Getting a Life: Recent American Memoirs

A curious mind probing for truth may well set your scribbling ass free.
—Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Almost a decade ago, James Frey admitted that his best-selling memoir about drug addiction, prison, and rehab, A Million Little Pieces, was really a work of fiction. The Smoking Gun website outed him and then Oprah Winfrey, who had helped make the book a best seller, grilled him on live television. “Frey” rhymes with “lie,” and the author’s first response was to say he’d changed little things, as all memoirists do to enhance their narratives. The evidence against him mounted, and he finally confessed to writing a work of fiction. “Frey,” which also rhymes with “try,” had done his best to sell the manuscript as a novel, but no one wanted to publish it. The same manuscript, offered as a memoir? Contract, advance, bestsellerdom!

Weirdly, Frey’s humiliating experience should have been a cautionary tale for memoirists, but instead it became a template, and not just because he pretended lies were truth, but because he longed for “street cred” as a drug addict and ex-con. Somewhere in the new millennium, fame and shame got married. Their parents were 1980s talk shows, which evolved into shock shows (Jerry Springer, et al.) where people confessed their sins before studio audiences and hoped for absolution. Lament, repent, let us all rise and . . . clap? Clergy in general and Catholic priests in particular had other things to think about as the ’90s unfolded, and while sex scandals and diminishing flocks preoccupied them, the confessional place shifted from the church to the television studio. This move, from sacred and secret to profane and public, increased the audience a million-fold. A few years and better hand-held video cameras later and the confessor didn’t even have to visit a television studio—anywhere could be the scene of a revelation on reality TV. Scripted interactions[1] and shameful public confessions became a virtual and popular art form.

In the same era more Americans attended college, and MFA programs thrived. Blogs burst into being on the internet alongside all kinds of personal writing, some good, most not. At last, Marxist literary theorists had the chance to witness a moment in which all texts seemed equal, where a survivalist’s anti-government rant shared the same webby space with a Moroccan-American writer’s literary reflections. Of course it didn’t last long; the internet developed its own caste system, and the best writers quickly figured out which venues paid the best or had the most prestige, or both. Despite the cries for diversity that have dominated American campuses since the 1980s, the genre of creative nonfiction, specifically memoir, remains one dominated by upper-middle-class white people whose main life experience seems to be fifteen or more years as students.

In 2014, the two memoirs (both collections of personal essays) that topped the best-seller lists were written by white women born in the 1980s to culturally elite families. Lena Dunham’s parents are successful visual artists; Leslie Jamison’s father is a well-known economist and her aunt is the acclaimed psychiatrist and memoirist Kay Redfield Jamison. Lena Dunham composed her memoir[2] after achieving fame with a hit TV show, Girls, whose plot follows the lives of four highly-educated white girls, friends from college who have reconnected in New York City. Still supported by their parents, they work as unpaid interns, or in menial low-paying jobs. Relationships matter more to them than any kind of work, and Hannah, the main protagonist, seems both to endure and invite degrading relationships with men.

I’m old enough to be Lena Dunham’s mother, and sure enough my daughter Alix (a few years younger than Dunham) introduced me to the show. At the time, Alix worked as an unpaid intern in New York City, like two of the characters, and she explained, “This is my generation, Mom.” That was three years ago. As the characters have remained stuck, whiny, and self-destructive, the original audience for the show grew up. My daughter’s internship turned into a paying job; she moved in with her girlfriend and took on a variety of other commitments. When I asked recently how she liked the show nowadays, she told me she stopped watching last year: she could no longer empathize with any of the characters.

Dunham’s September 2014 memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” became an instant best seller, though her life has not offered her much in the way of compelling subject matter. She’s a New Yorker who attended good private schools and then an elite college. Her life has not been spent struggling to find food for herself or her family, surviving a war-torn country, dealing with ill family members or escaping from genocide. Individuals who have such lives rarely have the skills to write about them. Instead, Dunham has had a privileged life, and this is her opening line: “I am twenty years old and I hate myself.” Apparently, suffering is relative. If life doesn’t give you lemons, you pee in a pitcher and pretend it’s lemonade.

Like so many young people her age, she suffers from anxiety; hers requires strong medication. She doesn’t want anyone to know she’s sad (except us bazillion readers), so she pretends she’s happy: “I dance the hardest, laugh the hardest at my own jokes, and make casual reference to my vagina, like it’s a car or a chest of drawers.” She hates being a virgin and quickly loses that distinction at college, though she doesn’t really like sex (“Intercourse felt, often, like shoving a loofah into a Mason jar”). No need to wonder why: “I’ve always been attracted to jerks.” All of this is amusingly masochistic (“I’ve always had an imagination that could grasp, maybe even appreciate, the punitive”), which goes with the low self-esteem, but it flies (seemingly) in the face of her feminist upbringing. Her mom was an ardent member of the Women’s Action Coalition; she went to schools where “gender inequality was as much a topic of study as algebra.” Her father adored and supported her and her sister, and both parents made them believe they could do anything.

Despite all this nurturing and schooling, it takes her a series of awful relationships (all ruefully and hilariously described) before she realizes: “Being treated like shit is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve.” To someone my age, this seems obvious, but not to Dunham’s cohort who resonate with someone who has lived the same kind of life—a girl who dislikes her body, who wants to be admired, who is drawn to guys who aren’t interested in her, who will sleep with just about anyone, try anything at a party, do anything to fit in—and record it in funny, ironic prose. Oh my god—you did not! You did! In the course of revealing everything she’s ashamed of, humor abounds, but her book only gets serious when she details what I have come to think of as the well-off white girl’s most popular memoir topic: date rape.

