Memory, Memoir and Meaning

Kerry Malawista

Kerry Malawista

Our February 2016 weekend, organized by Kerrie Malawista, focused on memoir writing. Participants were engaged by four speakers, all memoirists: the poet Mark Doty; author and psychoanalyst Deborah Luepnitz; Janna Malamud Smith, a psychotherapist and essayist also known for her memoir of her father, the writer Bernard Malamud; and non-fiction writer and commentator Marion Roach Smith.

Those of us who have paid scant attention to either the reading or the writing of memoir quickly learned that our ignorance is indicative of a larger disregard for the genre. Memoir, it turns out, shares in common with psychotherapy the accusation that it caters to self-absorption. And yet, as Malawista’s opening comments suggested, as psychotherapists we should know better. Describing good memoir writing as drawing from the same tools as a good therapy, Malawista described both the memoirist and the therapist as “observers of nuances of voices, dialogue, and tone.” She stated,

Ogden, in Reverie and Metaphor, describes how the patient has to transform her experiences from I-ness — unselfconscious subjectivity — to me-ness, the self as object of scrutiny. A therapy that is nothing more than a confession or a complaining about the same problems over and over or a search for a revenge and blame doesn’t make anyone better. Nor is it a recipe for good writing. Catharsis is only the drafting stage. The initial purge of raw material must lead to mulling it over, revising and polishing, resulting in new ways of seeing old problem, and hopefully leading to a positive resolution.

Both a therapy and a memoir, she told us, are based on facts of life transformed to be literary, artistically true, and aesthetically pleasing.

Mark Doty

Mark Doty

Mark Doty, through his weaving of story and reflection, illustrated just such a transformation of personal narrative into an artful talk. Doty paralleled Malawista’s comparison of therapy and memoir, describing what he constructed in his therapy as “a serviceable narrative, not simplified, not over-determined by a singular focus, not straining for a comprehensive perfection, but a shape held together by many strands, even those that couldn’t be freely woven into the form, the kind of story we could live with.” Doty provided a series of stories which, in recounting them, proved to be misrememberings that allowed him to think that which he could not previously bear to recognize.

“To write memoir,” Doty said, “is to participate in an on-going project of examining the past, something we can never finish, bringing more of the done into the light, examining why we forget what we do, allowing our memories to shift as we move into different relations with them over time.”

But how is this not self-aborption? How does it contribute something to the larger world? Doty responded to this concern, saying, “It vexes me that people think of memoir as an expression of self-absorption when it is, at its best, a disciplined practice of intention, and unexpectedly, a practice of humility. What is this uncertain thing called my life? What is its shape? How can I know it? How can I say it better? What lovely, humane work that is.”

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Doty’s conclusion, considering memory as “a disciplined practice of intention,” reminded me of the writing of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, no doubt because I am currently teaching a Ph.D. seminar on his work. Foucault was concerned with the potential for subjectivity under contemporary neo-liberalism, which draws us all into banal forms of self-absorption that promote the constant consumption of goods and the conforming of our selves to normalized version of what we “should” be like. How, he asked, under such a regime, can we can undertake forms of ethical self-fashioning? For Foucault, much as Doty suggested, this involved a disciplined, critical self-reflection which aims at taking responsibility for one’s own acts. Ultimately for Foucault, our self-fashioning is an on-going set of practices that propel movement toward what else we might be, and it is intimately connected to the ethical ways we are with other people.

Janna Malamud Smith

Janna Malamud Smith

Janna Malamud Smith took up this question of how we are with others in considering how memoir shares with psychotherapy a potential failing, insofar as it involves disclosures that may serve the needs of the therapist or the writer but not necessarily the patient or those written about: “I have to be counted in on the memoir writer’s failing of causing pain and anger, the child’s carrying into adulthood of valuing a limited perspective, as well as the therapist’s failing of calling attention to my own life and own subjectivity.”

Smith nevertheless finds importance in engaging in memoir as one of the practices of art that provide a safe space for uncertainty. “Why does that matter?” she asks. Her response is that the practice of at provides a practice of critical reflection such as Foucault suggests:

Watching a performance, I can briefly set aside my vigilance, my public posture. I can reflect, associate, wool gather, remember, discover, feel moved, and then return refreshed or depleted but nicely shaken up so I can bubble over. It’s a space where I can question the received order, the social condition, the nature of lives.

