Recently I’ve been reading memoirs: mainly by women (well, all by women), and mainly by women of my age and older. Musicians, politicians, biographers, writers, performers…in some cases I’ve by- passed the life’s work and gone straight to the life story, as if to say ‘I don’t care what you’ve done, just tell me how you did it.’
I delight in moments of recognition and evidence of common ground, even in lives far removed from mine (sadly, I haven’t found much common ground with Simone de Beauvoir). I find survival tips and warnings (musicians are best for this: see Viv Albertine on how not to take a city break in Amsterdam). I enjoy the vicarious adventures and risk taking, looked back on from the safety of the writer’s middle or older age; I’m not much of a risk taker, so I take heart that most people take less risks as they age. While not all memoirists mellow in their later years, most are able to manufacture some self-awareness and give a semblance of order and meaning to even the most chaotic of lives.
Client as memoirist
My interest in life writing should be no surprise. As a counsellor I listen to people talk about their lives, usually at a point when they’re looking for change. I help them to tell their stories, perhaps to look at things that have happened from another perspective or to find meaning in them. At times, I encourage them to find the compassion and empathy for their younger selves, which may not have been available before. Timelines can be starting points for therapy, with key events mapped out chronologically or in other form which are meaningful to the client. The genogram, a kind of family tree with information about the dynamics of relationships represented in symbols, is a simple but powerful way to help people to see how close, distant, supportive or suffocating their relationships feel. So my clients become memoirists in obvious ways. But creating a memoir and revealing oneself through counselling have other connections.
Memoirs are works of non-fiction, and the memoir genre asks the reader to believe that the author is emotionally authentic, truthful (‘searingly honest’ is a commonplace of the memoirists’ blurb). However, part of the pleasure of these books is recognising the artifice, the way the writers invent themselves and reveal the influences of other writers and genres (and editors). Authenticity in memoirs comes in many forms (self-revelation, confession, emotional disclosure) and there is much borrowing from detective fiction, the bildungsroman (the coming of age novel), and various kinds of first person narrative in fiction. While we are asked to trust in the reality of the events, we are invited to invest more in the interior world of the memoirist and in relationship we form with the writer. As a counsellor, I pay attention to the things that have happened to my clients, but tune in more to the telling and to the relationship that is being formed between us in the telling.
Disguises and defences
Just as memoirists must manufacture their story, so as client and counsellor we create, update, revise a narrative; from living a life through the expectations of others, to finding a voice and a way of being which ‘feels like me.’ This is not always straightforward; the disguises, masks and subterfuges of the memoirist are like the defences we use in our lives to protect ourselves from uncomfortable or unacceptable feelings.* My counsellor (yes, counsellors have counsellors too) is quick to notice my defences; for instance, contradictions in my self-representation (‘earlier you said you were feeling great about getting older but you’ve called yourself “ancient” three times’); my all or nothing thinking (‘I was kidding myself when I thought I’d write a regular blog; I never keep things up’); my tendency to intellectualise rather than to feel emotion (what’s a former academic to do?); masking emotional discomfort with humour (this is a work in progress).
As we’re reminded every day in an all too graphic way at the moment, some stories and some forms of telling have more power and authority than others. The very emotion that gives one story cultural validity undermines another’s story. Counselling cannot take on the power structures which silence and discredit some voices whilst amplifying others, but it can help us to stop defending ourselves against and hiding in our own stories. It can take us from a hesitant ‘am I?’ to an emphatic ‘I am.’
*Defences are unconscious processes which ‘protect’ us from connecting with and experiencing anxiety-inducing ‘realities’. Common defences are denial, repression, displacement, projection, intellectualisation and sublimation.
Some memoirs I’ve enjoyed recently:
Viv Albertine, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys (Faber and Faber, 2014)
Viv Albertine, To Throw Away Unopened (Faber and Faber, 2018)
Susan Calman, Cheer Up Love (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016)
Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (Faber and Faber, 2001)
Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (Faber and Faber, 2012)
Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’ (4th Estate, 2014)
Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (Black Swan, 2006)
Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band: A Memoir (Faber and Faber, 2015)
Harriet Harman, A Woman’s Work (Allen Lane, 2017)
Caitlin Moran, How To Be a Woman (Ebury Press, 2011)
Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death (Tinder Press, 2017)
Jess Phillips, Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth (Hutchinson, 2017)
Miranda Sawyer, Out of Time: Midlife, If You Think You’re Still Young (4th Estate, 2016)
Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (Harper Collins, 1993)**
Tracey Thorn, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star (Little Brown Book Group, 2013)
Tracey Thorn, Naked at The Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing (Virago, 2015)
Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own (Penguin, 2017)
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?(Vintage, 2012)
** I haven’t actually read this, but was tempted to pretend I have, just so that I seem more curious than I am.