I wish I could get my mother to understand the poetic logic of my storytelling -Ruth Behar
That wasn’t nice -Ruth Behar’s mother
Not long ago, I went to a reading by a friend who had just published a memoir about his life as a minor league rock star. It was a good reading, and after the reading, as one does, he answered the questions a large, public audience typically asks of a literary nonfiction writer: How did you remember all those conversations? Did you make them up? Why didn’t you use pseudonyms? Don’t you worry about how people will react when they read what you wrote about them?
In response to the last question—the question that essentially asks, aren’t you afraid of hurting people’s feelings?—my friend did something interesting. He started by saying that he did his best to represent everyone in the book as accurately as possible and to show each person as a complex character—not entirely good, not entirely bad. And then, he apologized. In advance. “I’m sorry,” he said, “if I’ve offended anyone in the book.”
I imagine my friend is still testing out answers to these standard questions—trying to formulate answers that mediate between what he believes to be the truth, the persona he wants to create for his audience, and the way in which those answers will reflect on the people he’s written about, which is everyone nearest and dearest to him, including his mother.
I’ve gone to a lot of readings by memoir writers, and I’ve never seen one apologize—not even in the hypothetical way my friend did. As writers viewed primarily as artists rather than scholars, memoirists, and the way in which they treat their subjects, are held to different standards than writers of academic nonfiction—there are no Institutional Review Boards in the art world. This is not to say that no one in creative nonfiction ever thinks about the problem of representing others (or the self for that matter). In fact, memoirists think about it all the time.
“What is the truth?” we ask each other over and over, wringing our hands and replaying the same responses we offered the week before. The typical nonfiction workshop might not reference positivism, Heisenberg, or Foucault, but the basic ideas are the same: we are limited in what we can know, and our limits grow out of our position in space and time, our bodies and brains, our culture, our epistemological assumptions, and the language we have at our disposal.
Some memoirists make it a point to explore these limits in every piece they write. The remembering itself becomes as much the event under discussion as the scenes of the narrative. But even with an explicit acknowledgement that their version is just one among others, hopelessly narrow in its range of perspective, their version carries authority—especially if it has been published, and therefore legitimated.
Don’t take my word for it, the memoirist writes.
Take my word for it, the price tag says.
Anthropologist Ruth Behar (among many others), has taken up the issue of the represented “talking back” to the represent-er in her essay “Writing in My Father’s Name.” In Behar’s piece, from which I have taken the epigraphs to this essay, she writes about the great strain put on her relationship with her father after the publication of her first book, Translated Woman. The book contains biographical sketches in which Behar’s father is portrayed in a critical light, perhaps most significantly in a scene from her college years in which he tears up the letters she has written home in a dramatic expression of his disappointment in her independent behavior.
Behar records a conversation with her mother in which she justifies her ambivalent portrayal of her father: “I try to explain to my mother why I ever wrote about the tearing up of the letters. I tell her that in the book I analyze the event and even partly blame myself, saying it had to do with my assimilation and my father’s inability to understand that I was growing up and away from them.” She continues: “My mother doesn’t hear it. I still wrote about something I shouldn’t have written about. Something cruel.”
Like Behar, I have written about family, and one result has been hurt feelings and damaged relationships. I too find myself wanting to “explain” to my mom that an essay is “merely” a construction, one that doesn’t tell the whole story because 1) getting the whole story is impossible and 2) the kind of art I appreciate works toward an overarching theme, something like coherence, and as a result sometimes sacrifices certain complications in order to achieve it: two characters condense into one, a mother’s indiscretions pile up in a small space to make a point. But I acknowledge that even in my desire to defend my choices, in the notion that my essay would need to be “explained” to my mother, I’m making moves I know she would find condescending.
At home with us in the years before school, my mother taught my siblings and I to read and write. She used to write poetry, sometimes with black permanent marker on the walls of the house. She certainly understands symbolic human action: once she dragged a wishing well from a home she shared with her husband and family, to a home she shared with an addict and abuser, to a trailer where she lived alone, until she finally took an ax to the thing, stacked the wood neatly, and torched it.
Behar’s mother was upset about her anthropologist daughter displaying the family’s trapos sucios, or “dirty linens.” My mother feels the same way. But my family’s dirty laundry has been hanging out on the line in our town for a long time now.