Dunham’s account of being raped by a young Republican at Oberlin is indeed “a study in the way revulsion can quickly become desire when mixed with the right muscle relaxants.” Unfortunately, she describes her oppressor, “Barry,” so accurately, a former classmate fitting the description (also named Barry, of course) swore he’d never raped Dunham and demanded that Random House clear his name. He had read an advance copy, but in an echo of the Frey case, the publisher hung fire until other news sources—Breitbart and Gawker among them—further eroded Dunham’s narrative and showed she’d indeed targeted a particular man. In December 2014, Dunham repeated the opening sentence of her chapter about him: “I’m an unreliable narrator.” When pressured, she admitted someone else had actually been the rapist, a student she refused to identify. “Barry,” the Republican jerk whose name has since been changed by Random House, isn’t happy, and Dunham hasn’t done any favors for victims of rape. Right around the time Dunham recanted, another, far more shocking story of date rape at the University of Virginia, unraveled. The author of the incendiary article in Rolling Stone, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also apologized for her unsubstantiated story, but neither she nor any of the other editors connected to the faulty reporting were fired, even after a team from the Columbia Journalism School examined the story’s reporting and editing and concluded the article had failed at every stage.

Until that moment, I’d admired Dunham as a witty iconoclast, now I see her as perfectly representative of her cohort of memoir­ists. As one of my favorite Flannery O’Connor stories has it,[3] “She would have been a good woman, if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Absent real conflict, one gets laugh-worthy narcissism. Perhaps the lack of real feminist struggle (say, trying to get the right to vote, or to attend a university, or have access to birth control) has left a generation of women with nothing to lament but hookups gone sour. After all, here Dunham tells us how stoned she was, and at one point as the two are flailing about on the floor of her dorm room, she moans “as if to say, I like this, so much.” The next day she realizes how much she disliked Barry and the whole unpleasant encounter. Her friend tells her, “You were raped.” First she laughs, soon enough she’s sure it’s the key to her low self-esteem. Personally, I feel sorry for the real victims of rape. I also pity the real Barry, the campus Republican who did not rape Lena Dunham (who barely knew her), but got fingered for the crime. I and about a million other people have the first edition of the book in which he’s named.

If Dunham serves as the wit of her generation, Leslie Jamison stars as the intellectual. With the help of sad, funny, brainy Charles D’Ambrosio,[4] she too has mastered beautiful prose, to which she’s added brilliance: when The Empathy Exams[5] became a New York Times top ten best seller, it put literary Graywolf Press on the map. This book seemed at first to offer more than a privileged author’s gaze into her navel, because in its title essay Jamison gets a personal essayist’s dream job: a university medical school pays her to pretend she has a disease (mental or physical) for the benefit of its students. Can they correctly identify the disease she’s acting out, carefully following the protocols of the script she’s been given? Can they ask the right questions, give the proper reassurances and, most important, show empathy for the patient?

As she plays the role of a pregnant woman afraid of losing her baby, we learn that Jamison is herself a pregnant woman planning to abort her fetus. The doubling device braids together two narratives, but overachiever that she is, she doesn’t leave it there. The braided narratives become more elaborate (why bring together two narratives when you can toss in a third?), more cerebral, and borderline OCD. Jamison admits she’d like a stiff drink or a Xanax, but all she has is this essay to distract her deeply furrowed brain. What results is an epic essay on empathy and the author’s need for an enormous amount of it. Like Sauron’s searching eye, looking for what’s missing, her gaze falls upon her sweet boyfriend. Oh reader, pity him as you pitied Frodo! Jamison insists he read her mind, or at least her heart. “Couldn’t he just trust that I felt something, and that I’d wanted something from him? I needed his empathy not just to comprehend the emotions I was describing, but to help me discover which emotions were actually there.”

Discontented, Jamison ends one evening with her boyfriend “under a skylight under a moon. It was February beyond the glass. It was almost Valentine’s Day. I was curled into a cheap futon with crumbs in its creases, a piece of furniture that made me feel like I was still in college. This abortion was something adult. I didn’t feel like an adult inside of it.” Not feeling like an adult seems to be the key to both Dunham and Jamison, the standard bearers of their generation of memoirists.[6]

Graywolf first appeared on my mental landscape in the 1990s as a first-rate publisher of poetry. In the new millennium, its greatest renown is as a publisher of creative nonfiction. They founded a prestigious prize for essay collections and memoirs, which Jamison won in 2011. One presumes the editors helped her shape the manuscript as it wasn’t published until 2014. Following up their success with The Empathy Exams, last spring Graywolf added two more cubs to the pack. These babies come from arty, edgy beloveds, Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson. Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary[7] looks to be about 5,000 words long, but it’s been set like poetry and published as a 5 x 8-inch hardcover book. Its cover resembles a tiny rust-colored tile splashed with a gold inkblot almost covering the word “Diary” and below that a laudatory plug by Miranda July calling the book “elegant” and “wise.” How wise it is remains to be seen, but it’s certainly carefully composed, its questions about the nature of truth and memory, the “ongoingness” of a journal and its (in)ability to capture time are dropped with faux curiosity, as if the author did not already know the answers. The questions come early, the answers late, and in between there’s a baby. Of course, without the straw-man questions, there would be no climax to this book, no arc to this narrative of discovery as the writer searches, finds, and then settles down.

As someone who has also kept a regular journal for over 30 years, I know diaries have a Dionysian quality: a messy and energetic tangle of topics springs up each day and some grow large and leafy while others wither and die. Diaries often have a drunken affect—I must get this down before I pass out—but books intended for public consumption need a more considered shape and tone. Readers crave those classic, Apollonian forms, and Manguso has shaped her book to fit those dimensions. However, despite its artifice, this little book does possess some lovely musings on diary-keeping, many so beautifully written that the verse-like typesetting does not seem inappropriate.

Her first question to herself is why she began keeping a diary. The answers multiply: “I didn’t want to lose anything . . . I could stop thinking about what happened and be done with it . . . I could say I was truly paying attention . . . I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and usefully as possible . . .” Time catches us in its cur­rents, and we can’t escape it. If only we could swim to the shore for a respite, could watch and gain a perspective on what’s happening in that medium flowing all around us and through us. Manguso captures a feeling that is probably familiar to all diarists: “Today was very full, but the problem isn’t today. It’s tomorrow. I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.”

