La Trobe University
Susan Bradley Smith
Memoir as suicide
Tell me what happened. Tell me what really happened, they said, so I did. I wrote the memoir because a publishing director asked me to. Really? But first I co-wrote the play - which the publisher saw - because my former doctor asked me to. Is that the only reason? Before that, there were the poems, telling it all (nobody asked for the poems). Is that the only place you tell the truth, the whole truth? Even though that is what I do - write plays, and confessional poetry, and prose, and tell stories - I had no idea how damaging all these words could be, and until recently I was equally naïve about writers and their own sometimes stupid motivations - and the consequences.
Nobody has compiled a better list than Margaret Atwood about what motivates writers to write (Atwood 2003: xix-xxi). Reading this list aloud makes a wonderful performance poetry piece. I like to turn it into a cento and add my own irreverent reasons. To her glorious harvest of motives from the sublime (‘To create a perfect work of art’) and the quotidian (‘To make money so my children could have shoes’) to the more alarming (‘To reward the virtuous and punish the guilty; or - the Marquis de Sade defense - vice versa’), I would add the ridiculous: writers write because, too often, they don’t have anything better to do. If more creative writing students instead studied, say, medicine, there would be better health care in regional Australia. Ridiculous to suggest, but fair to contemplate - should we insist on vocational litmus tests before allowing anyone to practice either profession? And my cento would end To tell what happened, to tell what happened. Before you die. Then you can lay me down and cover me with that cloak made of patches, the cento that the poetic form was named for, that the Roman soldiers loved to wear to protect them from their enemies.
Also on Atwood’s list is ‘To cope with my depression’. It can’t be denied, despite my growling misgivings about writing and therapy, that writing poetry was indeed a therapeutic act when I was so ill recovering from a nervous breakdown that I could not even speak. This, of course, is no reason to impose those poems on anyone else; but my doctor insisted, and then he was so offended about my views of doctoring that he wrote a poem ‘back’ to me, and then came the play exploring the failures of medical worlds, closely followed by the memoir. At some point on that continuum, it might have been better to choose silence. My confession is both to declare this grave error of motivation, and protest that sometimes the cost of writing is simply not worth it.
Since the beginning of textual times, critics have denigrated memoir, with its ‘unseemly self-exposure, unpalatable betrayals’ and ‘unavoidable mendacity’, labelling it ‘the black sheep of the literary family’, as Daniel Mendelsohn has noted (Mendelsohn 2004). Memoirs can be mortifying, so much so that even distinguished writers working in this genre are often accused of literary exhibitionism. As Mendelsohn points out, building on the notion of creativity as a narcissistic act, this association is most intense when ‘the creation in question is memoir, a literary form that exposes the author’s life without the protective masks afforded by fiction’. This makes the writer even more vulnerable to accusations/criticisms concerning their motives for writing, as well as the consequences: words like ‘indiscrete’, ‘betrayal’, ‘fraudulent’, ‘enterprising’, ‘conceit’, and ‘revenge’ commonly populate critical outbursts. On the other hand, we have the defenders, whose best ethical argument always sounds something like ‘for the greater good’.
The 20th century presented us with the recurring theme of ‘confessional culture’ as obligatory, coupled with an increasing blurring of the lines between public and private. The impulse to reveal our true selves is the hallmark of confessional culture, but to what end? Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that the absence of shared and lasting human values in what he calls 'liquid modernity' is of concern. He sees for example the erosion of traditional identities that were once based on class or nationality as no longer able to define us as they once did (Bauman 2000). In this absence, life writing could be viewed as an attempt to forge an identity through public performances of the self. The British artist Tracey Emin, for example, embroidering on a tent the name of everyone she had ever slept with, arguably achieved this: she staged/performed her emotional self through a series of confessions in the quest to locate an authentic notion of her own humanity. Declaring one’s own history - even if it offers unpleasant testimony - is an attempt to create a solid representation of the self in a world that is ‘liquid’. 
