Scorching the Memoirs


“A moment of silence, please,” begins a review by Neil Genzlinger, “for the lost art of shutting up.”

It’s a threatening review of four new memoirs, out this week in the New York Times Book Review. Genzlinger scorches three of the four, praising only a memoir in translation from the German by Johanna Adorjan, about her grandparents’ suicide.

Of a memoir by Heather Havrilesky, Genzlinger writes, “That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir…. A vast majority of people used to live lives that would draw a C or D if grades were being passed out—not that they were bad lives, just bland. Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the ‘if it happened to me it must be interesting’ fallacy.”

Of a memoir by Sean Manning he writes, “No one wants to relive your misery…. it’s the reader who will need a hug after choking down this orgy of self-congratulation and self-pity. That’s what happens when immature writers write memoirs: they don’t realize that an ordeal, served up without perceptive or perceptiveness, is merely an ordeal.”

Of a memoir by Allen Shawn he writes, “Imitation runs rampant in memoir land. There can’t be just one book by a bulimic or former war correspondent or spouse of an Alzheimer’s sufferer; there has to be a pile.” Shawn’s memoir, Genzlinger notes, is “stunningly tone-deaf.”

I say threatening because of my own book, which is in bed with dozens of other Alzheimer’s memoirs, probably hundreds by now. Does the world need my memoir, when there are so many others? Genzlinger’s take on the four books he reviews is, “Three of the four did not need to be written, a ratio that probably applies to all memoirs published over the last two decades.”

I take heart, however, from his final paragraph: “Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.”

Which was exactly what set me to writing The Last of His Mind. I moved in with my father, hoping, as I cared for him, to keep working on the novel I was writing. Immediately I found that what was happening to my father was more brutal, more fascinating than any fiction, and what I wrote was precisely what Genzlinger calls for: a discovery, an illumination of what Alzheimer’s was doing to my father’s mind. So I escape the scalpel, or hope so. “That’s what makes a good memoir,” Genzlinger writes, “—it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.”

And I remember, in those first months at my father’s, nearly sinking as I watched him lose his nouns, his memories, his reason, what a salvation it was for me to read other Alzheimer’s memoirs. I read them one after another, finding consolation and community in dozens of them.

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