In 4th grade, I remember sitting in our white station wagon in the school parking lot, which was also the kickball field during recess, idling somewhere between 3rd base and home, and lying to my mom about why I was crying. She’d just told me that I might hear some rumors at school that day about her and the manager at Hardee’s—the town’s only fast food place, where she worked—having sex in the bathroom. When she asked me why I was crying, I said, “Because I can’t believe people would lie about you like that,” but I was crying because I believed it. I’d already been forced to spend an afternoon in the company of the manager and his son and found it strange. Even now, as an adult, I sometimes meet people from our town who were in high school when I was in elementary school, and who, after we’ve had a couple of beers at the party, tell me, “My friend used to work at Hardee’s. I heard some things about your mom.”
Residents of our village think my mother is a whore. One story, doubtless still circulating, told how truckers on Route 30 would pull into the Hardee’s drive-thru, order a Frisco burger and curly fries, and somehow end up receiving oral sex from Mom. I can’t imagine how this system would have worked. Was there some kind of code? Did it carry over CBs for miles? “Make a stop in Dalton and—oh yeah—make sure to order the #11?” It’s absurd, and in this case, I don’t believe it. Regardless, these stories gained momentum long before I fully understood that our family was different.
My mom grew up on a dairy farm in a conservative, rural part of northeast Ohio. She was the youngest of seven children and has felt alone and unloved her whole life despite her six brothers and sisters, her one flawed but dedicated ex-husband. Her parents sometimes left her with her grandmother when the family went on vacations, and once when her siblings were supposed to babysit her, they tied her to a tree and ran off, freed of the responsibility. One could easily read the promiscuity that informed my mother’s sense of self in her thirties and forties as a natural result of her feelings of isolation and fear of abandonment. But that seems too simple.
Once, my mom’s Jeep was stolen and later discovered about one hundred miles away, reduced to a burnt-out husk in a field. Because she was a poor, uneducated, recently divorced factory worker who had dated and bailed out an ex-con, she had a hell of a time getting her insurance company to cover the incident. I remember not being able to sleep the week after she was interrogated by the insurance company’s lawyer.
“I see here you own a motorcycle,” he said. “And that you have over $20,000 dollars in outstanding debt.”
My mom’s not stupid, even though she thinks that I think she is. She didn’t call the lawyer out for implying that because she was strapped for money and liked Harleys she was the kind of person who would attempt to commit insurance fraud.
“Yes,” she answered to both leading questions.
“Fuck that motherfucker,” I said, and thought again about going to law school.
The legal system, it’s been theorized, is primarily a space of narrative contestation. When my mom’s Jeep showed up torched, the lawyer had a character in mind, and that character tended to fit neatly into a tired plotline we’ve all heard before: lazy white trash trying to cheat the system. Except that Mom is honest. And she works her ass off.
“You associate with criminals, you get treated like one,” my sister said, adding that she hoped Mom had learned a lesson.
The fact is, we humans are always extrapolating. We get a lot of things right, but just as many wrong. I don’t think there’s a story out there in the discursive ether that lines up well with the contours of my mother’s life, which is likely why I’m so drawn to it.
Ruth Behar quotes a “famous” memoirist as once having said, in a “bored” tone of voice, “People aren’t emotional hemophiliacs who you prick and they bleed to death in front of you. They can take it better than you think.” My mom is both fiercer and more vulnerable than anyone else I know. I used to worry when she raged at us and banged the sweeper into the furniture. But I’d worry even more when she locked herself in the bathroom and showered until all the hot water in our 40-gallon tank had run out. Sometimes I sat in front of the bathroom door and stared at the yellow crack of light at the bottom where the steam leaked through and wondered if she were in there bleeding out in the bathtub. My mother, to my knowledge, has never attempted suicide. My frequent worry that she would speaks to the depth of vulnerability I sensed in her.
It’s really no surprise I find myself compelled to talk about my family’s strange navigations of domestic life, having been raised in a space where everything was discussed. My father was a once-great, small-town running back, and he often cited his retractile testicles as his stealth advantage. “When you get a helmet to the balls,” he said, “you’re done.” But lucky for my dad and the 1977 fighting bulldogs, when my dad got hit in the groin, his testicles retracted instead of getting stuck trying to retreat. The result was less pain, which made it possible for him to keep running for that touchdown instead of crumpling to the turf in agony.
I grew up taking showers with my siblings and my parents. Though we were in fact not a very physically affectionate family, nothing we ever saw on our bodies was treated as shameful, and nothing we wanted to discuss was considered inappropriate. After I was dumped by my first serious boyfriend at age twenty-one, my dad literally skipped into the living room and presented me with my first vibrator.
