Issue #47, Winter 2013

The "Little Did I Know" Memoir

Under the Umbrella

Elizabeth Stone

The "Little Did I Know" Memoir

Awhile back, I was asked to help Dina Matos McGreevey, the former wife of former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, write her memoir. You might remember the story from the news: in August 2004, the governor, who had an adulterous relationship with a male staff member, went on TV to declare himself “a gay American” and announce his resignation. His wife, who hadn’t learned the full story until just hours earlier, stood numbly by his side.

Two years later, on our first day working together, Dina Matos, as she is now known, handed me a draft of her opening chapter. It began with the words, “I should have seen the signs.” What I soon came to understand was that Matos had suffered not only the destruction of her marriage and her life as she knew it, but also the destruction of ten years of her life story. The account she’d once given of her life, and believed in, had been a version of the American Dream: the daughter of Portuguese immigrants, she had met the dashing, idealistic New Jersey politician in 1996, fallen in love with him, and worked with him as a tireless campaigner and partner. Reader, she married him, and a year later, in 2001, right after he won the governorship, she gave birth to their daughter, Jacqueline. The three lived together at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion. In their future? Possibly the White House.

Then that whole life came crashing down.

Since that time, I’ve come to think of Silent Partner: A Memoir of My Marriage, the memoir Matos ultimately constructed, as belonging to a sub-genre: “Post the Shocking Discovery” (dare I say PTSD?). Or perhaps you could call it the “Little Did I Know” memoir. Almost always, it is built out of the rubble of an earlier version of a life story. Often, the first marker of such a memoir is that, directly or indirectly, it involves a secret of some sort, often sexual: something like a concealed adoption, adultery, bigamy, homosexuality, incest, sexual abuse, or a racially mixed background—and maybe even several of these.

A second salient marker is what Aristotle, in his Poetics, called anagnorisis: “recognition,” or a discovery by the central character—the memoirist—of what had been a secret. Often, the trauma isn’t in the facts discovered, but in the memoirist’s prior ignorance of those facts. Aristotle famously saw this concept best illustrated by the story of Oedipus’s discovery that the woman he married was actually his mother, and the stranger he killed at the crossroads, his father. Oedipus’s response was to gouge out his eyes—perhaps an ironic attempt at coherence, to make literal what had been his figurative blindness to his circumstances.

A few thousand years later, there is Bliss Broyard’s One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, which chronicles the aftermath of the writer’s discovery that she was not, as she had always thought, a Connecticut WASP, but a young woman of mixed blood. The memoir begins, “Two months before my father died of prostate cancer, I learned about a secret…”

In a variation of the PTSD memoir, the individual is blindsided not by the revelation of a secret, but by the impact of a trauma, brief or sustained, that bludgeons his or her identity. In Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus, in which he positions himself as his father’s amanuensis, the transcriber of his autobiography, the Holocaust is still so traumatic to his father, Vladek, that when Art, as a child, complains that his friends have skated off without waiting for him, Vladek instantly frames it in cataclysmic terms, saying, “Friends? . . . If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what is ‘friends.’ ” In Alice Sebold’s Lucky, the trauma is a rape, and in three recent works by Joan Didion—The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir; The Year of Magical Thinking, the one-woman play; and Blue Nights—it is the sudden, unexpected death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the slow decline and ultimate death of her thirty-nine-year-old daughter, Quintana. Never again, says Didion, will she think of herself as lucky or believe that having friends in high places will keep her safe.

Given its content, a third characteristic of the PTSD memoir is its predictably “backward” structure. That is, an event that could be, or otherwise would be, a narrative climax is the first revelation in the book and is, in fact, its raison d’être. Many—perhaps even most—memoirs proceed more or less chronologically. Not so with this subgenre: the revelation of the secret decimates a significant part of the story the memoirist previously had in place about his or her life, and the ensuing narrative is thus a new construction of that past. In Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, forty-four-year-old Julie Metz suffers a double blow: the sudden death of her beloved husband, Henry, and her subsequent discovery of his chronic infidelity. The story starts with the thud Metz hears upstairs that signaled Henry’s collapse and death. Initially, Metz truly grieves, but soon, she learns of her husband’s ongoing affair with a local woman and, eventually, half a dozen additional dalliances. She has lost not only her husband, but also the marriage she once thought she had.