Embroidery requires patience. Text, if not the ideas constituting the narrative, is more rapidly produced. If I had had to sew the words of my book, I would have been far more selective. Now that the memoir is beyond the reach of my scissors and ‘safely’ with my publisher, I find myself beyond a contemplation of self and authenticity and simply feel frightened. Or (less alarmingly?) professionally alert to the need to justify my public performance, perhaps with grandiose claims that memoir is a personal confessional, demanding a group encounter with a blighted history, and as such is an assertion of human rights, akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (hang on - didn’t Sylvia Plath once get harangued for comparing her emotional trauma to the Holocaust? - scrap that last statement). But before this, I was perhaps writing for therapeutic reasons. Certainly the play I co-wrote for medical educators felt like that at first. By the end of rehearsals, I felt as though I had unknotted a tangled inheritance of a dozen beaded necklaces, fit for public display at last. It was only afterwards that I came to understand the confessional impulse that offers evidence against oneself as a kind of suicide. Below, an extract from Tablet telling unsavoury stories that continue to punish; is this where it all began?
Tell me what happened. What really happened. I want that inscribed on my gravestone. My favourite anecdote tells a story of one Lord Redesdale, an English aristocrat, who on being told in the 1920s by his wife that the book that he had just finished reading, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, was not a true story, said: ‘What? Do you mean the damned sewer invented it?’ (cited Hare 2004). For Redesdale, Thomas Hardy was clearly a scoundrel to have solicited such empathy on false grounds. Do we crave confessionals because we believe that ‘true stories’ such as memoirs faithfully represent the world we inhabit, that we are all characters on the same stage, and therefore this fidelity to rendering real life and life as real is of greater benefit to us than engagement with the imaginary? Our appetite for trespassing in other people’s private lives is an insatiable desire for many and, in this scenario, the truer the story the better the fix. And therein lies the problem: as the writer of confessional prose, you remain the primary subject, and never your text. Memoirs can thus imprison the writer.
The first time I ever experienced this type of imprisonment - when the writer’s story is read as autobiographical reality - was at the opening night of my very first play. I had written a story of domestic violence, based on real life events that were not mine, asking the question, ‘can you remain best friends with a man who hits his wife?’ I was curious about this dilemma, but even more curious after the show to have wonderful women I’d never met pressing cards into my hand, spilling champagne in their eagerness to tell me to call their shrink/lawyer/hitman because ‘you do not have to put up with it’. Then with a glare at my poor innocent husband of the time, off they’d swoosh. For years I’ve been reading my ‘nasty’ albeit confessional but ultimately fictive poems about husbands and love and its failures, often overhearing guests asking my husband how on earth he can put up with it/me, as though every stanza were a snatch of reality television. So when I co-wrote the medical drama about doctor/patient relationships and made the patient a sufferer of the more dramatic mental health problem of bipolar rather than the theatrically dull postnatal depression that had caused my own nervous breakdown, it was no surprise that the mostly medical audiences who saw the play were overly fond of asking me if I was taking my meds. Was I safe to sit next to?
I had become immune to this collapse of writer with text - or so I thought. It turned out though that readers and audiences were my most sympathetic judges. They would forgive writers for being stupid enough to continually kiss men who were bounders and brutes, and for falling over, crazed and depressed; it was all one and the same. But when it came to the real auditors of fabricated or felicitous confessions, employers drew a distinctive and different line - and if you’ve ever been crazy, and crazy enough to write about being crazy, then crossing this line can be akin to professional suicide. It should not be so, but it is. You cannot lie on an application for employment form when it asks if you have ever had a mental health issue/episode/problem.
When Sartre asked himself the question ‘for whom does one write’, his 1948 (and very French) answer was that we write for the universal reader. ‘As a matter of fact the writer knows that he speaks for freedoms which are swallowed up, masked, and unavailable; and his own freedom is not so pure; he has to clean it’ (Sartre 1993: 50). How can we usefully apply this liberationist rhetoric to 21st-century life writing? Memoir’s defining characteristic is that of confession, and as such the issue becomes one not only about interrogating genre (textual) but also about the value of story (‘factual’) itself. For example, while I was primarily interested in the writing and playing with meta-confessional techniques in my memoir, my publisher was stern (and correct) about reminding me of my potential readers, the point being that ‘blow by blow’ accounts of postnatal depression, therapy, and recovery were paramount. A frank and factual account, not textual adventurism, was the product I had contractually promised to produce. It is almost a reactionary, and at the very least a conservative, literary critical question to be asking; that is, what is the value of confession in a literary culture that has been post-Leavisite for more than half a century? Yet I must ask: should the confessional tale (before we even begin to contemplate its packaging) so seduce us, readers and writers alike? Can we help ourselves? In her work on the history of truth commissions, Debra Posel (2008) argues that in this particular contemporary context, confession has an ethical centrality that is derived from admitting moral frailty. Such admissions are ultimately humanising, as they tend to demonstrate that everyone is fallible, and flawed, and capable of injustice. Further, rather than insisting on confession’s ability to resuscitate a rational, humanistic world, we can instead settle for compassion, and the ability to find meaning from suffering.
