The Scars We Choose To Show: Memoirs and Millennials

Introduction

Everyone has a story. I remember very clearly the day I realized this concept. I was in the eleventh grade: short, blonde, freckled, and so young. I sat with my best friend Chelsea and her boyfriend Troy in Chelsea’s living room. Her mom and her mom’s boyfriend made dinner in the kitchen.

I was expected at my own house. My Dad had struck a deal with me. I could do whatever I wanted during the day, so long as I went for a run with my mom before dinner.

But I decided to ignore curfew that night. I was fourteen and had no need to follow rules anymore, I thought. Besides, whenever Chelsea went into the kitchen to help her mother with dinner, Troy would look over in my direction. He was a senior, and muscles showed through his basic white T-shirt.

Chelsea got up from her spot on the couch between Troy and I to check on dinner. Troy leaned over, whispering to me barely above the music of Westside Story playing on the TV.

“What would you do if I kissed you right now?” he asked.

My face burned like a furnace. I had never kissed a boy before.

Suddenly, my phone rang. We both jumped. My father was calling for the fifth time. I waited until I went into the adjoining office to answer.

“Girl you better get your sorry butt home,” my dad said in his terrifyingly calm tone.

I swallowed hard. “No.”

“Excuse me?” His voice elevated slightly.

“I’m going to stay here at Chelsea’s.” I couldn’t tell him why I wanted to stay. I couldn’t even admit it aloud to myself.

“If you think I’m mad, just wait until you hear from your mom,” he yelled. My dad had many rules, but the one we always obeyed was never, ever make Mom angry.

“Fine,” I said and hung up.

My head hung low as I went back into the kitchen to say goodbye to Chelsea and her family. They had all heard my conversation. Chelsea’s mom offered me a ride home, but I declined. Her house was only about a ten-minute walk from mine, and I wanted to relish in my anger towards my dad for treating me like a child in front of Troy.

Once I made it home, I ran into my house through the side gate and upstairs to my room. I was careful to avoid Dad, who was cooling off in his office. I changed quickly, grabbed my running shoes, and met my mom in the front yard.

“Let’s go,” she said and started jogging.

We ran in silence for a half mile, our strides syncing. We rounded the corner of the outskirts of our neighborhood by the convenience store. Mom let out a loud sigh.

“What were you thinking?” she said angrily as she stopped running midstride.

I came to a halt a few feet ahead. I looked down at my feet and shrugged, not saying anything, the way I did whenever I received a lecture. My mom equated it to talking to a brick wall.

Mom spoke in a fervent voice for about another half mile, but I didn’t register much of what she was saying. My attention was focused on the voice in my head asking why they had to be so hard on me.

“Why won’t you talk to me?” Mom yelled, pulling me out of my own thoughts. “You’ve got to start taking responsibility for yourself. You know, your dad and I worry about you so much, especially when it comes to boys.”

“You don’t have to worry about me,” I said with venom.

“Yes we do, we’re your parents.”

“Like you’d know.” I rolled my eyes.

“I do know!” she said. “I know because I was exactly like you. I was smart. I was talented. I had so many things going for me, but I didn’t have faith in myself. I let myself get pregnant and had an abortion!”

We both stopped in our tracks.

She let out a desperate expletive. With her hand placed on her forehead, and turned her back to me. My mother never cursed.

I watched her for a few moments, unsure of what to think or feel. But I could see her breaking down in front of me. I walked toward her, without saying a word, and hugged her. We stood there hugging one another, letting the seconds slip by.

“I wasn’t going to tell you until you were older,” Mom said through tears. “But it was an important event in my life, and I just needed you to understand.”

She looked at me and ran a hand softly over my cheek. We walked on. She told me the story of her sophomore year of college and her boyfriend, who she thought she loved at the time. But a baby was in neither of their plans.

I listened to my mom’s story, connecting the dots of the image I had of my mother in my mind, and who she was in reality. My mother, the quiet, intelligent, strong, endearing and God fearing woman had gotten pregnant, in part due to her attempts to try and save her relationship.

When we finally made it to the last stretch before home, she said to me, “What are you thinking?” She was worried that my opinion of her had somehow changed, that I thought less of her, or was embarrassed by her, or worse condemned her.

“I’m not sure what to think,” I said. “But you’re my mother.”

