny. Still she writes.” One such wife told the author how horrible it was to write into “a void.”
I’ve learned, from doing research, that it’s the small things – like this information I’ve garnered about letter writing – that make all the difference in my understanding of life during World War II. That’s not to say that the larger issues – how ships torpedoed by U-boats blew up off the coast of New Jersey and how bodies washed ashore; how the United States Navy didn’t have sufficient ships to patrol New York Harbor and so yachtsmen outfitted their boats with machine guns and patrolled the harbor voluntarily; how children wore identification tags in case they got lost or were killed during air raids; how New York prepared itself for an air attack by the Germans (and the Germans were developing a long-range plane that would piggy-back with another plane to destroy New York – Hitler wanted to see New York on fire).
So….Dip into history if you choose. It’s never been easier. You’ll find all kinds of important material on the Internet. I found a moving picture of the aircraft carrier my father was on sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on the day the bridge was opened. Seeing that picture made me cry. My father was on deck that day, in his dress uniform. I couldn’t see him, of course. He was one of a number of sailors that were only specks on the film. But I knew he was there. And it broadened and deepened my sense of his experience before and during the war in a way that never would have happened had I never taken his statement that, yes, he saw the opening of the Golden Gate, and tried to learn, from contemporary accounts, what that moment was like.