Regularly revising her diary is something Manguso says “everyone I’ve told finds . . . perverse, but if I didn’t get things down right, the diary would have been a piece of waste instead of an authentic record of my life. I wrote it to stand for me utterly.” But how can it? It’s a representation, not the thing—the person—itself. This insight requires more thought about the nature of language. If only it could be more than a delivery system, “the goal being a form no one notices, the creation of what seems like pure feeling, not of what seems like a vehicle for a feeling. Language as pure experience, pure memory. I too wanted to achieve that impossible effect.” Maybe some other art form comes closer to the real thing. Music? The wordlessness of visual imagery? The movement of dance?

Memory, too, refuses to retain its purity once it’s been mediated through language. Language alters truth, unfocused impressions become shaped narratives. Manguso’s first memory encapsulates her sense of humor and her early sense of time: “I remember being three, standing at eye level with the drawer in my mother’s night table, the white porcelain knob pierced by a tarnished screw, saying When am I ever going to be four?” For the moment, I’ll skip over the implications of that white knob being pierced by a screw on a night table (i.e., next to a bed) and simply take this statement at face value. Children want the years to race by, their lives are ahead of them. When do adults begin to wish the years would slow down or stop? Perhaps it’s when the people who made us and loved us begin to disappear.

Nearly a decade ago, Kevin Brockmeier’s novel, A Brief History of the Dead, intrigued me. It has two settings, far apart but intimately connected: the U.S. and Antarctica on earth, and The City, a place people go after they’ve died. The conceit: in The City, you only live as long as there are people on earth who still remember you. When they’re all gone, you disappear and are truly dead. Something tells me that Sarah Manguso also read this novel.

My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay. A color, a sensation, the way someone said a single word—soon it will be all gone. In a hundred and fifty years, no one alive will ever have known me.
Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.

I wrote beside her words, “Why ‘Thanatopsis’ eventually seems a comforting poem.” For that matter, this particular feeling may be one of the main reasons we have children, or write books, or make things that will exist after we are gone.

Manguso has a baby, and suddenly her fear of death relents. She’d like more sleep, death’s second self. Her diary becomes a compendium of notes about her son. “Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.” Her students, young in the way she once was, “still believe in beginnings,” because they haven’t yet reached the middle. They still have hope and faith in what’s coming next. Manguso’s musings on time become more complicated: “I’ve never under­stood so clearly that linear time is a summary of actual time, of All Time, of the forever that has always been happening.”

From questions to answers and acceptance that time never stops moving. The tiny book ends with a lightning strike of wisdom; for an instant, we can see the sea through the storm.

A flash—and I’m gone, but look, the churn of bodies through the world of light unending.
Look, here we are, even now—

No end period, for this essay has finally ascended to the form it longs to be, poetry.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts,[8] the other spring memoir from Graywolf, poses more challenges to readers but does reward persistence. Nelson’s subject is ambiguity—the ambiguity of language to say what we mean, the ambiguity of gender to say who we are—and this topic is reinforced from the first in language that resists easy comprehension. Reading the opening pages of The Argonauts made me feel like the virgin reader I once was, thrilled by the sensations language can create even when mean­ing remains elusive. This is the first book I’ve read by Nelson, and I imagine those who already know the poet-philosopher’s work won’t experience any semantic confusion. For the rest of us: the first paragraph epitomizes Nelson’s writing style. She’s not addressing the reader, which makes decoding the text more difficult.

October 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widow­makers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits. Instead, the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy, unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for the answer.

Trying to understand this opening paragraph, I flashed back to my first reading of Moby-Dick, that passage where the whalers have harpooned the vast creature, but the line is unspooling so fast it’s hard to see who is holding the rope, who is tangled in it, but the whale is sounding, diving deep, and sailors are yanked after him, some of whom will never resurface. Who, what, when, where—all lost in the confusion of a turbulent moment. As in the first viewing of a Turner painting, we’re left with a powerful impression of a scene we can’t see clearly.

In Nelson’s first paragraph, pronouns leap like deer through the Santa Ana passes, first a doe, then a buck, and finally a “you.” The data storage part of my mind delivered whatever knowledge might make sense of the passage. Joan Didion’s California essays helped, and Google provided weather stories from the past. Santa Ana winds rise in the inland deserts of California, then race through the mountain passes to the coast, where they spread their dry, hot air. Sometimes they gust at hurricane force (“shred­ding the bark off the eucalyptus trees”), often they exacerbate wildfires. In October 2007, the time noted for this cataclysmic meeting between Nelson and her lover, the Santa Anas arrived in 85-mile gusts and caused fires that consumed 500,000 acres of land.

The narrator, out in a “widowmaker” (events that kill husbands, leaving wives unpartnered—e.g., a ship going down with its captain, a marathon runner suffering a cardiac arrest near the finish line, a power company employee being knocked on the head by a flying eucalyptus tree) windstorm, seems to be discussing the early stage of a relationship. Or so we guess, since the friend tells the narrator to tattoo her knuckles with the phrase “HARD TO GET.” Is the friend chiding the narrator for rebuffing a sexual or romantic proposition? The word “instead” seems to reinforce the idea that the next sentence is linked to the friend’s tattoo suggestion, but when the narrator shouts “I love you” and the “you” lives in a “bachelor pad,” this theory deconstructs.

Single men live in bachelor pads, but this “bachelor” has more tools than the average guy—indeed, he has a “stack of cocks,” suggesting he can choose which to put on. Riddle: Does a stack of exchangeable cocks negate the presence of a single, attached one? The penetrator’s body remains ambiguous, but the ecstasy felt by the penetrated Nelson shines clear. Just as Freud in “The Uncanny” keeps finding himself walking past brothels in Vienna, Nelson continually draws the reader to her favorite sexual position, the bottom to her lover’s top. In Freud’s day, sexual desires came cloaked in shame and secrecy; in this contemporary memoir, Nelson revels in the gratification she derives from being sodomized and wants to tell the world about it. She’s compelled to defend her position from “current ‘grrrl’ culture” in which the old feminist saw, “I need a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” has morphed into “I need X like I need a dick in my ass.” Nelson does need that dick in her ass and doesn’t want it portrayed negatively by baby-faced feminists.

For the neophyte reader, clarity begins to emerge on page 7: “After lunch, my friend who suggested the HARD TO GET tattoo invites me to her office, where she offers to Google you on my behalf. She’s going to see if the Internet reveals a preferred pronoun for you, since despite or due to the fact that we’re spending every free moment in bed together and already talking about moving in, I can’t bring myself to ask. Instead I’ve become a quick study in pronoun avoidance.”

