Stories of Self (Vol. 1)

image

Photograph taken in Edina, Minnesota by Bucky Miller.

Stories of Self is a(n approximately) monthly essay series by Scott F. Parker that explores the nature of the composed self through conversations with memoirists, theorists, artists, and possibly musicians.

Human Contact with Patricia Weaver Francisco

I was a sweaty mess when I arrived at Patricia Weaver Francisco’s house last summer to talk memoir. It was one of those drippy Midwest afternoons and I’d come about five miles by bike to the southwest corner of Minneapolis where she lives. Incidentally, my route began in Lowry Hill, right around the corner from where Patricia was raped three-plus decades before, the precipitating event of her book Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery.

Standing on the sidewalk, trying to convince myself of a cool breeze, I had jotted down some notes about the basketball hoop on the garage, the tire swing under the front yard tree, and the Tibetan prayer flags hanging in an upstairs window when Patricia emerged from the front door. She invited me into the house and brought me a towel to dry off with while she poured two glasses of mint water from a chilled pitcher, the mint freshly picked from her backyard garden.

The year before I had been a student in a class Patricia taught on the Literary Memoir. It had made a big impact on me and many of the other students. When my friends and I reminisce about grad school, Patricia’s class is the one we recall with greatest fondness—in particular, the nurturing environment of her classroom.

The charge that might be leveled against Patricia’s particular kind of care is it indulges the student writer. But to make this charge is to mistake her positive regard toward the student for her assessment of the student’s writing. This is one of those places where memoir gets stickier than other genres. The gap between author and work is usually smaller than in fiction or poetry, so a compliment or criticism of the writing can more easily become a compliment or criticism of the person (not that it isn’t pretty damn easy in other genres, too). Memoir is personal, so of course it’s taken personally.

But keeping a distinction in mind does not deny the fact that author and work are closely related. Intimacy is one of the great strengths of memoir. It places the self (or aspects of the self) on the page for the reader to meet and, yes, judge. Do we trust this narrator? Do we like seeing through her eyes? Do we learn from her? Does she let us in? Memoir is a vulnerable form and memoirs that neglect vulnerability are invariably bad. And so part of teaching memoir must be to get students to willingly enter a space of vulnerability. Isn’t that part of the appeal of memoir for readers, that we can put down our emotional guards a little?

But it was not a therapy class, it was a memoir class. And the class served writing through the atmosphere of mutual respect that allowed for the possibility of good art—it offered no guarantee of good art (there is no such guarantee), but it gave us the possibility. You have to access these places if you’re ever going to be able to write about them.

And the fact that sincere care is prerequisite illustrates a truth of memoir: some of the things about memoir that appeal to readers, and are inherent to the form, can seem a little bit icky when made explicit. And it’s the potential for ickiness that causes many high-minded readers and writers to disparage the form. If you’ve read much memoir you’re familiar with its tendencies toward sap and sentimentality, self-indulgence and self-satisfaction. Not to mention the fallacy of writers who think because something happened, people should read about it. Regardless, though, memoir’s concerns and tropes are quite capable of giving off the ick even when they shouldn’t. If you’re going to talk about memoir you must be prepared to take seriously human suffering and the responses to that suffering without rolling your eyes. You must be able to acknowledge without cynicism the struggle that allow a person to become who they are. And you must be able to see in a personal story a human concern. Patricia is a good person to talk to about such matters, as she embodies the primary virtues of memoir: intimacy and intelligence.

One way to read Telling is as an extended exercise in self-feeling-in. Patricia attempts to feel her way into her younger selves to recount their experiences. Telling takes the reader through years of struggle to recover from the trauma of rape. We know she ultimately will recover (memoir doesn’t make for a very suspenseful form); what we don’t know is what recovery means in her case.

The title is, so to speak, telling in this respect. While the act of telling about the rape is central to both the narrative of recovery in the book and the style and structure of the book—its purpose in the world as a work of advocacy—the writing leans in the direction of showing, a more empathetic mode to write in. The reflective capacity of memoir—one of the glories of the form—risks keeping the material at a too-safe distance when the analysis impedes on the experience. Recognizing the value of telling in memoir, Patricia doesn’t let hers abstract away from feeling.

