Monthly Archives: February 2017

Expression VS Exploitation: Mommie Dearest and Its Impact

Christina Crawford, adopted daughter of the late Academy Award-winning actress Joan Crawford, published a memoir about her experience growing up with a woman she portrayed to be emotionally and physically abusive. She published the book a year after her mother died, and three years later an amped-up, overdramatic movie based on the memoir would be released, permanently going hand and hand with Joan Crawford’s reputation just after she was no longer allowed to defend herself.

While the claims Christina Crawford makes against her mother can only be validated by members of the household, two of her adopted siblings have protested against the book’s contents. One of the aforementioned siblings, Cathy LaLonde, went so far as to sue over what she deemed to be blatantly false statements that Christina Crawford had made whilst promoting a new edition of her book.

The issue that I personally take with Mommie Dearest is that it is written with such clear contempt, in a tone that is meant to make the reader want to delve further and further into this hidden Hollywood scandal. Christina Crawford did not show this book to her mother, which is not necessarily required, but in order for a narrator to be reliable, in my opinion, they need to have a certain amount of respect for people whose private moments they will be using in order to further their narrative. The narrator doesn’t need to have forgiven the antagonistic person upon writing the piece, however they ought not delve into the territory of completely slandering a person; nuances are more realistic and more believable and should be included, even if it makes an antagonistic character seem sympathetic when the narrator still hasn’t forgiven them.

A more in-depth look at more incidents involving accuracy among the Crawford family as well as the result of a 1999 court case that Cathy LaLonde filed against Christina Crawford can be found here.

Memoir As Truth-Telling: Orange is the New Black

We’re all aware of the popular Netflix drama, Orange is the New Black, but how many people were interested in the real memoir by Piper Kerman, which the series is based on?  If you look at the book’s sales after the show aired, you can see that Kerman did well for herself telling the stories of “Litchfield”‘s inmates.  The show itself has been lauded for its representation of women from all different cultures, backgrounds, and circumstances and the steps which led them to incarceration.  However, the representation of one particular inmate–Kerman/Chapman’s lover and the reason for her downfall, Alex Vause–has led her real-life persona to write her own version of what happened.

Cleary Wolters, Alex Vause’s inspiration and the alleged lockup lover of Kerman/Chapman, claims that in reality, she and Kerman never had sex in prison.  She also claims that her real-life experience is vastly different than what is portrayed in the Netflix series, so much so that she decided to write Out of Orange: A Memoir to clear up some misconceptions about her involvement in Kerman’s narrative.

According to Wolters, she and Kerman were only ever in the same facility for five weeks, when they were brought together to testify against someone else involved in their case.  In the Vanity Fair article, she says “‘We were ghosts of the humans we had once been, milling about amongst hundreds of other human ghosts, shackled and chained, prodded through transport centers at gunpoint, moved through holding facilities.'”  She also claims that, when the two were shackled together on the flight to the hearing, “Kerman refused to even speak to her.”

In this week’s reading from Joy Castro’s Family Trouble, Castro and other authors of memoir discuss the importance of balancing the truth of your story with the privacy of others, and I think that this issue is one of the most recognizable instances of someone involved in another author’s narrative taking that narrative and re-writing it to fit their truth.  Just as Lorraine López describes her sister’s response to her memoir about their childhood, which is to write her own account of the story, I think that Wolters’ decision to challenge Kerman’s narrative and lay it all out there for the reader to decide is immensely brave.  I’m really interested to read both memoirs side-by-side and gleaning what I can from them.

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Controversy in Memoir

I’ve just read about the controversy surrounding Lena Dunham’s essay collection, “Not That Kind of Girl” which was released in fall of 2014. To outline, Dunham had written in great detail about the personality characteristics and appearance of an assailant in an alleged college sexual assault, named Barry. She wrote of him as Oberlin’s “resident conservative” which proved problematic because there was a prominent conservative named Barry who attended Oberlin at the same time as Dunham. Due to confusion surrounding the status of Barry as a pseudonym, Dunham’s writing on the hot-button topic quickly ballooned, making its way into articles on Breitbart and blog posts on the Washington Post. The blog post was written by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, titled, “Could ‘Barry’ sue Lena Dunham over her memoirs?”

In a BuzzFeed post, Dunham claimed that “Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me. Rather it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun,” and shortly afterwards, other authors came to her defense.