Now we know for sure the friend of the first half of paragraph one is not the lover of the last half; though until this page, ambiguous pronouns left that possibility. The gender play resides not in her/him, but her/you. French or any other language with both a formal and an intimate “you” would make this clearer, but English renders the revelation opaque. We assume we are still with the friend as nothing has indicated otherwise, and the word “instead” appears to link the sentence that begins with it to the one that preceded it. Instead, a lacuna exists between the conversation with the friend and the narrator with her face smashed against a cement floor, being ass-fucked by “you.” Omission, John McPhee tells us in a recent (September 14, 2015) New Yorker essay, involves the reader far more than inclusion. Trying to conjure what is missing from the text allows readers to participate in its creation. However, it can also be intensely frustrating.

The Argonauts relates a love story through the politics of sex and gender. Maggie meets and falls in love with Harry Dodge (née Wendy Malone, renamed Rebecca Bard by her adopters, self-named Harriet Dodge in college), and their lives entwine and evolve, as do their bodies. Together they go through his sexual transformation; together, they go through her pregnancy and the birth of their baby. As in Manguso’s memoir, having a baby changes Nelson’s life for the better. So does helping to raise Dodge’s son from a previous relationship.

The new lovers have Daoistic battles. Dodge finds language slippery and words perilous: “Once we name something we can never see it the same way again.” Nelson believes, like Wittgenstein, that words can express everything, that even the inexpressible is contained within them. As a poet and a philosopher, Nelson writes a lot about the etymology and impact of words, and the title of her memoir comes from the same passage of Roland Barthes that animated Jeffrey Eugenides’ recent novel The Marriage Plot. Barthes says that the phrase “I love you” must have its meaning renewed every time it is repeated. In much the same way Jason’s ship the Argo had its parts replaced in the course of the voyage, but still retained the name Argo. New wood hews to the shape of the old ship. The new ship, ergo, is the same ship, the old ship, with different parts. The Argonauts perfectly describes Nelson and Dodge, for in the course of this novel they change huge parts of their bodies and yet still their love renews itself.

Uncannily, The Argonauts began to speak to me personally: Several of the literary theorists mentioned are people I know, such as Susan Fraiman, a friend from graduate school at Columbia a few decades ago. In those days, she was interested in women’s narratives of development; I remember a compelling talk involving Fanny Burney and Jane Austen. During the course of her career at the University of Virginia, her research interests evolved, and some years ago she took up Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s challenge to “advance the discourse of women’s anal eroticism.” Nelson sees her as the torch bearer for female anal pleasure, thanks to Fraiman’s essay “In Search of the Mother’s Anus.” The essay deconstructs Freud’s case history of the Wolf Man. The Wolf, while yet a cub, witnessed his mother and father coupling like dogs and could not reconcile the look of joy on his mother’s face with what appeared to be a violent act on his father’s part. Freud focused on the fear caused by the “violent act,” dismissing the mother as a castrated wolf at the mercy of a stronger wolf who mounts her from behind, whereas Fraiman “returns the mother’s pleasure to the scene.”

Paragraph one of Nelson’s book presents the idea of Nelson and Dodge as two aspects of one person or of Harry as two people in one body. Beckett’s novel Molloy, on Dodge’s nightstand, is the clue. Deeply read literati will enjoy The Argonauts more than other readers, though Nelson helps by using the margins to name check the theorists she’s quoting. If Nelson weren’t so self-deprecating, she’d be unbearable. But she can laugh at herself, at Dodge, at all kinds of situations.

For me, old home week continued when I hit the section on Christina Crosby, Maggie Nelson’s favorite professor when she was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. During two of those years, I was Crosby’s next-door neighbor on Huber Manor in Middletown. Did I, 29–31, juggling motherhood and my dissertation, ever cross paths with young Nelson, a feminist philosopher-poet in the making? Nelson seems to have much enjoyed her feminist professors, whereas I found many of the Wesleyan feminists—undergraduates as well as professors—too earnest and too angry for me. Indeed, I’ve never experienced a place more politically correct and intolerant than Wesleyan during the two years I existed on its fringes (my then-husband had a two-year visiting professorship in the psychology depart­ment), 1989–1991.

During our first year there, the president’s house was firebombed; the Malcolm X house defiled by racist graffiti (according to William M. Chace, then Wesleyan’s president, it was widely presumed that two students of color wrote the graffiti); the women’s bathroom walls featured lists of male students (first and last names) deemed rapists by the anonymous women who scrawled them there. Students held sit-ins protesting racial injustice on campus (several black faculty had recently left, though none of them said it was because they felt mistreated); late in the spring of that crazy first year, one particularly incendiary student was found shot dead in a car full of guns. The cement walkways of the campus kept the fires of injustice burning (I remember reading “one in three women who reads this will be raped while she’s a student here,” among other scary stats) although some students set their anger aside long enough to pen an occasional mash note on the paths. Maggie Nelson remem­bers reading one that said, “Christina Crosby’s leather pants make me wet.” She describes the desire she and other students in Crosby’s feminist theory class felt for their dashing professor, who remained coy about her sexuality.

I was cruising for intellectual mothers, unconsciously gravitating toward the stern and nonmaternal type. Christina would show up for class on her motorcycle or sleek road bike, blow into the room with her helmet under her arm, the whip of autumnal New England in her hair and cheeks, and everyone would quake with intimidation and desire.

Unfortunately, my neighbor and I had a couple of things derail the possibility of a real friendship. One of them involved the women’s studies group whose monthly meeting she invited me to. These Wesleyan satellites (professors, students, visiting scholars) shared their academic writing with each other, which sounded like exactly what I needed to get back to work on my dissertation (about subversive women and literature of the 1860s), neglected since I’d had my baby eight months earlier. Before the baby was born, we’d moved out of New York, so I’d lost my student support group.