While the rape is what needs to be told, it is not itself the story. The physical violence is only the beginning of the suffering. The psychological violence that follows the attack is the real damage, and how Patricia heals from that damage is the real story. The act of telling doubles as the goal and the means of achieving the goal. Telling dramatizes one of the formulas of memoir—the transformation of the self as it becomes capable of telling its own story—by presenting a character whose finding of voice is literalized in her struggle to tell. The story is the courage that takes. And the book, in a way, is the completion (or at least the continuation on a larger scale) of the telling Patricia’s younger self in the book requires.

But as the act of telling responds to the needs of the younger self and offers a redress to our societal tendency to quiet victims of sexual assault, it is not undertaken only for Patricia’s sake. It’s for the millions of other survivors, too. But this doesn’t mean the book is strictly for their audience, just that it’s told for them. For there to be telling there must be listening. And so, if it’s to achieve its aims, Telling must find audience in those who perpetuate rape and sexual assault (complicitly or otherwise).

One reason it might not is the presumption that a memoir about rape will be victimy. As a rule, memoir doesn’t work well when it is self-pitying or when it assigns blame. Even if someone has real problems, no one wants to hear her complain. And yet how can a rape victim not pity what was taken from her or assign blame? This may be why our society is so reluctant to hear about rape: it’s frustrating because: What are we supposed to do? We can’t undo it. And therefore: Why are you making us feel bad? Patricia escapes this trap by treating her rape as a given in the book and moving deftly on to issues of private and public response, denying her readers the opportunity to think her whiny.

The telling in Telling begins when Patricia’s rapist breaks into her house. She starts talking to him because she believes doing so might keep her alive. Throughout the book telling and living are thoroughly enmeshed. She humanizes herself in his eyes so he will see her not just as a body. To do it in the moment means she is able to see herself during the experience from his eyes. It might be a survival instinct, but it is nevertheless an instinct for empathy. Such empathy floors me, and it’s this I keep returning to when I think about Telling. And it was one of the things on my mind when Patricia and I started talking.

We sat with our waters at her dining room table, where she had laid out a block of Wisconsin cheddar cheese from the local co-op and wheat crackers. The house was open and full of light, the same house that in Telling she describes buying and moving into thirty years before. The walls were a soft and warm yellow hung with colorful paintings heavy in primary colors. A space made for living.

Already we were talking. “I wrote memoir because I had to. It mattered to me that the story in my life was true and that it was told as a true story rather than as basis for fiction. I love to read memoir. I see it as a form of human grappling for truth. I like what happens when people take the stance that they’re going to go after some kind of truth using materials from their own experience. No veil, not much of a persona between you and that idea of going after the truth. It’s a different kind of tension for the writer and for the reader. It’s thrilling.”

This resonates with me. One of the things that draws me to memoir is precisely this grappling, more even than the possibility reaching a truth, the subject’s struggle for meaning. The nature of memoir implies that any insight achieved is at least potentially provisional to some eventual recontextualization, the method matters more than the results. It’s the reflective impulse of memoir that distinguishes it as a form, particularly reflection on the self.

Patricia’s definition agrees with this emphasis on incompleteness: “Memoir isn’t the story of someone’s life, it’s just an angle on one’s own life. It’s not so much what you’re writing about but how and why. It’s got limits and it should have limits. It has a sort of built-in falseness because it asks the writer to look through a certain lens at something that is swirling whole, and by doing that, make something and hopefully understand something or discover something or see something that’s interesting or beautiful in some way. It creates an object, but it’s not taking stock of a whole life.”

Given that Patricia started writing in the early nineties before the memoir wave had crested, I wondered about influences. She prefaced her answer to this question by mentioning that “in addition to everything that seemed foolish about project, I had to educate myself in a new form. I had no models. I was coming at it without the background I had when I wrote fiction. But it was freeing. There wasn’t a huge conversation about what memoir was or wasn’t.”

