I was scrolling through Facebook one day when I came upon some photos my former neighbor had posted—photos of classic cars that he’d owned in the small town where we both lived when we were teenagers and then young men. In one of the photos, my parents’ house is clearly visible, my father’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 parked in our front yard. It’s always a bit of a shock to see a visual representation of some part of our past lives. Often, as in this case, we come upon it accidentally. We look at a photograph, and then suddenly realize that the background contains something of who we once were: someone we remember, but not quite; someone we carry with us, even though we can never again fully be that person. The same is true for family members, especially those who are now gone. We see an image of the people they were—maybe we see something they once owned like a house or a car, or maybe we see the people themselves, and even though we ache to reconstitute their lives, we know we’re doomed to fail. Those of us who write memoir or personal essays know well the feeling of almost being able to reach back through time to touch our family members again, only to have a hollow feeling when we’ve put them on the page because the only time they were ever wholly who they were is gone forever. Still, we face this challenge each time we write our stories. We keep trying to accurately represent the people we once knew.

But there are obstacles in our way, and chief among them is what we carry with us from our pasts into our attempts to make our family members come to life again on the page. Maybe we’re writing about family members who hurt us deeply, and we let that injury color our portraits. Maybe we embrace nostalgia and want to only see how sweet our lives were with our families. Either extreme is self-serving. The first tinges our portraits with anger and resentment; the second allows us to make our lives what we wish they could have been. Both blind us to the truth about the people we’re supposed to know the best. Both are a betrayal to the people we so desperately want to resurrect and represent.

A memoirist works best when he or she practices empathy. The ability to portray what it must  be like to live inside someone else’s skin leads to honesty. No longer are we driven by our own agendas—to make less or more of someone than he or she really was. Empathy means inhabiting a character from the inside. From there, it’s impossible to serve a self-centered agenda. Instead, our obligation is to the characters themselves. It’s our task to see their lives as fully as we can by shifting the perspective from our own to theirs.

Consider what Rebecca McClanahan does in this portrait of her great-aunt, Bessie, who has come to live with the author’s family. For the teenaged Rebecca, it’s miserable to have to share a bedroom with Bessie, a large woman who pours “her powdered breasts into a stiff brassiere,” whose ill-fitting dentures make an annoying clacking noise, who plucks stray whiskers from her chin, who has no eyebrows and has to pencil them in. The young Rebecca watches all this from her bed each morning: “Old maid, I’d hiss beneath the covers. Then when she was gone, swishing down the hall, I’d crawl from bed and dress for school, where girls with real eyebrows were gathering in the halls.” Ah, the arrogance and ignorance of the young who live in the now with no thought of the fates that await them. Such is the case for the young Rebecca who’s eager to escape her aged aunt for the vitality of girls her own age, girls with real eyebrows. Only the adult Rebecca admits something that the young Rebecca probably never would have. The young Rebecca volunteered each Sunday to dress Bessie for church. In this passage, the adult Rebecca speculates on why Bessie permitted it, and the answer appears once the writer allows herself to write from the interior of her great-aunt: “Looking back, I wonder why she let me use her. Maybe she liked the attention. Maybe the feel of young hands was so comforting that she bore the humiliation.” This shift in perspective—this looking away from the self—invites not only the writer’s empathy, but ours as well. The adult Rebecca understands Bessie’s loneliness and her desire for human contact, and we understand it as well. We understand what it’s like to be this woman who has never married and who now must rely on the kindness of others. Not only do we understand it, we feel it. We can’t help but empathize. All of this is possible only because the writer released herself from looking at Bessie from the outside and instead shifted the perspective to the inside.

Sometimes we have to take the “me” out of “memoir” to portray family members with more honesty, complexity, and integrity.

 

15 Comments

  1. J. R. Roemer on October 5, 2015 at 10:06 am

    You are inspiring ….. thanks.

    • Lee Martin on October 5, 2015 at 10:52 am

      Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave these good words in comment.

