This article first appeared on the Field of Words blog on 27 January 2018
The first time my mother went to jail I was eight. It was for fraud but she said it was a mistake and within a week she was out on bail. When it happened again the following year, she wept into my chest. ‘I didn’t do it’, she sobbed. ‘I don’t know why this is happening’. The more she went to jail, the more convinced I was of her innocence, while my grandparents and aunts were jettisoned for not believing her. Time after time the police burst in and took her away. I used to dream that the house was on fire with us inside it. It was a panicky dream, from which I would wake in fright, sweating. I now see that dream as emblematic of a child’s deep-seated feelings of danger. I still dream about that property, but now it’s the trees outside that are burning. The world around me going up in flames while I am safe inside my memories.
I did not understand how thick with lies my childhood had been until I was thirty-two. That ‘oh my god’ moment of discovery is the ideal place to write from. It is often said that when we write we do so in order to answer a question. While a memoir interrogates a specific life experience it does so at that deep subterranean level where all lives meet. In seeking answers about my own life, I seek universal answers. They say that when you touch a nerve that doesn’t want to be probed, a subject that you baulk at writing about, you have found the place that your writing most desperately needs to go. It is only when we dare to ask the questions that terrify us that we stand to find answers that can truly enlighten.
For most of the years I spent in my mother’s care, there was no one else around. There is no one to corroborate either of our memories. No one witnessed the way our world repeatedly fell apart and was stitched messily back together by my little hands and her shaky ones in a collaboration that made me complicit in my own deception. We were revisionists. We made a patchwork of our past, throwing out the pieces that didn’t fit and embroidering the most impressive ones. Much later, I groped my way towards an understanding of this process. Writing about childhood, once we have left it, is notoriously difficult. Clichés about childhood innocence are rooted in adult agendas. Childhood, Katherine Stockton tells us, is the fond fantasy of adults.
The fickleness of memory is often foregrounded in memoir, which has been called the postmodern answer to autobiography. We are always being told that we do not remember nearly so much as we think we do. Jeanette Winterson introduces a scene in her memoir with the equivocation, ‘I have a memory – real or not real?’ Memories that prove inaccurate or incomplete lend themselves to a layered narrative that admits its imperfections. They are shouts in the dark; pieces of a larger puzzle. ‘The first time I heard the word gas-lighting,’ writes Ariel Leve, ‘I was in my late thirties…The encounter wasn’t a surprise. Our meeting was more like a confirmation. Yes, I know you. There’s a name for that. There’s a term for that.’ Rosie Batty writes of the importance for survivors of learning the terminology for different types of abuse, ‘for the terror you’ve suffered to be given a name.’ The acquisition of this language empowers. It tells us we are not alone. There’s a name for this. This is a thing.
My own memoir came about through a series of frank conversations with long-estranged family members. Through court decisions, winnowed out of legal databases. Through old news articles; letters meticulously filed away by my grandmother; scraps of paper fortuitously kept. And, finally and irrevocably, through a surveillance camera image of my mother committing one of the fraudulent transactions that she has always denied. When you ask a question, you have to be prepared for an answer. Writing a memoir can force you to draw some brutal conclusions. A narrative must, to some degree, be resolved. At some point you must give your allegiance to one of the competing interpretations of events more than another. You must make a call when claims and excuses don’t add up. You must dart down every rabbit hole until you discover something approaching a verifiable truth, conscious that you will never know the whole story. My memoir destroyed the illusions I had carried with me out of my childhood, but it also led me back to the family I had left behind over twenty years earlier. It filled the gaps between the evasions and ellipses of decades. It stripped away a façade and exposed foundations so that I could start rebuilding.
Batty, R (2015) A Mother’s Story HarperCollins, Sydney.
Leve, A (2016) An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir, HarperCollins, Sydney.
Stockton K (2009) The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, Duke University Press, Durham.
Winterson, J (2011) Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?Jonothan Cape, London.