Naming books, she started with Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, which she called her Bible. “I read Liars’ Club during the writing.” It was a seven-year process, during which many of the now best-known memoirs came out. “Angela’s Ashes. I had read Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time already. That was one of those books that made me think differently about writing. I never thought I’d write memoir, but it was such a good book. I had it in mind. And Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Trish Hampl’s Romantic Education. That was big. It was trying to grapple with a story that didn’t have inherent drama.“

But it was Heaven’s Coast that Patricia spoke most enthusiastically about. “It does everything I want a book to do for me as a reader.” This includes dealing with the difficult subject of grief, the struggle to make sense of that grief, and the quality of the prose: “He’s swimming in language with great pleasure.” But of what Patricia said, what really stood out to me was this: “There wasn’t the sense that he’d sorted it all out and was going to give it to you. It felt like someone on the page not having any idea what they were saying or where they were going but passionately in it.”

In all of this appreciation, but particularly with respect to passion, I think of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the book that opened up for me the possibility of memoir and shaped my understanding of some of the form’s preoccupations: namely, the formation of the self through writing or through text, and how that self resides in the context of its environment(s). Like Doty, Eggers tells his story from close to the action, and this proximity contributes to the sense of urgency the reader feels for the book to come together. That this (possible) coming together points from the book back to its author is what gives memoir some of its intrigue: the stakes can feel like life itself.

The dangerous edge for this kind of focus for a memoirist is that it can lead the writer to write more for him- or herself than for the reader. I asked Patricia what she thought about this trap. “Maybe it has to start that way,” she said, “but it can it lead you to painting yourself into a corner if that’s the impulse you’re following. But memoir is the form closest in enterprise to self-discovery. It’s not journaling, it’s not fiction. It’s closer to poetry in that way.”

And here she brought up a different category of memoir altogether. “Equally important is the Lost World school of memoir, Nabokov. Thinking of memoir done at distance in honor of a Lost World. In Nabokov’s case it was literal: Russia, his Russia. But it could be a lost world of time or self. There’s an elegiac energy, and the risk here is nostalgia or sentimentality, that other pitfall to memoir. Somewhere between those two is the area I find energizing in memoir. Someone with their heart on their sleeve in some way, they’re in it, and not just with their head.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle strikes me here as the epitome of the kind of memoir (even though it’s labeled fiction) that Patricia would not care to read, an extremely personal journey rendered in obsessive detail. While Knausgaard’s heart, not to mention his shortcomings, is on his sleeve, the books’ stakes remain personal, even private, and nearly solipsistic. He doesn’t get past (at least not in the first three volumes, which were all that had been translated into English when we met) the self-serving self that Patricia says a memoirist needs to transform into a self who is conscious of its reader. The point is well taken theoretically, but for me it is precisely Knausgaard’s reluctance to show us a transformed self that gives his books their feeling of naked honesty. The mystery of his success with My Struggle is that he employs a strategy that for most memoirists produces distinctly bad writing—mistaking what happens for what matters—but Knausgaard does so somehow (this is the mystery) while keeping the book utterly compelling. By my reading the somehow lies in the vulnerability he suffuses into the text without apology or squeamishness. He willingly but without self-flagellation presents himself as bad, stupid, mean, whatever the story requires.

I don’t imagine My Struggle was a fun book to write, and certainly Knausgaard does not present himself as someone overly concerned by fun, but it makes for another interesting contrast, considering that Patricia reports the writing of Telling becoming fun for her. “In some ways,” she said, “I feel like this is the most important thing I discovered.”

What she described was a process of writing that became more about making a book and less about chronicling what happened or making a case or getting someone to understand her. “It was about making something on the page that worked in literary terms. I decided that’s really what I’m doing and everything else is serving that project. And that’s how all decisions from here on out will be made. It sets a high bar. And that’s what made me want to go to the desk. I was up to something I didn’t know if I could do. It wasn’t about me. It was a door through which I was passing. I was doing the things as a writer I’d always loved doing. Making something out of materials at hand that is beautiful or shapely or true. And I don’t know if I would have done that if this was just a journey for the self.”

The distinction helps me clarify and articulate something about my own interests in memoir. The journey of the self that intrigues me is not the one the author takes but the one the subject takes. That is, I don’t want the journey to initiate the writing (or rather, I’m impartial to what initiates the writing), I want to see the journey itself play out on the page.