I was very grateful to Christina for inviting me, and, toting my baby, I went to the meeting with happy anticipation. To my surprise, the other women there (no one seemed to have chil­dren) seemed put off by my having brought my baby. Alix wasn’t shrieky, but she was hungry. Since there were no men present, I figured it was okay to nurse her, and I did. One woman, looking at me in horror, asked if my husband was making me do this to my body as a way vicariously to assert his ownership through his child’s vampiric sucking of my vital fluids. Another woman, upon learning my child’s name was Alexandra (no one knew then an entire generation of boys and girls would have a variant of this name), asked me if we had named her after Alexandra, the wife of Tsar Nicholas. A very bad name if so, the woman told me, because the Russian nobility were anti-Semites, and this last Nicholas had initiated some of the worst pogroms in the country’s history. Finally, the father of our beloved babysitter happened to be the then-chair of the English Department, and I thought dropping his name might help my standing, but I’d have been better off throwing a stink bomb. These feminists did not like him much (probably because he represented another facet of the patriarchal hegemony they were up in arms about). To me, who so loved his daughter Katy, he seemed an erudite, kind man, a devoted Quaker and a very good father and husband.

After that unpleasant and unwelcoming experience, I attend­ed no more meetings of the women’s studies group and felt quite awkward whenever I ran into my neighbor, a sentiment she doubtless shared. Maggie Nelson could have become one of those women, but having her own baby changed her. She acknowledges that after she became pregnant with Iggy, all the years she’s spent believing women are slaves to reproduction are upended: “Do castration and the Phallus tell us the deep Truths of Western culture or just the truth of how things are and might not always be? It astonishes and shames me to think that I spent years finding such questions not only comprehensible, but compelling.” Yes, getting pregnant changed her from one of the awful feminists I met at that women’s studies meeting to the woman who would eventually write this:

For all the years I didn’t want to be pregnant—the years I spent harshly deriding “the breeders”—I secretly felt pregnant women were smug in their complaints . . . Then, when I wanted to be pregnant but wasn’t, I felt that pregnant women had the cake I wanted, and were busy bitching about the flavor of the icing.
I was wrong on all counts—imprisoned, as I was and still am, by my own hopes and fears. I’m not trying to fix that wrongness here. I’m just trying to let it hang out.

What I learned from Nelson’s memoir is that not even Crosby, with her impeccable p.c. credentials, escaped the disgruntlement of Wesleyan students. After Nelson’s time, a group of them staged a coup in her feminist theory class—they walked out and held class in a private setting, to which they invited their professor as a guest. Everyone who attended in the new setting was given an index card and asked to write “how they identified,” then pin it to their shirts.

Christina was mortified. Like [Judith] Butler, she’d spent a lifetime complicating and deconstructing identity and teaching others to do the same, and now, as if in a tier of hell, she was being handed an index card and a Sharpie and being told to squeeze a Homeric epithet onto it.

Crosby didn’t tell the students what they really wanted to know (her sexual orientation), a fact that had also bugged Nelson and her fellow students—they wanted her to come out to them. Nelson continues, “But as the times changed, Christina changed. She got together with a younger, more activist scholar who is more vocal about queer issues, about being queer.” Nelson goes on to say she finds it moving that Crosby is now writing autobiography—“something she never would have dreamed of doing back when she was my mentor.” But Crosby’s choosing to write an autobiography emanates from a far more dramatic event in her life than simply “getting together with a younger, more activist scholar,” and it astonishes me that Nelson doesn’t even mention it. To quote her own words in another part of the book: “Rule of thumb: when something needs to be willfully erased in order to get somewhere, there is usually a problem.”

What happened to Christina Crosby, what so changed her life and took her beyond gender into an examination of the body itself, was a catastrophic bike accident. In 2003, at the age of 50, Crosby was out riding when a branch got into the spokes of her wheel; she was thrown to the ground and broke her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic. Her memoir, A Body, Undone: Living on After Great Pain, will be out from NYU in March 2016. Her pain saddens me, and the loss of her easy athleticism, her pleasure in her toned and healthy body. In my mind, she will always be that attractive, loose-limbed young woman next door.

Thinking and writing now about the years I lived beside Crosby on Huber Manor reminds me of other strange happen­ings on that 4-house block. For example, in the tall tree between our house and Christina’s, a strange creature took up night residence in 1991. I was the first to hear its maniacal gibbering and branch shaking, but soon I had my husband outside to verify that I wasn’t having an auditory hallucination. However, despite the best efforts of our big flashlights, we could not glimpse the animal through the leaves. Christina doubtless heard it too, though I don’t remember ever discussing it with her. I do remember baby Alix having nightmares that left her screaming, “Ca’y me, Mommy, ca’y me!” I would pick her up, “carry” her, and she’d awake from her scary dream. Then, over a period of days in the spring of 1991, when toddler Alix and I were taking the path behind our house that led down the hill to the Neighborhood Preschool on High Street, we happened upon the bodies of several headless squirrels. Who or what had decapitated them, I had no idea, though I suspected the thing in the tree. My husband agreed and surmised we had someone’s escaped pet ape up there, or maybe a screech owl, though even my skeptical husband was shocked by the mutterings coming from the tree—more like guttural curses from a human being than any sounds a bird would make. What’s strange to me now is that we never called the police or the Wesleyan grounds people to investigate. We were, after all, living in a house the university owned.

The last summer we lived there before moving to Washington, D.C., Alix and I spent two weeks alone on the short block. Our across the street neighbor, F. D. Reeve (another Wesleyan professor, and the father of Christopher Reeve), was in Russia. Crosby was on vacation, as was Joe, the widower who lived across the street from her. My husband had already moved to D.C. for his new job, but I had stayed behind because I had a summer job at Northeast, the Sunday magazine of the Hartford Courant. During those weeks, Alix slept in my bed, and the two of us plus our old Maine coon cat, Folly, trembled through the nights. I’d begun to wonder if our block was haunted, a thought that came back to me two years ago when Robert Stone’s last novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, came out and I reviewed it.

