A memoir is a form of autobiography, one that is often less formal and more of a remembrance (as the name suggests), although the terms are often used interchangeably. Memoirs are one of my favorite types of non-fiction because the variety within the genre reflects the great diversity of human experiences. While many memoirs are written by celebrities or powerful figures, my favorites are stories of everyday people. One common focus of this type of memoir is family and upbringing. Everyone is shaped in some way, for better or worse, by their family of origin and this is evident when people tell their life stories. I recently read three new memoirs that focus on the authors’ formative family lives, each with their own unique perspective.
Jeanette Winterson’s memoir “Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal” takes the reader along on her heart-wrenching journey to become the award-winning novelist she is today. The driving force behind her story is her conflict with her mother. Adopted as a baby, Jeanette was raised by the devoutly Pentecostal Mrs.Winterson, a stern and powerful figure who relished self-denial and doled out frequent punishment. As a small child Jeanette fit well into Mrs. Winterson’s religious plan, but as she grew their relationship became contentious. Jeanette loved to read and wanted to become a writer, but Mrs. Winterson forbade all books except for religious texts. The real break in their relationship came, though, when Mrs. Winterson discovered her daughter was dating a woman, which prompted the question posed in the title. As a result, Jeanette leaves home as a teenager in order to realize her dream of education and happiness, but it is never an easy path and she never fully escapes the shadow of her relationship with her mother.
Kambri Crews focuses on her experience growing up in a family that consisted of two deaf parents and two hearing children in her new memoir “Burn Down the Ground”. Kambri straddled both the hearing and deaf communities, often helping her parents navigate the hearing world. Her parents were part of a close-knit Deaf community, and they were always the life of the party. Despite their fun-loving appearance, her parents had a volatile relationship and her father was fighting his own demons. When Kambri was seven, her family moved to remote rural Texas to build a new life in the woods, but problems persist. Kambri idolizes her handsome and charming father, and does not realize the extent of the problems facing her family until much later when she comes face to face with his violent behavior. Kambri struggles to reconcile her childhood memories of him with the legacy he leaves her family.
On a much lighter note, “Let’s Pretend this Never Happened: a Mostly True Memoir” by Jenny Lawson looks back at her childhood through a humorous lens. Growing up poor in rural Texas with an eccentric taxidermist for a father left Jenny with many experiences that, while alternately mortifying and terrifying at the time, are laugh out loud funny from a distance. While Jenny just wanted to fit in, things like angry turkeys following her to school, dead animal hand puppets, and shoes made from bread sacks inevitably set her apart. Eventually she realizes that embracing the absurdity is the only logical choice, but she yearns for a more urban life, preferably one that involves fewer animal carcasses. As an adult, however, living in an urban area with her husband and small daughter, she decides she misses it and wants to move back to raise her daughter near her parents. This return leads to a new batch of adventures, told in Lawson’s relatable and hilarious style.
While these memoirs all focus on the ways that families shape our character, they are very different reading experiences. Memoirs are great because whatever your reading interests are, there is probably one out there that will appeal to you. Just ask a librarian if you need suggestions!