The emotional tenor of the PTSD memoir can vary. Some individuals never quite recover from the trauma. Oedipus, having seen more than he could bear, departed Thebes forever, supported by Antigone, his daughter/sister. By the end of Blue Nights, the third work following the decimation of Didion’s life as she knew it, the narrator seems exposed and unprotected. She writes of feeling old. She concludes that she was an inadequate mother. As for Matos, her reconstruction of her past narrative entails discovering the “signs” she missed earlier in regard to McGreevey—a process which, in turn, restores some of her confidence in her own abilities of discernment. But her life story is a work in progress: in the final paragraph of the book, she writes, “The absence of pain is still so novel as to be an almost-palpable pleasure.” She is “curious” as to what the ensuing decade will bring.

Many of these memoirs, however, seem to end on a note of victory. Facing a personal narrative in ruins, many of the memoirists seek new material to start a new story. Upon recognizing herself as a woman of color, Broyard searches for additional family to provide roots, literally, for that sense of herself; Metz contacts the women Henry has had affairs with. Why so much success in so many memoirs? Some of it is human resilience, but some of it is also the fact that the conventions of the memoir genre customarily require success rather than failure. Perhaps writers of lesser stature than Didion who do not work within those conventions are simply unable to find publishers. As for Matos, she was pursued by publishers because McGreevey’s resignation had been so sensational, and throughout, Matos had said not a word.

Our Stories R Us—or, as Didion has said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The stories we tell about ourselves are intimately tied to our identities. When our evolving stories remain familiar, we may have a less urgent need to write because we remain familiar to ourselves. But when our stories are shattered, our identities are at risk, and our vision may feel dizzyingly Janus-faced. If who we were is not who we are now, the life we look back on may not connect with the life we now live. The act of telling is, truly, the effort to articulate—as in, unite—those pieces. The man Julie Metz was married to did not seem to be the same man whose death had left her a widow, any more than the marriage she thought she’d had resembled the marriage she subsequently discovered.

Memoirists write for all sorts of reasons and strike all sorts of poses—confessional, self-congratulatory, vengeful, and so on. But while many memoirists have the liberty to leisurely nuance a narrative, PTSD memoirists may be impelled by the urgent need to make their lives coherent once again, to build a new story that will not only have the heft to replace the old story but also comprehensibly connect the past to the unexpected present. Their second need, perhaps with an eye to closure, is to tell their story to others. Patricia Weaver Francisco’s memoir is called Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery. For her and for others, the goal is to make sure others recognize them as they now recognize themselves.

 

For Further Reading: A Sampling of PTSD Memoirs

The following memoirs all represent efforts to grapple with the consequences of a trauma, especially the revelation of a family secret, requiring the authors to reconstruct their life stories

J. R. Ackerley. My Father and Myself
After his father’s death, Ackerley learns that his father was a bigamist with a second family and suspects that he was possibly gay as well. The author spends decades trying to make sense of his own life and his father’s, and of their relationship to one another.

Bliss Broyard, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets
The daughter of critic Anatole Broyard, who had long ago cut himself off from his family of origin in New Orleans, learns she is racially mixed and seeks out her paternal history and relatives.

Lennard J. Davis, Go Ask Your Father: One Man’s Obsession with Finding His Origins through DNA Testing
After the death of his father, Davis is told by his uncle Abie that he is not the genetic son of his father, but was conceived through sperm Abie donated. Years later, after DNA testing is feasible, Davis pursues the truth. 

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (memoir), The Year of Magical Thinking (play), and Blue Nights 
Following the deaths of her husband and, not long after, her thirty-nine-year-old daughter, Didion recognizes she no longer believes in the likelihood of luck and safety in the world, and also remembers something she’d long ago suppressed.

Patricia Weaver Francisco, Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery 
The author argues, in this account of her rape and its aftermath, that silence is a kind of “poison” and that telling is part of healing.

Dina Matos McGreevey, Silent Partners: A Memoir of My Marriage
Several years into her marriage, the wife of former New Jersey governor James McGreevey learns her husband has been unfaithful to her with a male political appointee. 

Julie Metz, Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal 
After the sudden death of her husband, a young widow learns he had been serially unfaithful.

Alice Sebold, Lucky: A Memoir 
The author tells the story of her rape as a college freshman and the transformation it prompted, concluding in the end, “You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”

Art Spiegelman, Maus I & II
This graphic memoir, based on Spiegelman’s interviews with his father, Vladek, about his experiences at the hands of the Nazis, covers subjects including Vladek’s time in a concentration camp during World War II.

 

* Illustration by Anna Hall


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Author Bio

Elizabeth Stone

Elizabeth Stone teaches creative writing at Fordham University and is the author of four books, including a memoir, A Boy I Once Knew: What... read more

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