Writing and Reading Memoir as Consciousness-Raising: If the Personal Is Political, Is the Memoir Feminist?

by Helen M. Bannan

[From Feminist Collections v.26, nos. 2-3 (Winter-Spring 2005), pp.1-4.]

Janet Mason Ellerby, INTIMATE READING: THE CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S MEMOIR. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001. 234p. bibl. index. $49.95, ISBN 0815628862; pap., $19.95, ISBN 0815606850.

Patricia Foster, JUST BENEATH MY SKIN: AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND SELF-DISCOVERY. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004. 177p. $39.95, ISBN 0820326828; pap., $18.95, ISBN 0820326887.

Nancy K. Miller, BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME: WHY WE READ OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 160p. bibl. $70.00, ISBN 0231125224; pap., $19.50, ISBN 0231125232.

Maureen Murdock, UNRELIABLE TRUTH: ON MEMOIR AND MEMORY. New York: Seal Press, 2003. 176p. bibl. gloss. pap., $14.95, ISBN 1580050832.

Long after most of their consciousness-raising (CR) groups were defunct, some second-wave feminists began writing essays that continued the process of publicly exploring the significance of events in their own lives. Their peers, who read their works and connected to them emotionally, joined a huge virtual CR community of memoir readers. Some of the academics among them analyzed the meanings of such literary acts and embellished their theoretical insights with their own autobiographical musings in a new genre called personal criticism. This review focuses on books by four women who, committed in their youth to the 1970s slogan, “The personal is political,” honor the powerful truth of that adage in works that both demonstrate several approaches to feminist personal writing and help explain its current popularity.

Self-disclosure has always been important in feminist pedagogy, and insistence on a writer’s clarification of her standpoint is a hallmark of feminist scholarship. So, I will state up front: I am neither a writer nor a critic of autobiography, but a women’s studies professor with interdisciplinary training as an historian. I find memoirs rich sources of understanding, and as a teacher I know that students relate to the concreteness of personal essays in ways that enable them to begin to analyze and make their own truths. I am also leery of theory, finding much postmodern feminist criticism impenetrable. Swallowing my skepticism, I hoped these books — by specialists in memoir, allegedly intended for general audiences — would help me understand the genre more deeply and teach personal essays more effectively.

My fears proved unfounded; these four books met my most optimistic expectations by elucidating both the individual process of autobiographical writing and the interactive process of reading it through the lens of one’s own life. Addressing the key theme of why contemporary women write memoir, these authors unanimously insist on the importance of life writing for identity development, interpersonal connection, and healing, for both writers and readers. However, these books are not redundant; they make similar points in very different ways, each making a unique compromise between creative nonfiction and the accoutrements of scholarship.

In Just Beneath My Skin: Autobiography and Self-Discovery, creative writing professor Patricia Foster demonstrates how writing memoir enhances identity development, letting her exemplary essays make her points without notes or bibliography. Two of the books, women’s studies professor Janet Mason Ellerby’s Intimate Reading: The Contemporary Women’s Memoir and comparative literature professor Nancy K. Miller’s But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives, blend memoir with literary analysis and personal criticism of autobiographical works by other women. Miller adds endnotes, and Ellerby includes an index and an extensive list of works cited. Maureen Murdock, a psychotherapist and creative writing teacher, devotes most of Unreliable Truth: Of Memoir and Memory to autobiographical essays emphasizing memories of her mother, enriched with brief references to other writers’ explorations of similar themes. The last portion of Murdock’s book encourages readers to try writing their own memoirs, providing prompts, directions, a glossary of writing terms, and a bibliography including both memoirs and books about the writing process. Each book contributed much to my growing understanding of memoir as a genre and a process.

A graduate course in Women’s Autobiography led Patricia Foster to channel her creativity away from the visual arts to writing, first short stories, then memoir. Rather than justifying the shift by citing “the unwillingness of modern readers to surrender to disbelief” or complaining “that fiction has become too cramped” (p.76), Foster admits, “Writing fiction brought me closer to experience but left me shy of the self.... Perhaps by writing about myself I’ll discover my identity” (p.82). In Just Beneath My Skin, she effectively demonstrates the evolution of her self-knowledge, and sparks its growth in others as well, in a series of well-crafted personal essays. Having grown up middle-class and white in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, Foster has a love-hate relationship with her native region, and that is a central theme in her work, as she risks much by unflinchingly confronting her racism and class privilege. She also examines the connections between beauty, body, and self and explores how her rigid Southern gender socialization has complicated all her relationships since childhood, even as she struggles as a feminist to free herself from these influences.

While she doesn’t engage in an extended analysis of other peoples’ memoirs, Foster does defend the legitimacy of the genre, countering the criticism of a colleague that it’s a fad that’s already over (p.108). She notes that in other eras, fiction and poetry “told the hidden story...of who we are and what we long for,” and contends that today, autobiographical essays do the same (p.83). Successful personal essays “engage the intelligent heart,” serving as “a catalyst for thinking and feeling,” as well as providing an opportunity to understand key cultural issues of the era (p.109). She sees the central issue of contemporary culture as the “need to locate the self in a transient world—...the world of personal identity in conflict with constant change” (p.83).  According to Foster, “the prevailing myth of the late twentieth century is one of social, economic and political progress,” yet most memoirs expose “a countermyth of private shame and disgrace,...a spiritual longing for connection that goes unfulfilled.” (p.83). The persona she creates in this memoir fits this apt generalization well.

