In the fall of 1988, when I was fourteen, on the morning of Yom Kippur my parents began to argue as we were backing out of our driveway en route to the synagogue in our polished white Riviera. My father got out of the car, wrestled with our garage door, which promptly came off its hinge, and, with white-knuckled rage, threw his pressed suit jacket onto the pavement. My mother calmly slid into the driver’s seat, put the car in reverse, and drove us both away. Through the rear view window, I watched my father become smaller and smaller, until he was gone.
The incident was the tip of the iceberg of a volatile reality I experienced at home on a daily basis.
When we arrived at the synagogue, my mother told me that if people asked where my father was, I wasn’t to tell them what had happened. She said that if people knew how bad things were in our family, no one would like us anymore.
I believed her.
I covered up with a smile. When people asked questions I said, “everything’s fine.” It seemed that they believed me, too.
I grew up ashamed of the truth: I saw it as a reflection of who I was as a person. In the process, I lost sight of my real self.
As an adult, I took to the act of writing in an effort to master and transcend my past, to do what Mary Karr presents as a writer’s process in The Art of Memoir, “seeking enough quiet to let the Real You [in].”
I wanted to find my voice, to exhume the self I’d buried.
I began by writing a novel about a young woman who lived and worked in a rural college town, as I was doing in my mid-twenties. She was obsessed, as I was, with the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Like me, she was having difficulty eating and sleeping because her father’s lung cancer had spread to his brain.
I didn’t write beyond the first chapter. I lacked the talent for constructing fiction. I was no novelist. At heart, I was a memoirist. But I was afraid of facing the hard truths of my life and revealing my story to others.
Karr states that “the writer who’s lived a fairly unexamined life…may not excel at fashioning a voice because her defensiveness stands between her and what she has to say.”
I didn’t find my voice until I let down my defenses and began to honestly examine my life. At twenty-nine, diagnosed with PTSD, I embarked on an inward journey, a gradual decade-long process of undoing the layers of cumulative cover-up. I grappled with my emotions first through poetry, a form in which I could closely contemplate an image, a sensation, a memory. For a while I avoided penning prose; complete sentences and paragraphs felt too declarative, overwhelming.
Then one day I turned back to my novel and began to rewrite it truthfully.
Recently, a literary agent asked what prompted me to write my current narrative nonfiction book. My response: I want to engage in a conversation with others about the difficult things ordinary people grapple with and overcome in order to live more fully.
Karr says that in memoir “truth works a trip wire that permits the book to explode into being.”
I believe it’s not just the book—it’s the writer, and if the writer is good enough, it’s the reader too.
-Tracy Strauss, 2015 Nonfiction Fellow