Memoir is usually innocent of the solipsism it is charged with. Writing about oneself—even when the writing does not open up topically, as Patricia’s memoir does—presents an other for the reader to enter into and experiment with. In her class, Patricia quoted Scott Russell Sanders on the syllabus to this effect: “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass.”

Something about opening that door for others changes an author’s relationship to the territory. For Patricia, “There’s the book over there and here is me.” That distance was created not only by the physical book in which the story could reside outside her memory but also in the making public (and unburdening) what had been private. “In writing it I understood it as I never had before. It suddenly had a subject beyond its events. That subject became the life of the book and therefore the life of my story. It was very public and became a very public part of my life. Before that it was very private. I hardly ever spoke of it or thought about it. And I liked that, which surprised me, but that was the whole point: telling. You’d think I’d be immersed in a way that was painful or a burden or exactly what you don’t want from a traumatic memory, but instead I was freed from the burden of the old story; it transformed my relationship to events.”

And I think there’s another paradox that follows this distinction: if you do write a memoir for self-help you’re not actually writing a memoir. The process of crafting a work for a reader as a gift is integral to the therapeutic reward that might accrue. The idea of therapy as a byproduct reminds me of the way in which happiness tends to present itself most reliably when it is pursued only indirectly as one consequence of other aims: answering a calling, caring for loved ones or those in need, working hard at a challenging enterprise, a life well lived. Those who go at happiness most directly and often most single-mindedly, we can see from our own lives, are often some of the least happy people we encounter.

The selfish kind of happiness that is the easiest to conceive of is inimical, it seems, to real lasting happiness. Constant self-concern reinforces the barriers between self and other, self and environment. Superficially, this would appear a trap for the memoirist, who must self-interrogate unceasingly. But there is an important difference that crops up in the function of self-interrogation. When one makes the effort to communicate with another one employs empathetic skills to try to facilitate communication. What a lovely truth of writing (as of living) that giving is the prerequisite that allows one to receive.

I’ve always thought of memoir as a necessarily self-reflexive mode of writing. Therapeutic rewards aside, it shapes the self a recursive spiral. Patricia noticed something similar: “You can think of memoir as a discovery of self—and in a roundabout way that’s what happened to me in writing this book—but it isn’t discovering a self that preexisted, it is the creation of a new self. For me that new self had at its center a transformed understanding of who I was then and who I’d become and what all of this had wrought in me. I did not see this coming, and it’s a double-edged sword. There are memories worth looking into, maybe worth telling, because they have something to offer that is beautiful or comforting or illuminating. But when you investigate memories with a reader in mind, the memories you have treasured will also be lost. With traumatic memories, that transformation is positive, but as Annie Dillard says, be careful what you choose to write about because the text will replace the memory. That has been my experience. You become a different person at the end of the process. It’s like I don’t have the story anymore. I gave it away. It’s living another life, somewhere else.”

Memoir gathers much of its urgency from the assumption that the personal is always political, but Telling is political in a more direct sense too: it wants to upend cultural attitudes about rape. Patricia draws on the model of war stories to make a case for the necessity of rape stories.

“Most of us won’t go to war, yet we read war stories because they tell us something about human beings in extremis. We want to understand that. The experience of surviving sexual violence has the same potential for wisdom . We have to tell these stories. So it became a political act. I was the right person with the right kind of story to tell. Meaning I didn’t have the I-can’t-talk-about-it feeling, and since the man who raped me was a stranger who broke into my home no one accused me of asking for it or blamed me for drinking or whatever. Part of telling this story is reclaiming the subjectivity that the act of rape denies. It’s such a common experience, and yet where is the literature of rape? We literally need all of these stories.”