Janet Mason Ellerby also contributes to the countermyth of shame, opening Intimate Reading with the telling of a secret that has dominated her life. She situates her own story within a self-constructed community of female memoirists who also overcame suffering through self-disclosure. Her younger readers will gain a new understanding of reproductive rights in the mythically liberated 1960s from her powerfully told story of her exile from California to the Midwest to give birth, at sixteen, in a home for unwed mothers. Forced to put her daughter, whom she called Sorrow, up for adoption, Ellerby swallowed her grief as Sorrow’s existence was erased in a multi-generational family heritage of unacknowledged tragedies. Writing her memoir transformed Ellerby’s shame into healing, and her work evokes the intuitive reading she names in her title and models throughout the book.

Unfortunately, I think, Ellerby uses gender essentialist terms to make a distinction between her usual “reading as a scholar” and her engaged emotional approach to the memoirs of other survivors that she “read like a woman” (p.xv). Criticizing the (mostly male) critics who dismiss allegedly confessional memoirs as narcissistic “‘bibliotherapy’” (p.86), Ellerby convincingly insists on the social efficacy of memoir, as readers create community by making connections and noting contradictions between their own lives and the emotionally charged experiences writers share with them. She argues that such interactions contribute to progressive social change, serving as “catalysts to interrogate our own ethical givens,” undermining readers’ received values and assumed absolutes (p.128). 

Most of the memoirs Ellerby analyzes feature privileged white protagonists, a selection she attempts to justify by explaining that she sought “confirmation rather than expansion” (p.xiv) by reading lives similar to her own. I think that challenging herself to achieve “a sense of intimate comradeship” (p.xiv) with more women of color and working-class women would have enriched her analysis. Nevertheless, I found this book both readily accessible and intellectually stimulating, an interesting blend of scholarship and storytelling.

The balance between criticism and memoir in Nancy Miller’s book is different, as her title suggests: But Enough About Me. The autobiographical elements she relates in the first several essays focus on her development as a feminist and a scholar, beginning in her adolescence and continuing chronologically as she moves through middle age. I particularly enjoyed her chapters “Decades” and “Circa 1959,” which explored how she and other graduate students at Columbia invented the field of feminist criticism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These essays would work well in an upper-level course on the history of women’s studies or feminist theory. Like Ellerby, Miller engages in what she calls “interactive remembering” (p.7) with her peers, as she connects with memoirs written by other “nice Jewish girls who grew up middle-class in New York in the 1950s” (p.3).  She goes on to analyze the works of other women less like herself (but still mostly white and middle-class), who reveal themselves in art and photography as well as in memoir, addressing themes of beauty and aging.

Miller stresses the importance of dis-identification as well as connection in response to others’ self-statements. I found her critical sections more theoretical and less compelling than her earlier chapters, and was relieved when she returned to her family history in an epilogue, extrapolating from objects that link her to her immigrant past. Miller answers the question in her subtitle, Why We Read Other People’s Lives, clearly and succinctly: “We read the lives of others to figure out how to make sense of our own, and in the process we also admit to our wishes for a future” (p.137).

In Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory, Maureen Murdock similarly values the emotional link between memoir readers and writers: “Reading another person’s memoir gives the reader the opportunity to reflect upon her life’s memories, possibilities, and chances for renewal” (p.80). Murdock emphasizes the fragmented and selective nature of memory, which, though not always factually accurate, conveys an emotional truth that is crucial in identity development. She also insists upon the therapeutic effectiveness of the process of writing it all down: “The fundamental premise of memoir writing is a belief in the restorative power of telling one’s truth; once told, the writer can begin to move on with her life” (p.81). Murdock credits her Irish Catholic background for her fascination with myth, and she sees memoirists as “our contemporary mythmakers,” dealing with the same enduring, universal human emotions and arising from the same “human need for connection” (p.24). Her discussion of other people’s autobiographies traces the historical progression of women’s ability to develop and express their own authentic voices on issues important to them.

More than the other authors, Murdock explicitly encourages her readers to write their own memoirs. She provides a long list of reasons people do this: to “find the true self,...to bear witness to their life,...to lay the family demons to rest,...to heal a relationship, to come to terms with an illness, to find community,...to understand” (pp.111–12). Murdock’s autobiographical essays demonstrate how the process can be transformative, as she explains how recalling and writing her memories of her mother, who had recently died from Alzheimer’s disease, helped her understand their complicated relationship and reach compassion and forgiveness. I connected emotionally with this book more than with any of the others; our similar cultural and geographic origins — I think my cousins attended her New Jersey grade school — as well as her key themes of intergenerational conflict and continuity resonate with my own life. I found her exhortations and directions on how to start writing clear, and they would probably be helpful to someone contemplating such a project; I’m just not ready.

In conclusion, I understand more clearly now why women write memoirs, how and why we read them, and why this is important: We need connections with others in an increasingly impersonal society. Our society is also increasingly diverse, and I hope that future works of this sort will reflect our multicultural realities more directly. “The personal is political,” and it is also compelling, and I am optimistic that developing empathy with those different from ourselves in important ways would increase peace and understanding.

Nonetheless, I would recommend each of the books to people with different interests: Murdock’s to people coping with mother/daughter angst, and Ellerby’s to those dealing with issues of trauma and shame. Miller’s personal view of the development of feminist criticism would be most interesting to those who study literature, and I’d recommend Foster’s work to those who teach or write creative nonfiction. Although I enjoyed reading each of these books and learned a great deal from them, this assignment left me hungry for more direct confrontations with different selves. The library beckons! In the end, I enjoy reading autobiographies more than reading about them.

 [Helen M. Bannan is Director and Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. She is eager to start her first sabbatical after thirty years of teaching. She is not writing memoir, but biography, studying Jessie Jack Hooper, 1865–1935, an Oshkosh suffragist, peace activist, and Indian policy reformer.]

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Mounted October 6, 2005.