“Artistic expression by itself is only a form of acting out emotions, not a way of working them through.” – (Mate, p. 26)
As most of my blog readers know, I am a huge classic film fan. Not only do I watch them as much as possible but I also am fascinated by classic film stars and I try to read a biography now and then. I’m currently reading the fascinating and disturbing story of Marlene Dietrich in Maria Riva’s Marlene Dietrich: The Life. As I’m reading this book, it strikes me that it really belongs more to a genre that seems to have exploded in the last several years – confessional memoir.
This term might not be familiar, although the literary genre confessional poetry hit a popular streak in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Poets such as Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath are some of the most well known of this genre. This type of poetry was known to be personal – very, very personal. In fact, almost too personal for more conservative literary critics. Many even dismissed this genre as “women’s poetry” because many women poets used it to expose topics that were specific to women and suppressed at the time, such as childbirth, menstruation, and menopause.
In the same way, confessional memoir isn’t just about the life of the one writing the memoir. Many feel it’s a “too much information” kind of memoir, getting into intimate areas of life that is inappropriate for a published work. Blake Morrison, in his article on the genre, points out that “[c]ritics tend to dismiss it as the equivalent of a selfie, a look-at-me snapshot, a glorified ego trip” (par. 1). Memoirs have always been personal, of course, but in the confessional memoir, “exposure of some kind is expected, perhaps of a messy or even sleazy kind…” (Morrison, par. 3). Like reality TV, we walk into the most intimate places where people live and go through their garbage to examine what we usually only reveal to those that are closest to us. In other words, “[w]hat confessional memoirs have in common is an intimacy we don’t normally expect – the reader is given privileged access to truths the author feels impelled to disclose, awkward or painful though they might be” (Morrison, par. 3).
On the face of it, confessional memoirs may seem like an exercise in narcissism, especially in today’s world where the “me” factor seems to be infiltrating into areas where it’s never been before. But while I do believe there is a narcissistic element to confessional memoir, I think the appeal of the genre is more complex than this.
Photo Credit: Author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who wrote the Generation X-defining confessional memoir, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, 2014, Brooklyn, NY, taken by Coley Brown: TC Books/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0
It may be true that there are details some consider too intimate for public consumption in confessional memoirs but for many readers, this is exactly where they find a point of identification. Memoirs of real people with real problems, real flaws, and real strengths make us feel that we’re not alone. As Morrison says, “[g]oody-goody narrators rarely win our sympathy: they are too perfect to be true, too perfect to be likable. Blank narrators aren’t likable either. Better to say ‘I’m bad’ and hope the reader responds ‘No, not bad, just human’” (par. 9). This aspect of humanity is what connects readers to these memoirs and when the connection is wide spread, it can even define a generation. This is what happened to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America. The book, with its frank confessions of youthful angst, depression and anxiety, and the use of prescription drugs, spoke to many Generation Xers who, like Wurtzel, had followed the same path.
Another aspect of confessional memoir is that, by getting into the most intimate details, the writer is able to “set the record straight”. Whether witness to their own lives or the lives of others, “the intimacy of the witnessing often is confessional, and that is what sets it apart” (Morrison, par. 15). This is why I don’t consider Riva’s biography just a biography. Maria Riva is Dietrich’s daughter so the book isn’t a standard celebrity biography that looks at the life of one of the greatest film stars of all time from an uninvolved perspective. The book is more about Riva’s life with her mother and exposes a lot of salacious details of both her and Dietrich’s lives outside of the movies. Riva, as a witness to her mother’s life as well as a participant, is in a unique position to relate the details of her mother’s life, her beliefs, opinions, and emotions to readers in a way that breaks down the infamous Dietrich image of the untouchable, mysterious movie star. And Riva isn’t the only one who has done this. I talk here a little bit about Joan Christina Crawford’s poetic license in writing the biography of her mother Joan Crawford, the now infamous Mommie Dearest, which is also, to me, more of a confessional memoir. Despite the criticism the book receives now, Mommie Dearest was, at it’s publication in 1978, revolutionary in that it not only broke the silence of childhood abuse but also showed the serious cracks in the façade of glorious, glamorous Hollywood in its golden era.
Finally, many writers use confessional memoir as a way to exorcise their demons. This is an aspect true of many memoirs, I think, but the confessional memoir genre is especially associated with this because it’s so intimate. Morrison describes the scenario as “[s]omething bad has happened, and putting it in writing, or putting it out there in the world, is a way of feeling better about it” (par. 16).
While it’s understandable that many writers would approach their work with their own experience and want a cathartic experience, I tend to agree with Mate – artistic exploration of any kind can express emotions but not exorcise them. Morrison points this out too in that “what is therapeutic can’t ever be literature, which has to be considered and retrospective” (par. 17). This seems to be especially true of memoir, which, by its nature, is looking back on a life, even if the person writing the work is still alive.
However, there is a way to work out issues through writing. For Morrison, this has to do with acquiring “[a] degree of watchfulness [that] is essential: a capacity to stand outside oneself, or float above” (par. 18). In other words, looking at your life from a distance. Riva actually does this very well when she describes her own experiences growing up with Marlene Dietrich as a child, even showing a certain irony regarding the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of both her mother and father, being introspective about it as an adult but putting the reader into the context of her experience as a child with all her emotions and behaviors.
For myself, I prefer to stay away from confessional memoir (as a writer) and turn to fiction instead to exorcise my demons. I’ve talked before in my blog here about how fiction allows me the freedom of exploring my own emotional realities through my characters and their stories and their pasts. Behind the mask of my characters, I can write about the psychological realities that make fiction authentic to me while still being able to tell a story that readers will hopefully identify with and appreciate.
Mate, Gabor M.D. When The Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003. Kindle digital file.
Morrison, Blake. “Too Much Information? The Writers Who Feel The Need To Reveal All.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2017. 27 November 2015. Web. 22 November 2017.