Stone had connections at Wesleyan, Yale, and Brown, and his novel takes place on a university campus that combines parts from all three of them. This university has a haunted past—its founding fathers were among the Puritans who slaughtered indigenous Americans and took their land. Thus this walled, supposedly sacred grove of academe, is really a cursed site. Vulnerable members of the community go mad, or become alcoholics, or die violently, which is what happens to Maud, the black-haired girl of the title. Certainly, during the years I lived in Middletown, the Wesleyan campus seemed like a pretty crazy place. Having now read the then-president William M. Chace’s account of those years, particularly 1989–90, I realize I wasn’t alone in my impressions.

So much for memoirs by well-off young white women. This summer’s number one best-selling memoir is by a black man who constructed his identity against the privileged culture of white people. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me[9] exploded my hope for a unifying theory in contemporary American memoirs. His concerns are so completely different from, say, Lena Dunham’s, and yet, their bodies figure in both. The body may be the one element all of these memoirs share though each body has a different theme—the hated body, the violated body, the transgender body, the destroyed body, the dying body. Coates reiterates the constant threat to the black body, its vulnerability to destruction. He reminds readers that black Americans live in a world completely different from that of white Americans. This is his second autobiographical book, and it echoes one of the first great American autobiographies in that it is framed as a father’s letter to his son[10]. Coates writes about a country in which black bodies are vulnerable and have been for hundreds of years; the progress of white America, he claims, has always been based on looting and violence, the plunder of black bodies that came here in chains. White supremacy, the creation of an American “Dream,” of which only white people can partake, was achieved “through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs, the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

Part of me squirms in protest when he calls all white people (or, borrowing from James Baldwin, “people who believe they are white”) supremacists and racists, all of us complicit in the continuing disenfranchisement of black Americans, but another part of me knows how much truth there is in what he says about the destruction of black bodies, especially the bodies of young men, too many of whom die young or spend decades wasting away in prison. The last few years have hammered into the American consciousness—and conscience—that the police routinely kill unarmed black people, especially young men. “The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.” Driving while black, or virtually doing anything while black in America, can summon armed authorities, representatives of a white “dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”

Coates rightly indicts the horrors of the American slave system and its continuing consequences hundreds of years later, but locating the cause in white supremacy rather than capitalism seems wrong. The police forces of America, however, are something else altogether, and the fact that they are now, finally, being strictly critiqued indicates that white people, not just black people, are outraged by the spectacle of armed protectors of justice brutal­izing black men. However, Coates insists that the “truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.” Again, where Coates sees white supremacy at work, I see money. Well-heeled defendants get good lawyers, and they get off or get reduced sentences. If you are a rich person in America, black or white, you will fare better in the criminal justice system. The fallout of slavery has been largely economic, and more black people are poor in America than any other group. Poverty leads to homelessness, drug addiction, crime—and poor people fare worst in the justice system. It is true that police, who are increasingly seen by all Americans as racist, target young black men. America has plenty of haters, but also plenty of helpers who seek equality and justice. The very fact of Coates’s book being a huge bestseller, one that just won the National Book Award, indicates that many white people are reading it and lauding it. It came in a perfect historical moment, its publication date moved up two months to chime with the outrage of black communities.

People are scrutinizing cases like that of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and recognizing injustice; they’re looking at a man saying he can’t breathe while the police suffocate him, and recognizing injustice; they see riots in Baltimore, Ferguson, and many other hot spots in America and they recognize, at the heart of those riots, a black man treated barbarously. The “Black Lives Matter” campaign is in full swing, and racial tensions on college campuses burst forth last fall. Some of them don’t seem worthy of the attention they’re getting. Terrible injustices unscroll every day on the streets of America for poor people, and I don’t think what happens on the privileged Yale campus warrants comparison. It’s sad that minority students feel so slighted that they’re holding sit-ins and verbally attacking their professors, but it’s impossible for me to see their problems in the same light I see a man being suffocated on a New York City street for selling loose cigarettes. If I were an unhappy minority student at Yale (or Princeton), I would probably transfer to a more accommodating school. For Coates, Howard University was “The Mecca—the crossroads of the black diaspora.” He devoured books, he formed theories about black civilization and had them dashed by his history professors. He learned to think critically, and he continued to hone his writing. He didn’t have to worry about representing his race or resenting insensitive white students.

In a recent issue of the New York Times, the first black dean of Yale College, Jonathan Holloway, describes his conflicted role in the brouhaha over whether or not Halloween costumes should be vetted by the administration. Initially, he had nothing to say about it, probably because he—a historian of the civil rights movement—found the issue too trivial to warrant his intervention. But Holloway soon found himself surrounded by 200 angry black students who felt he’d been “disengaged and unresponsive.” He says now that “it broke my heart” to hear how he had let down the students, but it seems to me that his initial inaction, just like the faculty member who brought on the preppy freak-out by writing a letter saying students should have freedom of choice in their costumes and exercise their own sensitivity toward others, indicated her belief that young adults could talk to each other and resolve their conflicts. Calling upon their professors to force a few bigoted students to hide their racist mindsets doesn’t address the real problem—that some people have such attitudes—because only interaction and discussion can do that. All major universities need more faculty of color, but good luck getting them—far fewer minorities make their careers in academe than white people. Every university tries very hard to add minority scholars on their rosters, but such scholars can write their own tickets. Indeed, Elizabeth Alexander, whose fine memoir I’ll be referring to shortly, was the head of the African American Studies program at Yale until quite recently—she has moved to Columbia University. Why should talented black faculty stay in New Haven (or Middletown), Connecticut, when they can go to New York City, or Berkeley, or wherever feels better to them? This was the case at Wesleyan back in 1989, even though the students wanted to believe those minority professors had been driven out.

Coates has been called the successor to James Baldwin though the fear he describes feeling as a boy growing up in West Baltimore reminds me far more of the opening chapters of Richard Wright’s Native Son. “The crews, the young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger. The crews walked the block of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power.” Everyone else was “powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” Every family had lost children and brothers and sisters to the streets; parents whipped their children hoping to keep them away from the drug dealers and the gangs, but rarely did it work. To go anywhere, one had to brave the streets. Coates’s letter is one of pain and anger, and his tone is elegiac. This text could be read aloud from a pulpit and it would sound appropriate. There’s no humor here, for it would diminish the seriousness of his address to his son. He uses the genre of memoir to offer his own story as representative of a universal truth. Malcolm X comes to life in his words, and Frederick Douglass: “I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human’s body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity.”