Although it may seem distasteful to analogise truth commissions with memoirs, it is worthwhile considering whether or not memoirs are capable of achieving reconciliation. Can this kind - or any kind - of full disclosure really heal, or prevent future pain? In the same spirit that Posel asks, ‘what happens to the idea, power, and value of truth telling when history is harnessed to the avowedly normative, officializing project of the truth commission’ (2008: 140), I too question the manufactured reality of reconciliation (the memoir) as being a surreal enterprise.
The social history of confession tells us that, as a personal act with value to individual interiority, the Counter-Reformation was responsible for a shift away from religious confession as part of the machinery of social regulation. It is hard to feel confession as a personal liberation resultant from reconciliation when to admit to a history of mental ill health allows institutions such as universities to over-regulate. Such machinations can make the writer within the academy feel that any emotional similitude a story may have achieved is irrelevant, or at least subordinate to the fact that the writer is categorized as exceptional in unfavourable terms. If this is true, do we writers in this category know what we are doing when we write memoirs? Are we fooling ourselves with our textual endeavours when all we are really doing is aligning ourselves with a conservative and orthodox ritual, seeking rewards for our confessions? Similarly, confession in the history of crime and punishment is primarily and steadfastly an act of offering evidence against oneself - not necessarily a wise or beneficial thing to do in the contemporary workplace. Memoir writing, considering all this, is no easy authorial release. I can argue for my attempts at formal and radical experimentation within the genre; I can plead the case for metaconfessional practice; I can cite the paratextual dimensions of my work; but ultimately, I am not immune from the effects of my own narrativization. After all, what are most readers interested in: the text confessing to its own devices; or the writer baring all?
Suicide, or the many ways we can kill ourselves
There are three threads to my memoir: the writer’s story, which includes a narrative of mental health; a reflective exploration, which includes the author’s poetry; and the story of recovery which is a real-life tale coupled with an exploration of the field of medical education and the role of poetry therapy. Basically, following an accusation (later dismissed) of plagiarism I had a nervous breakdown. I was eventually diagnosed with chronic adjustment disorder (having just left London to return home to Australia), post-traumatic stress syndrome (following the near-death of our youngest daughter and the diagnosis of our two youngest children with a metabolic disease), and postnatal depression, coupled with being labelled cyclothymic. That constitutes the narrative content.
There are many onstage characters that any memoirist knows the terror of dealing with, but my biggest fear is an offstage character that I call the reaper. Has writing this book been a mistake? Is it wrong to reveal too much? Certainly, the university lawyer at my former workplace censored the performance of Tablet at its premiere in Byron Bay in 2006. Likewise many chapters of the memoir had to be rewritten for fear of litigation. And that constitutes the beginning of the narrative fallout.
Legitimate longings and secret prejudices
Diaries are treacherous things. What kind of ugly, conceited gnat wrote that entry? Was that really me? My belief and judgement system at the time was poor, due to illness. I believed, for example, that life in Australia, on all levels, was harming me. So I began considering jobs back in the UK, via www.jobs.ac.uk my favourite website. I have been reading it for so long now, considering myself, imaginatively, in every job that I am vaguely eligible for, that I believe myself to have an extremely comprehensive understanding of what departments are growing in which directions at what institutions, and what level of expertise writing programs have bought in over the last five years or so. Who has writers-in-residence. Who’s doing a real job of growing this sector, or an ad hoc one; and what cultural and business values incoming vice-chancellors might or might not have in relation to the creative arts. All very well and good, but perhaps I should try eBay instead.