Returning to the question of memoir writing as a relationship to important others, Smith concluded her talk by saying that the question of how to reconcile the memoirist’s need to tell the story with the wish to do justice to one’s loved ones has served to “undercut any sense I had of my own virtue and my certainty.”

Perhaps to undertake either therapy or memoir writing provides a practice that demands depth and care of thought in order to understand one’s own failings of virtue and uncertainty. Perhaps this is the shape of the humane work undertaken by the ethical memoirist and therapist.


May 2013 New Directions Weekend — Home, part 2

moskowitz with audience.jpgThe opportunity to listen to Faye Moskowitz not just once but twice was one of the great pleasures of the May 2013 New Directions weekend, Home.  Ms. Moskowitz is a professor English and Creative Writing at George Washington University. The winner of numerous literary awards, she is the editor of Her Face in the Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters (1994); the author of A Leak in the Heart (1985), Whoever Finds This: I Love You (1988), And the Bridge is Love (1991), and Peace in the House (2002); and has written numerous poems and essays for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Jerusalem Post, and numerous other publications.

In her Friday evening talk, a joint session with the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis, Ms. Moskowitz treated us to a reading of an original memoir essay, “The Things We Carry When We Come From Somewhere Else.” She began this beautiful meditation by confiding that at 83-years-old, she worries about who will have to clean up after her when she is gone.  Sorting through her belongings becomes the leitmotif that allows her to sort through her life, moving – as memories do – freely among her childhood in the Detroit suburbs, her early married life, her children growing up, and her own professional life into the present.

Early in the essay, Ms. Moskowitz tells us about going to the estate sale of a neighbor and buying a reptile bag that still smells of the woman, imagining the last time she would have carried the bag:

She seemed so alive to me at that moment and I feel so alive today, just a bit out of sorts at the intimations of mortality that this focus on divesting brings. “The world is certainly a sudden place,” says Frankie, in Member of the Wedding. More and more I know what that means.  The results of one blood test can turn that world around. One misstep on the stairs, and the nursing home looms. Not to sound overly dramatic but actuarial tables don’t lie. Numbers brook no arguments. I am determined to get a handle on all this while I still have the energy to do it. I set out gamely one morning, green trash bag in hand.  This is my mantra: one bag at a time.  I can do that, anyone can do that.  But its only 9:30 am and already I’m in trouble.  Here is a portfolio of crumbling kindergarten drawings. …A name in block letters stumbles across the bottom of each: Shoshana, Frank, Seth, Elizabeth.  …What to do?  Only a total stranger could trash them.

Faye Moskowitz2.jpg

Ms. Moskowitz extends her memories, moving from the things she carried with her in her 1962 move to Washington D.C. with her husband Jack and their “four children, an ailing mother in law, and emotionally dicey 18-year-old brother, and 2 Siamese cats,” to recalling her parents and grandparents, Orthodox Jews who moved from the shtetl to America during the Depression. She tells us that what they carried with them was elemental, soon discarded as obsolete. This takes us to memories of family Seders, and her mother’s red apples dishes. The apples send us to California and the 1960 Democratic convention, at which she was one of the only women delegates, meeting Eleanor Roosevelt and collecting a convention lapel pin – an Adlai Stevenson shoe. And so it goes, this rummage through her life, green trash bag still sitting empty.  “Let a stranger do it,” she says.

(Click to play video)

(Click to play video)

Now Ms. Moskowitz tells us the story of her son Seth, waking her in the middle of the night to retrieve a drafting table from an alley. It is clear that the power of the memory is not just the beauty of the table, discarded in someone else’s trash, but also this nocturnal mother-son conspiracy, a moment of shared recognition that endures long after the table is lost.

Her essay closes, just as she later tells us essays should finish, with an ending “that seems formed only for the purpose of being there”: 

An old Yiddish saying teaches that when a man or woman dies, a library is lost. As I go about my sifting, sorting, deciding, discarding, I remember Grace Paley’s wisdom. “Its always about the story,” she says.  When people move on, they make choices about the things they carry and what must be left behind, as my parents did when they came to America.  Fortunately, they carried their libraries in their hearts — no baggage limits — books of their faith in God, and in the Promised Land, books of family love.  I have inherited my family’s libraries.  All along, I realize, I have been passing those books to my children, just as they came to me. And I have been accumulating my own library, stories of red apple dishes and Stevenson shoes.  The tale of the drafting table is a volume in my library and my son has a copy.  The good news is that these books take up no visible space, they are all first editions, they are easily transported and their value increases each time they change hands.