At this passage, I found myself embracing Ta-Nehisi Coates. From my perspective, the problem isn’t a simple binary of black and white, it’s a complicated multi-threaded story of what it means to be human. After all, as he has pointed out, there’s no such thing as race—not biologically—but there are tribes and all of us belong to one. “We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” Humans, like pack animals, find a herd to join, but we always seem to set our group apart from and against others. I can’t think of anywhere in the world where humans aren’t in conflict; only the weaponry we use to kill each other has become more effective. Look to Paris, as Baldwin, and Wright, and now Coates have (he and his family are living there for this academic year—2015–16).

France isn’t racist in the same way America is, because France never had slaves at work inside its borders. Like England, French citizens benefitted from slaves working on their Caribbean holdings, but they weren’t bearing witness to slavery day in and day out as Americans did for over 200 years. I just read an interview with Coates in Paris conducted early in the fall, and he told the Financial Times reporter that he wanted to write about Paris, but he didn’t know what he could say. Now that Paris is reeling after coordinated attacks by ISIS jihadists, I think it’s pretty easy to guess what Coates will write about. One hopes that when he does, he won’t describe the feeling he had on an Uptown rooftop watching the billowing smoke from 9/11 cover Manhat­tan. On that day, he felt only his own rage about the murder of his Howard University friend, Prince Jones, by a police officer: “Everyone knew someone who was missing. But looking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own.” As James Baldwin titled his 1963 book, taking a line from the spiritual, “the fire next time,” the smoke of violence is rising everywhere, and most recently in Paris, Beirut, Tunisia, Turkey, the airspace above Egypt. The time of fire is now.

The time of death is harder to predict, although dusk descends for everyone eventually. Topics relating to death generate many memoirs. In the course of reading memoirs this last year, I found many devoted to dealing with fatal illness, one’s own or a loved one’s; grieving and recovering from the death of a partner, a child, or a parent; and taking care of aging parents until their deaths. Quite a few of these are first-rate books, but for this already lengthy essay, I will just treat three that particularly moved me. The first is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World,[11] a beautiful tribute to her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died shortly after his 50th birthday in their 15th year of marriage. This is a narrative of loss in the face of great love. In fact, Alexander’s first line is, “The story seems to begin with catas­trophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story.”

Both Elizabeth and Ficre grew up in loving families. Ficre, the youngest of seven children, grew up in Eritrea in the middle of its thirty-year war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents were revered figures to all their children, and Elizabeth identifies with his powerful mother. When Ficre tried to enlist at age 16, his mother plucked him from the front lines and sent him abroad. He became a refugee and eventually settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where he became both a world-class painter and a chef who ran an Eritrean restaurant with two of his brothers. Painting offered him a way to make sense of the suffering he’d seen, and his essentially happy nature reasserted itself. “He cared deeply that people come in peace, for he himself was a profoundly peaceful and peace-loving person, forged in the crucible of war.”

Alexander describes a warm family life with the man she loves and the two sons born of that love. Their house is filled with family, friends, laughter, art, wonderful conversation, food, words. They are black and beautiful; they are confident. Ficre’s sudden death of a massive heart attack shocks everyone, though his wife later realizes it shouldn’t have: “Black men die more catastrophically, across class, than anybody else in America.” Mother and sons find him on the floor beside the treadmill. One son knows immediately that his father is dead, the other thinks he might magically be returned to life. The wife breathes into his mouth; she feels the suppleness of his body, the warmth in the air around him. He is gone but also not gone—he feels like himself to her on the basement floor and in the hospital after the doctors have cut off his clothes and worked on him. By the time they’ve cleaned his body and brought it to his family for their goodbyes, she knows he is gone. “Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it. I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.”

Ta-Nahesi Coates’ atheism may have resulted in his particularly bleak message to his son.12 Elizabeth Alexander has a different sensibility. She embraces her ancestors, slaves and free; she sees herself and Ficre as their heirs, finally brought together in 1996 to link the descendants of East and West Africa. She doesn’t lament all who died and suffered before the moment of their connection. Instead, she writes: “Every beautiful day we lived, every single beautiful day.” The story of their courtship and marriage bears the mark of Alexander the poet; it’s funny, deep and sweet. In the course of their 15 years together, he makes 800 paintings and runs a restaurant; she directs the African American Studies program at Yale, teaches, writes numerous books—four of poetry—and they raise two children.

People should read this book just to learn what supports a strong marriage: “Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.” After his death, Ficre’s paintings remain, and “there are angels everywhere in landscapes where ancestors are conjured and present.” Elizabeth Alexander married a man who, like herself, possessed “an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.” Alexander’s book exudes a life force capable of overcoming great sadness. It’s my favorite memoir of 2015.

The memoir I liked most in 2014 was not by Dunham or Jamison, but by cartoonist Roz Chast. Her graphic memoir about caring for her aging parents unto death, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?,[13] is a must-read. For those of us who love Chast’s cartoons in The New Yorker, it explains where her dark sense of humor comes from. For those of us with aging parents, it shows us what the “sandwich generation” is all about, and it ain’t peanut butter and jelly. Roz Chast, an only child, grew up with her father as her only ally. She has great sympathy for him, a loving though weak (in the face of his wife) man. Her feelings about her mother are far more complex, but one can be glad that Chast came out of her childhood as an artist rather than an ax murderer. When you read this, be sure to note the double meaning of “a blast from Chast!”