Since being diagnosed, what used to be a titillating pastime - imagining myself in certain institutions, the work I might do there, the colleagues I would prosper with - has turned into a cruel sport. My fantasy life about my professional ambitions were focussed on England, and escape. I am deeply ashamed of myself to admit this, but it’s true. Unlike most of my experiences of working in Australia, in England I believed luck was always with me. How else could I explain to myself the fact that in London one year I’d been a music journalist at a backstage party with the Ramones, and the very next year I was back home, not a journalism job in cooee, working as a waitress, serving them lobster in a Sydney harbour side restaurant? In London, in every single way, I felt professionally rich. In Australia - well, no one accused me of plagiarism in London. I did not have a nervous breakdown in London.
So when I saw this most recent job advertised, and on the same day heard the news that my professional opportunities to work in the medical humanities were being hamstrung, I decided to apply. I updated my CV. I contacted my favourite referees. Then I got to the hardest part of the application form, the ‘Confidential statement of medical history for pre-employment medical assessment’. What do I do when confronted with questions like, ‘Have you any illnesses or conditions which could affect your performance at work, and result in absence from work?’ and ‘Have you ever had a serious illness?’ And then there’s the ‘Are you currently taking any medication’ kind of questions, and the more specific type of ‘Do you suffer or have you ever suffered from mental disorders, depression, anxiety, nervous breakdown?’, by which time I usually need a drink. Or a cigarette. Or a fairy godmother. Or, I need to write a poem instead. Instead of everything.
But you have to laugh. I may have made a lot of mistakes at work over the years, but I also had a decent enough history in every way that academics are measured. Immaterial. I have a history of mental illness, and am now a liability. What about people who hit their children, I want to shout? What about the even more dangerous things that people do to children? Why not include compulsory questions in the medical history questionnaire, like these:
People whom I admire who are much better at bleeding in public than I am
Kate Holden’s memoir In My Skin (2007) is about a time in her life that involved heroin and prostitution. In an essay published in the Sydney Morning Herald (a prestigious national broadsheet), ‘I’ll tell you all except my name’, she reflects that when her memoir was published no one in her family seemed appalled, but that she herself was, and kept wanting to ask, ‘Aren’t you shocked?’ What happened instead was more sanguine. She was contacted by long-lost friends, and elderly relatives lent the book to their friends: ‘In the end it was I who was most startled’. Harder, though, was being continually introduced at writers festivals with the ‘bald “ex-prostitute and drug addict”’ moniker, and readers forever claiming that they felt as though they knew her, and interviewers feeling they had permission to ask her intimate questions that should instead belong to lovers or best friends. Most troublesome of all is her confessed fear that she ‘may be forever known as “the girl who wrote the hooker book”’. But Holden was also wise to the fact that publishing a sex memoir under her own name had its professional advantages, in that it was a ‘forestalling of any prurient investigations that might come up later in life: job interviews that reveal mysterious gaps in my resume …’ (Holden 2006: 28-29). Can you ever watch Hugh Grant in a movie without thinking about his arrest after being caught buying a fellatio favour from a streetwalker? Maybe. This collapse of the public and private is the ethical dilemma at the heart of this concern - when should it be permissible to withhold damaging information about oneself from one’s professional resume?
Maybe Holden will win every award under the sun for her writing, and nobody will recall her beginnings. Maybe all of Kinsella’s work is much larger than the story of his life as an addict, and of course this seems logical, historically decided even, given his output and international reputation and lived life since. But which of his many books received the most coverage? Maybe no one will ever look at me differently because I have had mental health problems and been such a loudmouth about it. Maybe the advertisements encouraging people not to be ashamed about being mad/depressed will work. Or maybe silence remains the more sensible option.
