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Maggie Nelson could have become one of those women, but having her own baby changed her. It astonishes and shames me to think that I spent years finding such questions not only comprehensible, but compelling.

A Brief History of Memoir-Bashing

I was wrong on all counts—imprisoned, as I was and still am, by my own hopes and fears. Christina was mortified. She got together with a younger, more activist scholar who is more vocal about queer issues, about being queer. What happened to Christina Crosby, what so changed her life and took her beyond gender into an examination of the body itself, was a catastrophic bike accident. In , at the age of 50, Crosby was out riding when a branch got into the spokes of her wheel; she was thrown to the ground and broke her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic.

Her pain saddens me, and the loss of her easy athleticism, her pleasure in her toned and healthy body. In my mind, she will always be that attractive, loose-limbed young woman next door. However, despite the best efforts of our big flashlights, we could not glimpse the animal through the leaves. Then, over a period of days in the spring of , when toddler Alix and I were taking the path behind our house that led down the hill to the Neighborhood Preschool on High Street, we happened upon the bodies of several headless squirrels.

A brief history of memoir-bashing.

Who or what had decapitated them, I had no idea, though I suspected the thing in the tree. We were, after all, living in a house the university owned. The last summer we lived there before moving to Washington, D. Our across the street neighbor, F. Reeve another Wesleyan professor, and the father of Christopher Reeve , was in Russia.

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Crosby was on vacation, as was Joe, the widower who lived across the street from her. My husband had already moved to D. During those weeks, Alix slept in my bed, and the two of us plus our old Maine coon cat, Folly, trembled through the nights. Stone had connections at Wesleyan, Yale, and Brown, and his novel takes place on a university campus that combines parts from all three of them. This university has a haunted past—its founding fathers were among the Puritans who slaughtered indigenous Americans and took their land.

Thus this walled, supposedly sacred grove of academe, is really a cursed site. Vulnerable members of the community go mad, or become alcoholics, or die violently, which is what happens to Maud, the black-haired girl of the title. Certainly, during the years I lived in Middletown, the Wesleyan campus seemed like a pretty crazy place. Having now read the then-president William M. So much for memoirs by well-off young white women.

Just had a once in a lifetime...

The body may be the one element all of these memoirs share though each body has a different theme—the hated body, the violated body, the transgender body, the destroyed body, the dying body. Coates reiterates the constant threat to the black body, its vulnerability to destruction. He reminds readers that black Americans live in a world completely different from that of white Americans.

Coates writes about a country in which black bodies are vulnerable and have been for hundreds of years; the progress of white America, he claims, has always been based on looting and violence, the plunder of black bodies that came here in chains. The last few years have hammered into the American consciousness—and conscience—that the police routinely kill unarmed black people, especially young men.

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Mostly they will receive pensions. All of this is common to black people.

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And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. Coates rightly indicts the horrors of the American slave system and its continuing consequences hundreds of years later, but locating the cause in white supremacy rather than capitalism seems wrong. Well-heeled defendants get good lawyers, and they get off or get reduced sentences. If you are a rich person in America, black or white, you will fare better in the criminal justice system. The fallout of slavery has been largely economic, and more black people are poor in America than any other group.

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Poverty leads to homelessness, drug addiction, crime—and poor people fare worst in the justice system. It is true that police, who are increasingly seen by all Americans as racist, target young black men. America has plenty of haters, but also plenty of helpers who seek equality and justice. It came in a perfect historical moment, its publication date moved up two months to chime with the outrage of black communities. If I were an unhappy minority student at Yale or Princeton , I would probably transfer to a more accommodating school. He learned to think critically, and he continued to hone his writing.

In a recent issue of the New York Times , the first black dean of Yale College, Jonathan Holloway, describes his conflicted role in the brouhaha over whether or not Halloween costumes should be vetted by the administration. Initially, he had nothing to say about it, probably because he—a historian of the civil rights movement—found the issue too trivial to warrant his intervention.

All major universities need more faculty of color, but good luck getting them—far fewer minorities make their careers in academe than white people. Every university tries very hard to add minority scholars on their rosters, but such scholars can write their own tickets.

List of autobiographies

Why should talented black faculty stay in New Haven or Middletown , Connecticut, when they can go to New York City, or Berkeley, or wherever feels better to them? This was the case at Wesleyan back in , even though the students wanted to believe those minority professors had been driven out. The crews walked the block of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power. To go anywhere, one had to brave the streets. This text could be read aloud from a pulpit and it would sound appropriate. He uses the genre of memoir to offer his own story as representative of a universal truth.

Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity. At this passage, I found myself embracing Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Look to Paris, as Baldwin, and Wright, and now Coates have he and his family are living there for this academic year—— But looking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own. The time of fire is now. The time of death is harder to predict, although dusk descends for everyone eventually. Topics relating to death generate many memoirs. Quite a few of these are first-rate books, but for this already lengthy essay, I will just treat three that particularly moved me.


This is a narrative of loss in the face of great love. Both Elizabeth and Ficre grew up in loving families. Ficre, the youngest of seven children, grew up in Eritrea in the middle of its thirty-year war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents were revered figures to all their children, and Elizabeth identifies with his powerful mother.

When Ficre tried to enlist at age 16, his mother plucked him from the front lines and sent him abroad. He became a refugee and eventually settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where he became both a world-class painter and a chef who ran an Eritrean restaurant with two of his brothers. Alexander describes a warm family life with the man she loves and the two sons born of that love.

Their house is filled with family, friends, laughter, art, wonderful conversation, food, words. They are black and beautiful; they are confident. Loved it and learned a thing or two as well. Thank you Shannon for your sage advice. I appreciate what you say about creating a story with arc and viewing the people in the memoir as characters. Now I realize that I have 3 distinct events that happened in my life to shape me and I look forward to gearing my memoirs towards that goal. Your advice opened my eyes to the possibilities…. Hey Faith.

Yes, go for the sliver method. I started working with a memoir writer today and once we narrowed the focus to overarching theme, it was much easier to find the slivers that fit that theme. Good luck! Thanks for the helpful article. I have been hired to write the story of a 95 year-old woman. Her children approached me to do this, but she is excited about it and looking forward to seeing the book. I guess it will be more of a biography than a memoir, but I want to include stories written as scenes, with details to keep it interesting.

Hi Carolyn! Have you read this book? You might want to snag a copy and study the organization!

A Magazine of Literature and the Arts

Thank you Shannon for the great article! Most of my recent exploration into writing has been in blog format, specifically regarding grief and loss, and I would really like to begin writing about the happier times, and I believe a memoir is the way to begin. Mike—what a great idea for a memoir. I think that if you think about the theme of the book, and then relate the stories to that theme, you will be just fine. As yourself, what do I want my readers to walk away knowing when they close the book?

That is the theme, and then pick the bits and pieces that fit to that theme. Sound good? Hey Wendy, I hear ya. But to get all that off my chest and into something I am now proud of is key! When I work with my memoir writers, we talk about the emotions, and ways of handling them and dealing with them as we write.