Mary Karr, author of both “The Liar’s Club” and “The Art of Memoir” said “The woman can’t do anything without people cashing in on her celebrity by kicking her butt in print. She’s the victim here. I am horrified by the hounds of hell running after her. This is another assault on a feminist who dares to succeed.”


I found myself in somewhat agreement with Karr, mostly on Dunham’s side. While I absolutely do not believe Dunham should face legal action considering the crime she was a victim of is much more heinous, I find myself wondering about the honest reality of the situation. Why wouldn’t she have made a clearly stated pseudonym for the assailant’s character as she had for others in the work? At the end of the day I consider this controversy to be an important, somewhat hair-raising example of what can happen to a memoirist who fails to properly vet their work, either by circulating it to relevant characters beforehand or significantly changing names and details.

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Content and Form are Soulmates in the Hermit Crab Essay

“In her essay ‘The Pain Scale,’ Eula Biss uses the form of the pain scale—which attempts to measure one’s pain on a scale of 0 to 10—as a way to structure a highly complex piece that explores not only the nature of pain, but the many different ways we try to measure the immeasurable. In this way, the form itself adds meaning to the piece.” ~ Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller, in their textbook “Tell it Slant,” the origin of the term “hermit crab essay”

We’ve all encountered this type of essay: a writer takes some sort of unexpected, often visually appealing form and conjoins it with her own content. When it’s done right, the results are spectacular, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The content itself is freed from conventions that are expected to accompany a piece of creative nonfiction writing, and may explore uncharted areas of thought. The form can add irony, humor, profundity, enhance the meaning of or engage in dialogue with this content.

Over the past few weeks I’m sure we’ve all been observing how challenging it can be to limit what we have to say to two pages, double spaced, Times New Roman, twelve-point font. So just imagine if half of your argument or your story was told, not explicitly, but through some brave new form which allowed you to further organize your explicit content, chop it down to the bare essentials, move from point to point with bold strokes, and all-around get at what you want to say without all the tarrying that we tend to expect from ourselves and others? How much precious space could we save by writing every weekly exercise as a hermit crab essay?

Well here’s the thing, the thing that I’ve been picking up from reading about this structure. You can’t just do it. You can’t just do it just to say you did it, you can’t just do it arbitrarily. There needs to be a purpose, and the match between form and content needs to fit like a glass slipper to really nail this. An essay about the various pain that Eula Biss has felt in her life fits into the form of the pain scale like a glove—they enhance one another’s meaning. Biss can compare her pain to recognizable standards, and the pain scale is provided with examples to clarify each level. If I were to write about my broken dishwasher in the form of a travel brochure, well, I could try my damnedest to make it work but I really don’t see that panning out, do you? There has to be a reason why the form and the content are coming together.

So how does one go about this matchmaking business? “When I teach the hermit crab essay class,” writes Brenda Miller, “we begin by brainstorming the many different forms that exist for us to plunder for our own purposes.” The writer who coined and developed (to some extent) this form of essay would have us begin with the form and find the content to suit it. In doing so, she says, we may find ourselves “using our imaginations, filling in details, and playing with the content to see what kind of effects we can create.” What do you think? Is it easier to think of a form and work from this foundation, or would you rather start with content that you just know would go perfectly with some innovative new form?

Reflecting on the Birth of New Journalism

“The standard non-fiction writer’s voice was like the standard announcer’s voice… a drag, a droning…”

“There was no ‘movement.’ There were no manifestos, clubs, salons, cliques; not even a saloon where the faithful gathered, since there was no faith and no creed. At the time, the mid-Sixties, one was aware only that all of a sudden there was some sort of artistic excitement in journalism, and that was a new thing in itself.”

In the introduction to his book The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe discusses how New Journalism came about, and how it overall frustrated the literary world at the time. The thought to include voice, setting, dialogue in non-fiction, let alone in journalism, was simply not an avenue of thought that had been pursued before the 1960’s; journalism was journalism and novels were the peak of literary excellence. The idea of non-fiction and, by proxy, truth, as anything symbolic or captivating lead to resistance in the literary world, and the first few to utilize New Journalism were often accused of making up the details they’d noted, making up the dialogue they included.