  2. Mary on October 5, 2015 at 11:10 am

    Hi Lee:
    I very much enjoy your posts, and I wish I could talk with you directly about today’s. When you say “… writing about family members who hurt us deeply, and we let that injury color our portraits” I’m tempted to argue that we cannot but be colored by our past relationship with these people. I think it’s the very ways that we are injured that are central to our stories. I absolutely agree that we also need to look into why the person was as s/he was, as you so carefully do in your writing about your father, but I’m not sure we can be as objective as you are suggesting. Perhaps you could say more about that.
    Thanks,
    Mary

    • Lee Martin on October 5, 2015 at 4:56 pm

      Mary, thanks for your good comment. I agree that we all carry things with us that influences the way we depict certain people. All I’m saying is that if we only look at someone as a monster, we miss other aspects of their character–even if they’re not kindness, generosity, etc–that give us a fuller picture of that person. When I write about the importance of empathy, I’m talking about the importance of standing in someone else’s shoes to see what the world looks like from there. The hope is that we understand the sources of that person’s behavior. That doesn’t mean we forgive them for hurting us. That doesn’t mean our anger diminishes. It merely means we make the effort to understand why what happened did happen. We also have to treat ourselves the same way. We have to ask how our own words or actions may have helped create the situation that resulted in harm.

      • Mary on October 5, 2015 at 5:15 pm

        thanks, Lee, for replying to this. I like your reminder that we need to treat ourselves the same way.
        I know it’s a challenge to know exactly why I did things as I did, and an even greater one to know why e.g. my mother did what she did. It’s a good reminder than none of us is consistent and we are left just trying to put some of the pieces together as best we can.
        Mary

  3. sarah on October 5, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Thank you for this one, and all the others, Lee. I’m just now reading Mary Karr’s new book on memoir and her advice is much the same. The further I delve into this genre of supposed navel gazing, the more I understand it is anything but that.

    • Lee Martin on October 5, 2015 at 4:53 pm

      You’re write, Sarah. We have to look away from ourselves to know ourselves more fully.

  4. Roberta W. Coffey on October 5, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Thanks, Lee. Your advice works magic.

    • Lee Martin on October 5, 2015 at 4:51 pm

      Thank you, Roberta.

  5. Mary on October 5, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    This author makes an important point. I found myself, when writing my memoir, not writing with so much anger toward my stepmother, even if she deserves it. She is truly a hateful character, but i found myself not being too hard on her and thinking about the reasons I didn’t. It was a revelation and one that I need to emphasize more.

    • Lee Martin on October 5, 2015 at 4:51 pm

      Hi, Mary! It was interesting how you used the fact that you were holding back as a way of questioning why you were. I’m assuming this may have led you to a deeper level in your response to your stepmother. I think when we’re writing about people who did harm to us, we don’t have to hold back the depiction of that harm, but we do need to see if we can find a way to stand inside that person’s shoes to see what we might be able to learn about why they did what they did. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  6. Susan on October 5, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    I have been reading lots of memoirs lately and brings to mind the people I have lost. Your words are right on target. Demonizing or elevating people we’ve lost does no good. These people were the compilation of their upbringing and environments. Acceptance and forgiveness and honesty are the healthiest alternatives.

    • Lee Martin on October 5, 2015 at 8:04 pm

      Susan, to completely demonize or to completely honor makes less of a person than they really were/are. As you smartly point out, we’re all the result of a compilation of various things from our pasts that have left us with contradictory traits, impulses, etc. It’s the memoirist’s job to understand that and to find a way to honor the person by seeing him or her fully. Thanks so much for this comment.

  7. Mary Lou Northern on October 6, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Thank you, Lee. I am one of eight children and five of the six remaining siblings gathered this weekend for a reunion. Since they left, and during much of our conversations, I found myself thinking: “Did it happen that way? Was he really like that?” I decided each of us had our own perspectives on events, places, and people –none of us entirely right or wrong, though we often tried to convince one another otherwise. Anyway, your words here confirm the need for empathy. A charitable heart is essential for writing and remembering and you do such a great job of reminding us of that.

    • Lee Martin on October 8, 2015 at 2:46 pm

      Hi, Mary Lou. Isn’t it amazing (but, really, it shouldn’t be surprising) how differently people remember things. “Memory has its own story to tell,” says Tobias Wolff.”

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