An argument for publish and be damned
Cynthia Fuller, who with Julia Darling edited The Poetry Cure, points out that: ‘It is not a new idea that in time of loss, distress and pain we turn to poetry - to read it and write it.’ Fuller argues that poetry can do more than comfort us by speaking to our experience: that the process of poetry acknowledging the intensity of our feelings ‘can make us feel better, can make us better’. When Darling asks ‘Why is poetry so important? Why do people who have never read or written a poem in their lives find themselves suddenly searching for poetic language to make sense…?’ (Fuller & Darling 2005: 9-11), in answering this question she suggests that poetry uses images and metaphors that help us - and our doctors - see things afresh. In medical education (in faculties that embrace narrative medicine pedagogies) poetry is often cited as a valuable educational device because it provides a means of attending to stories/narratives/expressions and confessions of the self other than those presented in habitual professional situations. In my case, a doctor gained entry into my lived subjective experience as a patient through the illuminative possibility of poems discussing my illness and treatment, not through anything said in the consulting room.
Sometimes I believe in the therapeutic benefits of writing for the writer and sometimes I think ‘writing and wellbeing’ is nothing more than commerce. As memoirists know, confessional writing traffics in the intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about personal lives. Is it truly therapeutic, writing about illness? I’d make no such claims. For a start, those words, once they’re printed, they’re printed. Sometimes, writing is an absolutely traumatizing experience. Tell me everything, everything. Today all I can say is that while I believe in the confessional, I remain unable to calculate its cost.
Below, the contents of the final powerpoint slide in a lecture to first year undergraduate life writing students, on ethics and confessional prose:
‘Thanks, and good luck with your writing,’ I said, concluding the lecture. I had shown them an excerpt from the contract for my own memoir, the clause extracting a contractual promise that: ‘The work does not contain libellous, defamatory, obscene, privileged or improper material.’ So if I don’t upset the lawyers I’m allowed to cannibalise anyone, including myself? I told my students that life writing is a dynamic, exciting form. I told them that, yes, it can both corrupt and humanise. I did not tell them that such confessions might stain your resume forever. When I signed that book contract I still had two children in nappies, and now their eldest sibling is starting university: it is fair to say I knew a lot less back then, and it is also fair to admit stupidity - of course, it is inevitable that children will one day learn to read. Of course, if you insist on telling everyone about your squalid little nervous breakdown, it is a tattoo you will take to your grave, one that will be fully visible in every staff meeting and job interview hereafter. You cannot control how you are read. No. I neglected to say all that.
To lose old friends
A few years ago, I sent a copy of John Kinsella’s memoir to Peter Porter as a thank you for his generosity in launching a collection of my poems in London. He wrote back, thanking me for the ‘mad tome’, declaring himself to have been considerably shocked by the text. He had known of the hardships of Kinsella’s youth, but had not expected ‘such a series of mishaps and so large a cast of dreadful people’. Coupled with a private warning of personalities to avoid, Porter concluded by expressing his deep pleasure at still being able to be shocked. Even for people who have known each other for decades, serious revelation can indeed be shocking. One of the consequences of writing confessional prose is that people will read you differently: your text will rewrite the self. You may call this realism, you may call this a metafictive farce, but no matter what you call it, you still have to fill in the application forms, every time your ambitions exceed your own tight circumstances.
It is not possible, perhaps, to care too much about it in the end - only someone who believes they chose writing and not the other way around could persuade themselves they have any authority in the matter. Writing a memoir can be both suicidal, and life affirming - negative commemoration has its own deep political life. Hopefully, the immoderate yearnings of both writers and readers counter the small deaths of exposure, offering thanksgiving as antidote. Therefore, my considered response to Sartre, and Atwood, is that we write seeking versions of happiness; we write for ourselves. Ironically, this desire is also a great chore, for as Stendhal said, ‘how can we describe happiness, if it leaves no memories?’ (Stendhal 2004: 104). Will happiness terminally evade us if we do not hunt its trace? Writing down the memories, for this memoirist, was a core enterprise in the quest for happiness, and if that process was and is painful, so be it. And finally to Lord Redesdale, with apologies for the fallibilities of all genres, I would say: I am no damned sewer, but I have been in a few. And that’s the truth.
List of works cited
Susan Bradley Smith is a theatre historian and creative writer with particular interests in life writing and ethics. Her latest poetry collection Supermodernprayerbook (Salt, Cambridge) has just been released. Dramatic Negotiations: Australian Suffrage Theatre (Anthem, London) will be published in 2011, as will her memoir Friday Forever (Radcliffe, Oxford). Currently working on a biography of Sarah Churchill, she teaches in the English Department at La Trobe University.
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Vol 14 No 2 October 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb