When Allan Goldstein (BA ’71) wrote his memoir, “Fred and Me: A Willowbrook Survivor’s Story,” he was trying to make sense of his brother’s institutionalization at the infamous Willowbrook State School for children with intellectual disabilities.
“Fury inspired ‘Fred and Me,’” Goldstein says. “Fury resulting from observing that my brother was, as Eunice Kennedy Shriver often said, ‘lost in the system set up to serve him.’”
Goldstein’s memoir is a love story of brothers reunited. Like other memoirs, it is not an entire life story but a slice of life.
Memoirs surged in popularity in the 1990s with the success of Mary Karr’s “Liars Club” and Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.” According to Joanna Howard, associate professor and director of creative writing in the DU Department of English, writing a memoir is an author’s choice to share the reality of their life. That candidness often resonates with readers.
“For me, a really good memoir is one in which there’s the sort of honest appeal to listeners and readers to hear the story,” says Howard (PhD ’04), who wrote “Rerun Era,” a memoir based on a transformative year during her childhood in Oklahoma. In return, the author gets something back from those readers.
Howard says the response from readers to her own memoir was triple what she had received for her other published works, such as novels and short stories.
“I think it was because people feel that they can engage with the material, and they can see themselves in the material in a different way because it presents itself as real life,” she says. “They see the author as a person, as well.”
Howard says there is a sense of vulnerability for the person who has written a memoir, especially if it is about a trauma. “I think that makes a space for readers to respond and to get involved.”
Goldstein says “Fred and Me” is rooted in personal experience essays he had written about his parents. Unknowingly, those essays were just the warm-up to his memoir. Upon becoming Fred’s guardian, he started exploring their relationship in his writing. Goldstein went from an estranged, resentful sibling, to a fierce, angry advocate for his brother.
For Goldstein, a memoir was the best solution for examining and telling his story.
“Memoir is exploring lived experience,” Goldstein says. “We are trying to make sense, to understand. The best way to find out what had been going on is to reflect without needing to be factually correct.
“Hey, it’s memory!”
And memory is not infallible. According to Howard, we shouldn’t, nor can we, trust our memories when writing a memoir.
“It is one of the free remaining spaces in which we can have a kind of mysterious experience with what we think of as reality, and we’re constantly forced to confront how fragile or fallible that is.” Memory is not perfect, it changes and shifts, and that’s good for us to remember, she says.
Howard’s “Rerun Era” focuses on memories of her family after her father’s stroke when she was very young. He survived, but the event changed the trajectory of his life and that of the family.
“When I started writing about that, I knew that emotionally it could be very overwhelming,” Howard says. “I tried to limit the focus to certain kinds of vignettes or shortened memories so that I could kind of get into them and get out of them rather quickly.”
She decided not to do a lot of external research but instead focused on memories that stood out for her. In talking with her brother, who grew up in the same household, she found that his memories often were very different from hers. It gave her an opportunity to have a conversation with him and say, “I don’t remember it the way you do. Why do you think that is?”
“Memoir for me is an engagement with memory,” says Howard. “It is specifically about an author trying to have a kind of experience within their own minds and work out and sort out aspects of their own minds.”
“I think that’s why I see it as something that can be a useful tool if you’re trying to deal with past trauma.”
Diana Raab, PhD, writes in Psychology Today that memoir writing is transformative because, among other things, it creates a sense of well-being, relieves stress through the act of writing, fosters self-discovery and personal growth, and gives us the freedom to let go and accept that we might not find all the answers.
Understandably, writing a memoir can also pose challenges. For one, what courtesy do we owe people in our memoirs?
Howard’s parents had passed by the time her memoir came out. The person connected to the memories who was still alive was her brother.
“If I was going to have a kind of ethical commitment to represent someone in a way that they felt good about, I wanted that to be him. So, we spent a lot of time talking about it, and I shared things with him in advance,” she says.
As far as other people in her hometown and friends of her parents, she let that go. “I tried not to name names if I thought there was something embarrassing that I was reporting. But other than that, I think you can get really bogged down with everyone getting involved.”
Goldstein’s challenge was “trusting myself when suddenly a piece took a sharp turn. Learning that sometimes the day’s early writing is simply etching story clarity.” Less a challenge and more of a gift, he says, was reliving the pain so he could better understand it.
Reflecting on experiences and sharing them with others are at the heart of a number of recent memoirs written by other DU alums. Consider Sorayya Khan’s “We Take Our Cities With Us: A Memoir.” Born in Vienna, Austria, to a Dutch mother and Pakistani father, Khan (MA ’85) spent much of her childhood and adolescence in Pakistan. She moved to the U.S. for college and later met her husband while a student at DU. In her memoir, Khan reflects on the many people and places that helped shape her life.
In a piece she wrote about memoir writing for Literary Hub, Khan says, “We find our own ways into and through the books we write, but the journey always involves opening ourselves up to possibilities. We experiment with a different word, a shorter line of dialogue, an additional scene, a new beginning until we stumble on the combination that best serves our story.”
Other memoirs by alumni include “Both Career and Love: A Woman’s Memoir 1959–1973,” by Anne Rankin Mahoney (MSS ’89), in which readers learn about how one woman forged a rewarding and supportive relationship with her partner while pursuing a demanding career. In “Ivy Lodge: A Memoir of Translation and Discovery,” Linda Murphy Marshall (BA ’72) returns to her Midwestern childhood home after her parents die to sort through a lifetime of belongings with her siblings. And S. Mariah Rose (MA ’96) published a memoir of spiritual self-discovery, “Detour: Lose Your Way, Find Your Path,” about being stranded and broke in Santa Fe, New Mexico, without a compass or a plan.
If you have a story to tell and would like to start writing a memoir, Russ Brakefield, teaching assistant professor in the University Writing Program, offers some tips.