Witness

August 25, 2015

Critics who don’t understand the memoir form often condemn it for being too I-centered, for being a solipsistic genre, for being navel gazing. And yes, perhaps there are some memoirs that are like this. But the memoirs so many of us find compelling are those in which authors write not only about their own experiences, but also about those of their families and the communities they have been born into or joined either voluntarily, reluctantly, or against their wills. These memoirs witness the lives of others even as they chart the often complex relationship these writers have had with the people and the communities they describe.

It’s a tricky business. There are some who believe that we writers have no business composing works about anyone but ourselves. That every time we describe someone else we’re acting as a succubus to that person’s life. This is a tricky ethical question. Still, if none of us has the right to compose narratives about other people, who or what could we write about, for isn’t memoir, first and foremost, about interrelationships and about how our experiences with other people formed us? How could any of us compose a memoir without writing about all those in our lives who shaped us, who transformed us, who harmed us? It just isn’t possible.

And then there’s the argument that such narratives should be labeled fiction to protect the people being described. Still, people who read memoir learn much from the fact that the events in the narrative did in fact happen, that the writer did in fact reflect upon those events, and that by doing this has contributed something significant to our understanding of human behavior.

I think it’s important for us to understand that when we write about other people, we act as compassionate witnesses to their lives. This seems to me to be a memoirist’s ethical obligation. So many of the memoir writers I know grapple with the challenge of whether they have the right to speak for or about other people. And this is no matter that can be resolved simply or easily, once and for all. But it’s essential that we understand that if we don’t pen certain stories, no one else might perhaps because no one else can. And if we forbid ourselves from writing about what we’ve observed, in addition to writing about what we ourselves have experienced, we’re ruling out what might become our most important work.

Two former students of mine have published memoirs that are significant acts of witness—Amy Jo Burns, whose Cinderland: A Memoir (Boston: Beacon, 2014) was recently published in paperback; and Ryan Berg, whose No House to Call My Home: Love Family and Other Transgressions (NY: Nation, 2015) is just out today. And, as you can imagine, I’m extremely proud of them.

Burns’s Cinderland charts a community’s response to several girls’ charges that a music teacher sexually abused them. Burns was ten when the events in the narrative transpired—she, too, was abused—and her memoir differs from any other abuse narrative I’ve read because she describes not only what happened to her, but also what happened to all those other girls. In writing her narrative this way, she shows us that any act of sexual abuse harms and traumatizes an entire community. Especially important is how Burns charts the ways in which certain members of the community sought to preserve the reputation of the teacher by ignoring or challenging what these girls lived through, thus retraumatizing them. Not confining her narrative to her own experience is a brave and transgressive act, for Burns describes how and why she herself chose not to speak out (there was a trial, and witnesses, and sentencing) when she was young for she understood that to do so was dangerous.

During the time we worked together, and while Burns worked on her own, I learned through her description of her process how difficult it is to strike the right balance between self-revelation and acting as a witness to what has happened to others. As her mentor, I thought that there should be more focus on her own story and I was wrong for I didn’t understand that Burns wanted to create a communal narrative—this didn’t happen just to her. To find the right way of telling a story takes a very long time and there are no shortcuts and sometimes you have to reject other people’s suggestions, for it’s your narrative not someone else’s. That’s the way it is with such complex narratives. In rendering an entire community’s experience, Burns as writer had to step into so many other people’s shoes to understand what they went through. This, too, took courage and a very long time.

Berg’s No House to Call My Home charts his experience as a residential counselor and caseworker for an LGTBQ foster care program in New York City. But the work begins with an important and grounding preface giving the reader facts about the traumas LGTBQ youth face and how they respond to them—for example, research “shows that children placed in foster care are more likely than veterans of war to develop post-traumatic stress disorder” (Berg). Set against this background, Berg recounts the lives of several of the young people he came to know even as he describes his own responses to what he witnessed.

Like Burns, Berg took a long time to discover where he belonged in the narrative in relationship to what the young people he wrote about experienced. He realized the ethical challenge in writing this book: he was an outsider to their experience even as he was witnessing it, involved in it, honoring it, and in some way trying to shape it. Still, he understood that none of the people he worked with was likely to write their own narrative, and so if he didn’t, what he witnessed—which he believed to be important and not often described—would go unreported.

I emailed Berg to ask him about his process, and he responded as follows. “I started this book when I entered grad school in 2006. My last round of edits took place May 29, 2015 (my birthday). This book took on many different lives in many, many different forms. I wrote countless drafts, re-working sections, adding and subtracting massive chunks. The narrative structure was altered dramatically a year ago. At one point the book was constructed as a duel narrative (personal, and observed narratives). Over time I had to admit that that form wasn’t working. So I cut 140 pages. I was left with a bunch of disjointed sections. After grieving the loss of the book I wrote, I re-worked the whole thing, finding the connective tissue to reconstruct the body of the book.  As a result, I feel the book is more concise and direct, and hopefully the stories are now more powerful, lean and moving.”

When we worked together, a subject we discussed many times was how much of Berg’s experience should be in the narrative. I suggested that his personal story was as important as those of the young people’s lives he described. And for some time, Berg tried to write that duel narrative. But in time he learned that the form didn’t work, and I am very happy that he did not stick to the suggestion that I erroneously made. For as Berg learned, and as his book makes clear, this is his story only tangentially. The lives of these young people should be—indeed, must be—front and center.

The process of both Amy Jo Burns in writing Cinderland and Ryan Berg in writing No House to Call My Home teaches us how important it is to work long and hard on a project, to take the time we need to figure out the right balance between narrating our lives and those of others, and to think through—and reject if necessary—advice we’ve been given to find the right voice and the right form to tell the story you’re compelled to write.

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