While sticklers for accuracy and truth would still push this issue and would claim that fabricated dialogue or setting description moves a piece straight into the realm of fiction, I personally wouldn’t agree. The truth is important, especially if the label of non-fiction is to be placed on a piece, and events should absolutely not be fabricated lest you lose the reader’s trust. However, if there’s a way to make the reading easier, or a way to make a scene stick in the reader’s mind without diminishing the truth in any way (i.e. adding bits of dialogue to facilitate the movement of the piece better or changing setting details for the same sort of reason), then there is no harm in pursuing that form of reporting. It makes the content more easily digestible, more impactful, and avoids the pitfall of a “droning” voice. Above all, it gives the writer more freedom to express their observations and does away with the often paralyzing fear of misremembering slight particulars, and that sort of freedom tends to result in great, fresh writing.

A Reflection on Excerpts from Tom Wolfe’s “The New Journalism”

Returning to Albany for a job interview this past Friday put me in the unfortunate position of having to miss Kate Daloz’s reading. This blog post, reflecting on excerpts from Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism, seeks to compensate for that absence.

The first text to grab my attention was that of Hunter S. Thomspon, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. I loved this piece. It’s funny, self-aware, informal, and still somehow falls under the category of journalism, albeit gonzo. In this work, Thompson conjures a rich story which follows his actions as he attends and reports on the Kentucky Derby, largely carried through dialogue and the sharp wit and humor of Thompson, which serve as a lens through which we see the events at hand. We follow Thompson from playing head games with various strangers he encounters upon arrival to bullshitting his way into a press pass for the race. Thompson is admittedly drunk for the vast majority of the time he spends in Kentucky, due to the fact that he didn’t bring any “strange illegal drugs”. Additionally, Thompson offers us bits of scathing political commentary, particularly calling out then-President Nixon. Accompanying Thompson at this event is an English artist by the name of Steadman, who sketches unfortunately bad portraits of the many people they encounter over the course of the weekend, adding evermore to the comedic nature of the piece and the tensions the two of them face. The piece ends with Steadman ceding, “You know–I’ve been thinking about that. We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomitting on themselves and all that…and now, you know what? It’s us…” followed immediately by a scene of Thompson pepper spraying and verbally berating Steadman as he drives him back to the airport for his flight back to England.

The second text to pique my interest was Terry Southern’s “Twirling at Ole Miss”. I liked this piece for similar reasons, as it is also carried by a satirical author’s jaded perceptions and plentiful dialogue. Southern even misspells many of the words within dialogue to reflect the accents of those speaking in the same way Thompson does. Surrounded by a racist Mississippi culture, Southern keeps himself liquored up for much of the story, and is repeatedly disillusioned by the evidently inherent hatred in the people all around him. Upon speaking with two graduate students who are obvious racists and end the conversation by simultaneously singing a racist jingle, Southern writes, “despite a terrific effort at steely Zen detachment, the incident left me somewhat depressed, so I retired early, to my cozy room in the Alumni House, where I sipped the white corn and watched television.” (White corn refers to the moonshine he bought upon his arrival, Mississippi was a dry state at the time) When Southern finally gets to interviewing the Baton twirlers to whom the piece owes its name, the dialogue is sparse. He only talks briefly to one about the tassels on her skirt, and to another about  In both texts, the author’s opinions and perceptions of the world come to shape the events at hand, adding a particular flavor which, in my opinion, greatly enriches the reading experience.

Truth and Memoir

Lauren’s Slater’s memoir, “Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir”(2000), is probably the most frustrating piece of creative non-fiction I have read to date. But has Slater effectively toed the line between fact and fiction carefully enough not to send her book to the other side of Barnes and Noble? The truth is slippery for all of us, maybe we can’t remember exactly what our parent’s said to us on our fifth birthday party, or what color our sheets were–how much embellishment ejects us from the very genre of memoir? Are we thrown away when we lie about our corpus callosum being severed by a doctor that we invented? Personally, I think that as long as the author relays to the reader, in some way that is recognizable, the parameters of their own unique conception of fact and fiction, then the factual integrity of the details becomes sort of irrelevant. I think the conception of hard and fast truth becomes even more slippery when dealing with mental and physical illness that touch the author in question. I think Slater herself is critiquing creative non-fiction itself when she forces her readers to actively sleuth her words for evidence that maybe she never had epilepsy at all, or maybe it’s been Munchausen’s the whole time? This memoir tests the very range of embellishment in order to capture the fluidity of truth in her mind and body. Ultimately, we come away with the idea that truth is a device and a character, rather than a prerequisite for Slater.

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