A week later, I found a bottle of Zoloft by chance on the kitchen counter. The bottle was prescribed to my dad. My dad, a loud and energetic and sometimes child-like man, was a high school teacher and coach, in a job market that had next-to-no stability. There would be occasional moments when he would burst in through my bedroom doors in the morning, singing “The Circle of Life” to wake me up for school. I wondered if this was the same man I had grown up with, or if his personality was a product of mood-altering drugs.

I read the label as I turned the orange bottle over in my hand and thought about the conversation with my mom. Her secret never made my love for her waiver, so my dad’s secret could never make me love him less. Even the biggest heroes are just people trying to be better than the sum of their parts.

My parents never raised me to idolize anyone. The closest I ever came to considering someone a hero was my mother and father. The things I learned that week forever changed my understanding of being human. From that point on, I became more empathetic and accepting of the origin stories of individuals and the behaviors they cause.

Did you, the reader, feel that when you read my memoir? Did it remind you of a similar event in your life? Maybe you sympathized with my younger self, and my departure from innocence. Or maybe you connected with the plight of my parents, just trying to raise their daughter and eldest child to become better than they were.

Would you have connected with this story in the same way if it was fictional? Or perhaps the story would have seemed more trivial if I had posted it to social media. My story is, of course, not fictional. It is being published academically, not on a public social media post.  But it does incorporate some of the same functions that a fictional story and a tweet do. Neither I, nor my mother could remember exactly what we said on that walk, and we never will unless we had somehow recorded ourselves. And the moral of my story could be wrapped up in a quick one hundred and forty characters.

This seems to be the current state of the memoir. Details get fudged. It seems as though anyone can get a memoir published these days about something as seemingly insignificant as going through puberty. Everyone seemingly gets a participation trophy. These details discredit the current state of the memoir culture in many people’s eyes.

In 2011, Neil Genzingler, a theater critic for The New York Times wrote an op-ed titled “The Problem with Memoirs.” He criticized “our age of over-sharing” and the new-age desire to feel special. He believes the saturation of uninteresting, unexceptional, and commonplace stories, which have already been written a thousand times over has ruined the standards of a once-important genre.

“There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir,” Genzingler wrote. “Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

He was not alone. In 2010, The New Yorker book critic Daniel Mendelsohn said the genre was the black sheep of the literary family. “Things have got to the point where the best a reviewer can say about a personal narrative is—well, that it’s not like a memoir.”

And back even further, then-Director of the International Writers Center at Washington University William Gass wrote in a 1994 Harper’s Magazine article, “The autobiographer thinks of himself as having led a life so important it needs celebration, and himself as sufficiently skilled at rendering as to render it rightly.”

I found Genzinlinger’s article the most infuriating. He never out-rightly stated it, but by using terms like “our age of over-sharing” and criticizing only the “frivolous” works of celebrities and pop-culture non-essentials, he is, in fact, subtly commenting on the current generation’s culture, preferences as consumers, and achievements, specifically in the realm of memoirs.

Maybe this opinion angers me because I fall under the umbrella of Millennial, and I have been working on a memoir project. But through my own experience, I have never found the process of writing a memoir, amateur or otherwise, frivolous, self-indulgent, or easy. For the last two years, I have worked with other budding Millennial writers on a collection of 12,000-word personal essays.

I have found it is one thing to write about oneself in a purely historical context, but it is quite another to relive and analyze the most important moments in one’s life. And whether intended or not, the criticism of the current state of the memoir, is also a criticism of the generation and culture that has cultivated that state.

What the critics of current culture, or Millennial culture, and memoirs miss is perhaps the most important facet of both genres: the desire to connect and bring together an ever-expanding society. Memoirs and Millennials mirror each other. They seemed to have come of age in a society that has yet to fully understand their purpose.

The story I told at the beginning of this section was just one small moment in a string of defining milestones in my life that all intertwine together. My opening story along with other memoir projects I have worked on were my attempt to not only understand my past and the world around me, but also to attempt to give a voice or connection to those that had perhaps experienced something similar. That is the case I’m making for the current state of the Millennial memoir.

Whether it tells the tale of an inhuman struggle —Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1946)— or of being average— Holy Land (Waldie, 1996)— whether it forgoes the entire truth— A Million Little Pieces (Frey, 2003)— or searches for the middle ground between fact and fiction— Night of the Gun (Carr, 2008)— each memoir is the story of the attempt to understand the makings of an individual. Regardless of extraneous factors, we as a species continue to create and consume these stories because they are the most accessible history of what it means to be human.