I once began a column on this page: ‘I was born on the banks of the Yazoo River. Yazoo is Choctaw Indian for ‘death.’ It’s always felt like payday in my southern gothic soul just knowing I was born on the River of Death’. You won’t remember this poetic beginning because back came an insistent editorial plea: ‘Can’t you begin this on the fruit farm in Essex?’
True, I was writing about a fruit farm that was branching out into ostriches. A visit that had triggered memories of the summer my grandfather was conned into buying swan eggs by the Son and Moon Bird Farm. The deal was you bought the eggs for $2 each, hatched them out and, in a year’s time, they’d buy the birds back for $25 each and sell them to Yankees up north for their ornamental ponds.
We never saw the Moons again. The swans that survived the foxes, snakes and heat abandoned our pond and took off for life on the Tallahatchie River, a muddy tributary of the Yazoo, where they became as tough as the alligators who shared the river with them. Still, I’ve stored that opening line, believing it would be a good beginning for a memoir. I have enough memories of delta life the smell of Jim Beam bourbon, fishing for catfish to come up with a pretty good mix of fear and neglect.
But here’s the rub: in this age of True Confession, I’m not sure I’ve had enough pain, real or imagined, to make it a bestseller. And it’s that little word ‘imagined’ that causes my writing hand to shake. Now, we’ve learned that Dave Pelzer’s brothers and sisters had no recall of him being called ‘It’. That James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces is really A Million Little Lies, the only proven agony in his life being a root canal. Lord have mercy.
If the Age of Confession seems an American phenomenon, we now have a few humdingers on this side of the Atlantic: (Judge) Constance Briscoe writing about her loveless childhood, and Kathy O’Beirne’s memoir of abuse (god, that word is abused) from her father, Catholic priests and nuns. Briscoe’s family have issued a libel writ, O’Beirne’s family have challenged her story. And James Frey’s publisher is offering refunds if ‘readers feel betrayed’ if they haven’t swallowed the receipt.
The yearning for literary unhappiness is not new. Dickens was a master, and Tolstoy’s ‘All happy families resemble each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ is etched in the heart of every storyteller. It’s just that in the age of the Grand Old Oprah, six-figure deals for the gloomiest, goriest memoirs are compulsory.
I stopped reading gloomy memoirs with Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (a title I envy). Karr had a pretty awful childhood, but at least she can write. I once heard her describe a dysfunctional family as ‘any family with more than one person in it’. The truth is, scratch every family and you’ll find dysfunctional. The challenge of life is to rise above the dysfunctioning, to find a patch where you can function. Celebrating the messiness, the sadness, the horror may be the road to the bank, but it isn’t the road to peace.
As for my memoir, it stops on the banks of the Yazoo. I think I’ll leave a shoebox instead: a few index cards with the bullet points and relevant dates, just so my descendants know that my life did not begin on a fruit farm in Essex.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 28 September 06, 2006.