Americans aren’t the only ones who excel at this sub-genre of memoir. In September 2014, in The London Review of Books, Jenny Diski began her own memoir. Having received a fatal diagnosis, she had a few things she wanted to say. The initial “Diary” entries describe her childhood with a mad mother and a feckless father. After landing in a mental ward herself, she is suddenly given the option of being fostered by, of all people, the writer Doris Lessing. Diski reveals her side of the three years she lived with Lessing. Bottom line: She didn’t like Lessing, found her a plagiarizer of others’ life stories, and a less-than-exemplary mother. Lessing took her 2-year-old son, Peter Lessing, with her when she abandoned her second marriage and left Rhodesia for England. Many, including Diski, have maligned her for leaving her older children, 10 and 6, from her first marriage, but it makes sense that if she were going to take anyone with her, it would be her youngest child, the one who would need his mother the most. Diski airs her belief that Peter was stunted by his overwhelming mother, but it looks much more like he was a troubled boy whose mother took care of him all his life. Although I enjoyed the essays that were primarily about teenage Diski and 40-something Doris, I also found them cruel. It’s not that one should never speak ill of the dead, but Diski seems to be biting the hand that once fed her. A hand she was unable to bite until its owner died—at 94!—in November 2013. Diski’s writing is both intellectually rigorous and funny, but it didn’t become heartfelt for me until she began to write about her life with terminal cancer. Clive James is doing the same thing, though is cancer (announced four years ago) has been slowed by drugs that work. There is no doubt this will become a book, once she has died, so it’s a memoir-to-be that I recommend in advance.

The other unlikely memoirist of 2015, whose own life became his last and perhaps most brilliant case study, is Oliver Sacks. On the Move: A Life[14] is another must-read memoir, one bolstered after its publication by a series of essays that appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere as his illness intensified. The memoir appeared in late April, and Sacks died in late August. Something I’ve always loved about Sacks, on display in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and his other books, is the ebullient openness of his mind. Time and again, he’s focused his attention on a curiosity of the brain, taking notes, putting observations together, until finally he understands something no one else has ever made sense of. Then he enlightens the world. His case histories of patients were modeled on those made by great nineteenth-century physicians; and when he turns his gaze on himself, as he does in this final memoir, he is equally rigorous.

Sacks was born into a brilliant Jewish family in London; both of his parents were physicians and storytellers. His mother “had told us—my three brothers and me—medical stories from our earliest days, stories sometimes grim and terrifying, but always evocative of the personal qualities, the special value and valor, of the patient.” Muriel Sacks, her husband, and her son Oliver, would all effortlessly pass the empathy exams described by Leslie Jamison, though Oliver’s mother had one moment when she failed her son utterly. He had just turned 18 and won a scholar­ship to Oxford, when his father decided it was time to have a man-to-man talk with his son. In the course of it, Samuel Sacks discovered that his youngest son preferred boys to girls but had never acted on his impulses. Oliver asked his father not to tell his mother; though when he next saw her face, he realized his father had revealed his secret: “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” This is the mother who doted on her last-born son; she was the person who meant more to him than anyone in the world. “But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.” His mother, a devoutly religious woman, believed what the Bible said: Homosexuality was a sin against God and humanity. In addition to infusing guilt into his sex life, her words turned him off religion. As he wrote in an essay that appeared in the Times shortly before his death, “her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.”

Nevertheless, people need meaning in their lives—a purpose, a higher power—and Oliver Sacks found one working with neurology patients. He dedicated his life to them, and they in turn gave him the subjects for several of his books. Sacks saw and processed a great deal in his life, but his literary persona sounds young and fresh, like an enthusiastic boy with an IQ around 200. Like Manguso, Sacks began keeping journals when he was fourteen and had amassed nearly a thousand of them in his 82 years on the planet and, like her, “for the most part, I rarely look at [them]. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings.” After nearly killing himself in ’60s California by taking all kinds of drugs and riding a variety of motorcycles fast and far, and after being rejected by two men he loved, Sacks turned to his work for solace. He lived celibate for thirty-five years, and it made me happy to read that late in his life he let himself fall in love again and finally experience a requited relationship.

Ours is a cruel species; the need to exclude or dominate others seems to be one of the distinguishing features of homo sapiens sapiens. We are apex predators who have consciences. We long to know why we do what we do, both as a species and individually. Memoir is born of this need to explain ourselves, and language—another human attribute—gives us the tools. All of the writers here are artists of the word. As Sacks says on the last page of his autobiography, “The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other.”

Likewise, the act of reading a well-wrought memoir.


[1] A few years ago, I helped reality TV star Heidi Montag (Laguna Beach, The Hills, Celebrity Wife Swap) edit her memoir. She quickly set me straight about the lack of truth in reality shows: “It’s all made up. They tell you what they want you to say and do and then you run with it. It’s not reality at all.” As she and her husband Spencer Pratt learned, they could only get paid for episodes they appeared in. Thus, said Heidi, they portrayed themselves falsely and shamefully following whatever script they were given.

[2] NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, by Lena Dunham. Random House. $28.00.

[3] “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

[4] D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New and Collected Essays beguiled me last year. He’s a quiet genius whose work (fiction as well as non-) shows up in all the best places for literary writing, just as he shows up—as a teacher—in the best place for literary writers, the Iowa Writers Workshop. D’Ambrosio doesn’t need help finding things to write about insofar as both of his brothers committed suicide and his father, a professor of finance at the University of Washington, suffered (not in silence) from paranoid schizophrenia. Leslie Jamison reviewed the collection for The New Yorker and she or a clever copy editor crafted a headline out of what is doubtless the author’s advice to students: “Instead of sobbing, you write sentences.”

[5] THE EMPATHY EXAMS: Essays, by Leslie Jamison. Graywolf Press. $16.00p.

[6] Interestingly, Jamison in The Empathy Exams critiques Dunham’s characters on her show Girls as “post-wounded”: “Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, apathetic, opaque; cool and clever.”

[7] ONGOINGNESS: The End of A Diary, by Sarah Manguso. Graywolf Press. $20.00.

[8] THE ARGONAUTS, by Maggie Nelson. Graywolf Press. $23.00.

[9] BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau. $24.00.

[10] Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, posthumously published in the 1790s, was also addressed to his son.

[11] THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, by Elizabeth Alexander. Grand Central Publishing. $26.00.

[12] That or his need to make a universal statement about being black in America. His journalism differs sharply from his memoir writing: in “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic, where he is a national correspondent, he tries to find solutions to the injustices he only describes in his memoir.

[13] CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?: A Memoir, by Roz Chast. Bloomsbury USA. $28.00.

[14] ON THE MOVE: A Life, by Oliver Sacks. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.