I am happy my parents raised me this way.
My father once showed me how his testicles retract. I thought it was interesting.
I’ve been trying to make something of this notion of dirty laundry for a few years now. Not laundry, per se, but domestic dirt in the literal and figural senses. In an essay draft called “How to Redd Up a Mess With the Landlord Watching,” I have tried to say something about the sprawling messes that families make. The piece moves between two narrative threads: one in which my mom is performing a series of vacuum cleaner demonstrations in hopes of being hired as a full-time travelling sales employee, and one in which I try to figure out how we all got here, with my parents divorced and my mother on her knees dumping baking soda onto the carpet of my dad’s shitty apartment, exclusively for the purpose of sweeping it up.
That second thread takes us into some bad places—meth, beatings, jail, STDs, theft—and I’ve been explicitly told not to write about them. Mom says the stories are not mine to tell, as if watching your mother’s life deteriorate before your eyes has nothing to do with you. Other times, she says, “I don’t want to think about it anymore. It’s over, done, in the past. Why do you want to focus on the past?”
I’m lucky to have come across Behar’s essay because it turns out she’s thought long and hard about this too. When her mother asks, “Why do you do it?” Behar says, “Because it hurt me.” I think her answer is sufficient.
Appropriation, tangled up as it is in discourses of identity, belonging, ownership, and expression, is a tricky subject. Particularly when telling narratives of historical atrocities like genocide, people are forced to ask themselves, do I have the “right” to use this material? Is it “my” story to tell? The broader question, of course, is whether anyone, member of the group whose story is being presented or not, should make art out of tragedy. Is it ethical to try to make something pretty or transcendent out of my mother’s suffering?
Elaine Lawless, an anthropologist like Behar, has written extensively on the role of women’s voices and narratives in surviving violence. In her book, Women Escaping Violence, Lawless presents and analyzes narratives she gathered from abused women while volunteering in a women’s shelter in Missouri. She writes: “Women are eager to tell their narratives, and they ask me to ‘take their stories’—for telling them validates a life, names the abuse, honors the escape.” However, Lawless realizes that the situation isn’t quite so straightforward. She also discusses the ways in which the women must shape their stories to fit the institutionally sanctioned narratives that will bring them the services they so desperately need. Furthermore, she complicates the “redemptive voicing” master narrative by acknowledging that for some women, retelling the story is to relive the abuse. Drawing from Elaine Scarry’s well-known work, The Body in Pain, Lawless posits, “It may well be that, for a woman who has been battered, to describe the abuse upon her body is to inflict the pain anew and to identify her own body as the site of the objectification, the violence.”
My mom chopped up a wishing well and burned it to the ground. Maybe ashes are the only testament she wants to leave of that time.
There was a girl I knew as an undergrad who was nice enough but rather strange. She bragged about herself incessantly and never, to my mind, seemed to live up to the hype. One day we were getting lunch, and out of the blue—in that way that binds me eternally to anyone who, like me, has no sense that certain things should not be said in public—Jenny told me she had been molested by her stepfather. I told her I was sorry and listened to her as she kept talking, and suddenly her bragging made a kind of sense. She was deeply damaged by her stepfather’s abuse, and doubtless she struck out to repair it in a way that sometimes seemed extreme.
Jenny was an art major, and I heard from a mutual friend that another friend had been taking a drawing class in which Jenny was paid to serve as a nude figure model. Certainly, the female nude has had its treatment in the critical world: as the passive object of the male gaze, as the mirror in which man seeks to locate only another version of himself, as the playful mimic, as the uncontainable excess that subverts male reason.
But when I think of the nude I like to think of Jenny. As the story goes, after the students finished their renderings of her body, Jenny, herself an adept art student, herself lacking a little in self-esteem, herself having been subjected to the abuses of patriarchy, walked along behind their drawings and critiqued them. “No,” she is said to have announced again and again, “you didn’t do justice to my abs.” What must the students have thought as their figure, embodied beside them, talked back?
My mother is also talking back to me.
I’m listening, but I’m talking too.
 Here, I think, is a good place for a pseudonym.
ELIZABETH ZALESKI earned her MFA in nonfiction from The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate and is forthcoming in Saranac Review. The American Folklore Society Women’s Section awarded the Elli Köngas-Maranda Prize to the original research out of which “Other Writers’ Mothers” grew.