THE SCHOOL YEAR beckons. After a lovely summer of new and interesting teaching venues, I am where I love to be — just about to launch my regular classes on memoir. And while I cannot predict what the stories in each will be, I do know that I will begin each week asking the same question.
“Problems?” And we will talk about who got stuck where, and why, and how. And inevitably someone will offer, “My story is too big.”
Ah. Yes. Too big.
Mine was too, once, and here’s what I know about that.
In 1983 I published a piece in The New York Times Magazine entitled “Another Name for Madness.” The first, first-person account of Alzheimer’s in the popular press, it was about my mother, then 51, and losing her mind in handfuls. The magazine piece caused a response; putting me on The Today Show the next day, and pretty much every major talk show after that. I quit my job and spent the next four years on the road talking about the illness, testifying before Congress, the New York State Legislature, working with New York City to set up informational and referral offices and writing a book about the experience.
The title of that book was also to be, Another Name for Madness, for which my wonderful editor suggested a subtitle of, “The dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.” That subtitle does not read, “everything you ever wanted to know about the Roach family that they know to date, including but not limited to their immigration to the US, what they paid for the houses in which they lived, how tall they were then, and, woo-woo, a peek into the marriage bed of the parents.”
No, it does not.
My assignment was very specific, and in that I nearly lost my mind, as well, learning on deadline, living on someone else’s money (this time Houghton Mifflin’s) how to toss out anything that did not illustrate the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. And pretty much 99% of our lives to date did not.
And in the course of reporting the book I learned a lot about my mother, reporting the story of her life before her illness so that you might fall in love with her before the illness wrenched her away, so that you’d value the loss we experienced, so you would understand our “dramatic struggle.” During the early stages of Alzheimer’s she became sloppy with the details of her life, and I discovered that she had been having an affair since I was 8. And that my sister had known since she was 9.
So, what do you do with that? Could we amend the subtitle to read, the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, as evidenced in a woman who lied to her family without anyone but one of her children finding out until her dementia made her so sloppy with the details of her life that even the young woman writing this book was forced to notice what she could, had she been paying attention, noticed for 14 years?
And then there was the eeensy little trouble of how to deal with her drinking. All her life she had been a heavy drinker, and mean when drunk. A fascinating, intelligent, compelling, educated, liberal-thinking, hard-voting, snap-witty, gorgeous woman, when drunk even her beauty became blurred. Well, alcohol being a brain insult, I had to deal with it in the biochemistry of Alzheimer’s and its possible causes, but how complicated does it get when you try to braid into the tale the immense complexities of being a child of an alcoholic?
Was I to write about her affair? Her alcoholism? These other stories of my family bulge out in ways that your stories bulge out when you try to tell one of them. And that’s another good reason you get up from the desk and go do anything but this. Instead, you have to tell these tales one at a time, pruning that octopus before it grabs you by the earrings and eats you alive. I know I’m not alone in having what in polite society we call a “complicated” family. Not a bit. So how do you do you write about them? By sticking to the story at hand, clipping it down on the page as you go, selecting carefully as you type, every day reminding yourself of this one single question: What is this about?
On the topic of her alcoholism, I actually have nothing intelligent or unique to say, though I’ve seen the topic done beautifully. Read Drinking: A Love Story by the late and great Caroline Knapp. But when Caroline Knapp chose to write another memoir about the relationship she had with her dog, and called it, A Pack of Two, she wrote about the same life—hers—with a different answer to the question “what is this about?”
What’s the story about?
Mine was the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.