Who We are in Memoir: A New Book

As I complete a new book that is part-memoir and part-critical, I am pondering who we are and want to be in memoir.

Maybe we have no choice. But writing takes time and revision and so, in fact, we always do.

Reading Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk exhilarated me: her prose soars like the hawk she trains after her father’s death. Reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights made me sad: for her daughter, of course, but also for Didion herself, who has not entered old age with resilience or wisdom. She’s frail, she tells us again and again. But she’s also Joan Didion and a killer writer still, though she relies too often on the repetition of key phrases. All through the book—a book about her daughter’s death—I kept wondering, what happened? What several things (for there seem to have been several things) went wrong? Didion will not go there, so you need to look back at The Year of Magical Thinking to hear more.

I found Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name wonderful and gripping. It confirmed my binge-reading of memoirs. Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary kept me there since I had recently lost a mother and a brother too and their deaths had left me off-balance, off-kilter, and moving restlessly from place to place.

When my mother and brother died, I had recently completed a book about how World War II exists in cultural memory. I had spent years confronting the war’s staggering mass destruction, not just of soldiers, but also, and even more, of civilians. Men, women, and children—often whole families—killed, sometimes in the blink of an eye. Somehow, being a scholar about World War II made it hard, at first, to see the drama in the story of my own loss. I found myself reading the classics and writing about my mother’s and my brother’s deaths. Putting it all together and accessing their memory, without pain, took years and was further complicated by another death in the background, one I had never adequately faced.

I wrote this book in a way that feels true to me and that I hope will speak to others, as my earlier memoir did. Everyone loses a mother eventually; but, when it happens, it’s the only time for you.

Because I am circulating this book to publishers, I am announcing two tentative titles: Healing Rituals: Meditations on the Classics in a Time of Grief or Living Tissue, with the same subtitle. The book forms a sequel to my earlier memoir about growing up in-between Italian and Jewish American cultures in New York. It’s also a meditation on why we read classic books at times of loss and how they speak to us. To paraphrase Rebecca Mead, great books read us even as we read them.

More soon about when the book will appear!