Feeling Memoirish

I have on occasion contributed a series to this blog called “Raised in a Barn.” It is a loose series of anecdotes about my, um, colorful childhood, spent between Greenwich Village (in the 1960s) and the converted barn in rural Massachusetts we moved to when I was 13. Want to know what my landscape looked like when I was a secen-year-old: watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel*, which is set in New York in the early 1960s. I loved living in New York, which had for me a sort of fizzy tonic effect, but oddly, most of the anecdotes I’ve written up are about Massachusetts, because that’s where the most, um, anecdotal things–the funny stuff, like my brother shooting the bat in the kitchen, or my father talking me into making gallons of marmalade–happened. I think sometimes of collecting what I’ve got and fleshing it out into a full memoir.

Then I chicken out.

The Raised In a Barn stories are by-and-large happy, funny ones. A lot of my childhood was both happy and funny. But some of it was not, because we–my parents, my brother, and I–were human, and no one gets a life that is unceasingly happy and funny. There are stories that are unflattering to both my parents, to my brother, to me. And of all of us, I’m the only one I feel completely comfortable telling unflattering stories about. And then I come smack up against the parallax nature of family memories. My mother is problematic–a complex, talented, funny, generous woman, she was also alcoholic (and not a happy alcoholic; her particular form of alcoholism was what psychiatrists quaintly term “irritable”). My father is less obviously so, but he was human: a talented guy with an outsized ego, also complex, generous, and funny (and sometimes a little irritable himself). And there was me, and my brother, very different people with very different roles in that family. The more we talk, the more I feel that we grew up in two different households.

My mother, the source of a lot of the drama in my childhood, made it clear to me that I should never talk about the family outside the family, a sort of “what happens in Fight Club stays in Fight Club” attitude that, at base, came down to “don’t talk about me.” She objected to my being in therapy because she feared the therapist would tell me “it” was all her fault. Whatever it was. As irrational as it seems to me, this is a hard rule to turn my back on. If I write a full out memoir… what if I get it wrong? What if I’m self-serving? What if my memory doesn’t align with anyone else’s?

Augusten Burroughs wrote Running with Scissors, a memoir about a childhood that makes mine look dull and uneventful. Some years after, his brother (whose name I regret I cannot recall) wrote a counter-memoir which was also interesting, but had a tinge of “setting the record straight” to it. I suppose that’s one reason to write a memoir. A memoirist might write about a particular dramatic episode in the life (“my valiant struggle to get my twin brother to give up a life in the circus…”). Or about a place or time that is interesting (“I was a six year old at Woodstock!”). Etc.

I guess the story I want to tell is a little bit of all three. The stories I’ve written up here have been humorous, trading heavily on the eccentric nature of certain parts of my childhood. Are they accurate? They’re what I remember. The hardest thing about approaching this kind of writing is giving yourself permission to take a stand, choose a vantage point, say not “this is the only vantage point” but “this was my vantage point, so it’s what I’m writing about.” And that takes some bravery.

I’m not there yet. I hope to be some day.


*watch it anyway. It’s wonderful.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Feeling Memoirish — 6 Comments

  1. Augusten Burroughs had a specific purpose–and ended up buried in lawsuits, but apparently (I haven’t read it) he wrote an indictment. Other memoirs want to merely capture a time, or paint a picture of interesting people, without making a statement.

    Why not start writing up some more of the memories and see where it goes? Last summer I was reading a memoir typed up by my great-aunt (still alive at 102) about being a kid/teen in the Depression, growing up and so forth. While I don’t think it’s publishable, it’s a real treasure for the family. Gives some background for the now-silent family members whose blurry faces can only be seen in black and whites of the period.

    Seems to me if you start typing up the anecdotes (or gathering the ones you’ve already blogged, and fleshing them out a bit) you could see what it all adds up to. Maybe it’ll be a project for the family, and a treasure. Maybe it’ll so capture a specific time that there would be a wider audience.

    • I’ve read Running with Scissors–and several other of Burroughs’s memoirs. I can well imagine that the colorful people he mentions in the book would take exception to their characterizations–but again, he was taking up a given vantage point and telling the story from there. He clearly had no concern about “fairness” or the vantage point of others.

  2. What Sherwood said. I’ll gladly help edit it when the time comes. As a blog you can go heavy with the pictures. As a book you’ll need to pick and choose only a few, if any.

    You never know what will happen until you try it. And you haven’t failed until you give up on it. But for your girls, I say start it. One step at a time.

  3. One of the reasons I like “flash” memoir is that it allows you to pick and choose the stories you tell. I would never want to write my autobiography, partly because great chunks of it would probably be boring, even to me, and partly because there are stories I don’t want to tell.

    That said, I hope you will do something with the Raised in a Barn stories. Having read a lot of your work, I have great faith that you could handle the difficult stories well and without making us hate some of your family for not being perfect. Also, your parents are no longer with us and if you have stories that your brother remembers very differently, you could include his take on that as well.

    Something that gets into the disconnect you felt between Greenwich Village and the country could be very good indeed. I grew up in the country from the age of seven, but I didn’t have a lot of passion for the development of GI homes where we lived in Houston before that. It wasn’t as big a jump as from NYC and I did love my country hometown (which is now just another suburban community). However, I have lived in cities — and lived in the heart of cities to boot — ever since I left home. I’m interested in that city/country dynamic.

    And I have no doubt that these stories are of interest far beyond your family.

  4. A example of a memoir about a problematic (to say the least) family is Helen Forrester’s ‘Twopence to Cross the Mersey’. I’ve just been reading her sons biography of her which covers her efforts to coordinate her memories and material with her siblings. Absolutely riveting.

  5. I think it’s high time that people realized that every memory is tightly tied into a personal point of view, kinda like looking at a prism and seeing only blue when the guy half a step away is seeing only purple or red or green. It’s all the same prism, people. If there is anything I like about the Harry Potter books, it’s what we discover about Severous Snape and how his memory is treated at the end.

    I say, go ahead with your memoir and invite your family to add footnotes.