Reclaiming subjectivity is a useful phrase to articulate again this archetypal aspect of memoir that sees the self come into its own, and it explains again why trauma in its assault on subjectivity is such a regular concern of memoir. One of the many sensitive questions I asked Patricia had to do with the nature of that reclaimed subjectivity and the trauma from which it is reclaimed. She admitted that she wonders sometimes if she would undo what happened to her if she could. She knows it’s a ridiculous question, and she won’t ever forget the suffering she underwent, but she says, “I think I wouldn’t undo it.” During this answer is the only moment in the time we spent together that there was a heaviness to her eyes. The rape is too central now to who she is, and her book has done work she values in the world. “The thrill of the cycle of it all, the satisfying circle of the whole thing. It must happen for all memoirists.”

The circle manifests in other ways. The book includes occasional mentions of the circumstances under which it’s being written. I’m at such and such place on this date… Patricia included these because, as she says of memoir, “It’s meta for me. The conclusion isn’t there when you start writing. The reader has a feeling of security on page one, but that impression is hard won for the writer. If you think you know what you’re going to say, you’re actually not going to get to feeling of organic unity. It’s a made thing, it has to be made.”

*

I hear in this distinction between things made and things revealed the sounds of empathy. Just as the writerly advice against cliche seeks to allay prepackaged ideas, memoirists must not settle for the narratives they carry around in their heads. It is the process of turning those narratives—or those memories—into made things that initiates the empathetic relationship the artistic encounter depends on. The memoirist crafts her memoir empathizing for the audience so that the audience will empathize for her.

These encounters are paramount. “We have not much practice,” Patricia writes in Telling, “outside of our experience with art, in entering the emotional reality of another.” And we do practice empathy when we engage with serious art, but the kind of empathy we employ with memoir is unusual in kind. The thinness of the veil of persona in memoir and its correspondence with the world outside the text moves the empathy from a hypothetical or ideal nature to one that is shared with another human being on this planet.

In good memoirs we see the author extending her empathy to the characters in the book. For me, the most remarkable turn in Telling occurs near its end when Patricia attends the trial of another serial rapist, whose case mirrors that of her own rapist. The book asks the reader to share this rapist’s emotional reality, to empathize with life, which is difficult enough for the reader. What awes me is that to give us the opportunity to empathize with him Patricia first had to do so herself. She feels her way into the stand-in for the man who has violated her body and mind, who has disrupted her life, and for years made her suffer—and she finds a way to make real human contact with him.

She didn’t have to do that. It would have been easier to not try to reach an understanding with a person who has brought so much violence. But it’s enormously brave, and I wanted to know how she did it.

“I didn’t write anything that didn’t come from image. I only wrote about it because I was at the trial, and I was only at the trial because I was writing the book. It was so intense.” She described the scene for me, including her affection for the defendant’s grandmother, which helped her to appreciate the “justice” in front of her: the stark difference of a white courtroom, all the black people present there on behalf of the defendant, the incompetent defense attorney.

Patricia recalled that courtroom again when I asked: “Even people I hate I don’t hate that much.” But she hated Timothy Baugh, the rapist on trial, and loved seeing him in chains, knowing he was in pain and would be punished. “I took such unexpected pleasure in his suffering. And suddenly I felt sick. This is the same, I saw. I wanted him to suffer because I suffered. That’s how this thing goes on. He made his victims suffer because he suffered. It was such a revelation. And it was kind of a turning point. After that I let go of the ‘why me?’ that I carried around for quite a while, just a giant waste of energy.”

Men often ask Patricia if she fantasizes revenge. She does not. “We don’t need revenge, we need a new word. Not forgiveness. There is responsibility for one’s actions no matter what the circumstances. We need a word that acknowledges the cycle of violence. Why me? Because the cycle is ongoing. All you can do is break the cycle, step out of it. It requires a big consciousness. I wouldn’t have gotten there without the trial. Face to face with my own response in wanting Baugh to suffer, I saw that revenge as a form of ‘justice’ perpetuates the cycle of violence. Eventually that harms us all. Anger is a natural response, but it poisons you if you hold onto it.”

The crackers, the cheese, the mint water—it was long gone. We discussed this Stories of Self project and who else in town I might want to talk to. And then we said goodbye and hugged, and Patricia Weaver Francisco is exactly as good a hugger as you’d expect.

Scott F. Parker is author of the memoir Running After Prefontaine and, writing pseudonymously as The Synthesis, the anti-memoir in here.