On Saturday, filled with admiration for the grace of Ms. Moskowitz’s prose, I was eager to listen to her talk about writing entitled “Writing about Home, a User’s Manual.”  This talk was a reflection of how home is a resource in writing. We listened to Ms. Moskowitz read this poem by Joseph Rolnik:  (ca 1914).

“The First Cigarette”
My first Sabbath cigarette between my lips
one frosty Friday night
didn’t taste awfully good.
I snorted and coughed
but had to give it a drag.
This I took to be my first transgression.
So too Shloime Raskoser’s son
got up from his mother’s Sabbath table
to eat pig at the Gentile’s place.
But that sensitive young kid
couldn’t stomach stale pork–
he gagged and felt sick.
And all our young generation
we were loud with foul talk
behind girls’ backs and women’s dresses.
We troubled the sleep of the pious,
knocking store signs over,
and did lots of things we didn’t like,
and all because we wanted to arouse God’s wrath–
being pricked on by our sixteen years
the way ripe oats will prick a horse.
And God who watched over us all,
God against whom we talked with such impudence,
sat there on his throne in heaven
and laughed into his deep white beard.

(translated from Yiddish by Irving Feldman)

Moskowitz, audience 2.jpg

This poem, Ms, Moskewitz told us, was responsible for three essays and many pieces of essays.  Who can’t recall her first transgression?  “Home,” she said “is where we told our first lies, committed our first transgressions, suffered our first shame.  Home is where we learned that other people had sorrows, learned the taste of death.”  Home is a treasure trove of material for writing. Describing her father’s stories, alternating between longing and bitter descriptions of “der heim,” of the home they left to come to America, Moskowitz recalled,

I grew up with these stories of alternating love and loss and when the time came for my own exile from home, home was all I could think about.  And so, as I fell into the urge to write, it was only natural that I would try to be a life preserver, documenting early days so they could be caught between covers and thus redeem what I had lost.  Significantly enough, once I had my stories on paper, I gave my loss away. Sweet or bittersweet as the memories had been, they ceased to haunt me.


Finally, Ms. Moskowitz turned to discussing the essay she read to us Friday night, “The Things We Carry When We Come From Somewhere Else.” She described herself as long reluctant to chronicle her memories of her life in Washington, D.C., because of her sense that to do so would be to sully the purity of her earlier memories, acknowledging what she had lost in the move from Michigan, and validating that the first home exists in memory, at best. “In my 80s, I finally realized that though I would not move back home to Michigan again …I did not need to make that search for home any longer.  Transformed by the vagaries of memory, translated into printed word, home was permanent and unassailable.”

(Click image to play video)

(Click image to play video)

How did she evoke this home, so strong in her own memories, for her audience?  “Writing,” she told us, “is coming to your senses.”  Ms. Moskowitz took us on a tour of how she used her memories of the senses – the scent of Chanel in a soft alligator bag; the sound of a trash can rumbling to the the street; the taste of fresh sweet corn on the cob; the tentative touch of a bundle of her mother’s hair – to create for all of us a powerful, visceral connection. 

For me as for so many others, the pleasure of good writing is only partly the story told.  It is also the emotional and even physical pleasures of the rhythm, the alliteration, the choice of surprising, evocative words.  It is a real treat to be in the presence of such a gifted writer, someone with such a powerful understanding of how to use language to affect the reader or listener.  And still yet, the pleasures of our time with Ms. Moskowitz went well beyond her carefully prepared remarks.  In the question and answer period, listening to her straight-forward advice provided not only the benefit of her many years of teaching writing, but also gave us a glimpse of how lively, funny, sharp and opinionated — in the best way — Ms. Moskowitz can be. In very short order, I found myself leaning forward, grinning in anticipation of the next thing she might say. On Friday evening, I had another pleasurable surprise upon learning that Ms. Moskowitz is Sharon Alperovitz’s cousin.  As they shared stories of their relationship and their obvious affection for one another, we got yet another glimpse of home.

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