Rethinking a Life
A few thoughts on writing memoir:
How much talent is lost because society doesn’t like the package it comes in? The individual is a rare creature: she is self-made and not designated by a political system. A political statement of rights does not make one an individual: those rights are defined and held in check by the society that grants them. As a young woman who not only wanted to achieve financial equality and independence, I was told that the ticket to “getting in” to the system was to adopt the very structure that denied opportunity to women. I was also horrified to learn that I was expected to drop my gender at the door, as well as my personality, values, individual potential, and most surprisingly, talents that might benefit an employer. Another shock: I learned that this defacement is what men have been required to accept for centuries.
Individuality is a function of personal qualities that are cast against the vast historical canvas of culture, and in many ways the individual exists in opposition to that picture. Identity is a package prepared by generations of ancestors, as well as the living family, long before a child is born. Father and mother shape a child’s beliefs, behavior, and future. The larger society sets the rules of membership, which can be extremely harsh. The individual is born and dies when each of us is assigned a role dictated by ideas, prescriptions, and absolutes that the individual has no part in creating. The result is that when one looks into a mirror, a shadow feeling haunts the body: that is not any face; it is my face, unique in all the world. Why then, do I not know myself?
To write a memoir is to tear oneself loose from social conformity and to declare that one’s life is not the same as any other life, regardless of how similar human lives are. A modern trend in autobiography has lead people to think that the writer has amazing secrets to reveal, and that he or she will do just that; why else would one write a book about a life that has yet to be concluded? A memoir is expected to erase the public person, to replace the mask with a livelier, racier, and more interesting person. Family members and close friends are expected to be shocked by revelations, and will claim that they did not know of secret individual choices on the part of someone they thought they knew. The public loves it when a willful individual goes bad. Confession and repentance, in the form of a serial memoir (the trek from talk show to talk show) or a best-selling book, return the stray reprobate to the group. In this sense, a memoir is a religious document.
What then, is an individual? The test is simple: Only an individual can care about the welfare of other individuals. The group, by definition, cannot. The group survives by enforcing conformity and does not recognize that each person has a valid interior life, only that inner lives are suspect. The group pressures and grooms the individual to vanish into a pre-assigned role: the American idea of an individual is someone who utterly conforms to social norms, but does something like skydive with a pet dog, or paint the bedroom orange, or pick a cartoon graphic for a credit card that claims, “I’m whacky! I’m crazy! I’m creative.”
From the point of view of a person with a mental illness, this is ludicrous: normal people have no idea what crazy is. Any deviation from the suffocating religious-patriotic complex of American belief, including what have been called criminal acts, is increasingly regarded as mental deviation and not diversity. To be diagnosed as having a brain disorder automatically puts one outside of society, forcing one to embrace a strange, dangerous, and unsought individuality. The memoir of such a person cannot be separated from this predicament, which can be described as the terror and the mystery of the conventional.
A social view of life as a program to be fulfilled, and only completed at death.
“No one ought to be said to be happy, until death and the last funeral rights.” Ovid