We read memoirs to slip our arms into the sleeves of other lives.
I think of Molly Haskell’s “My Brother, My Sister” in 2013, a tender account of watching her beloved brother become, operation after operation, her beloved sister. I think of Katherine Butler Hathaway in 1942’s “The Little Locksmith,” who wrote from her depths about her disfigurement due to childhood illness and who bravely freed herself, year after year, from the bonds of fear, shame and self-loathing.
Or Ariel Levy’s 2017 account, in “The Rules Do Not Apply,” of enduring the miscarriage of a five-month pregnancy alone in a hotel room in Mongolia and, while lying on the floor in blood, snapping a photo of her son sometime during the brief 20 minutes that he drew breath.
Or Sarah Perry’s (Davidson College, 2004) recent memoir, “After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Search,” about hearing, at age 12, the gruesome sounds of her mother being murdered in the next room, and the murderer escaping unseen, at large for a dozen years.
But of all the memoirs I’ve read in the last few months, the one I relish most is “My Exaggerated Life” by Pat Conroy, as told to Katherine Clark.
You didn’t have to know Pat Conroy in the flesh to know Pat Conroy. If you read any of his novels, you know him by the smears of plasma he left on every page. In bookstores at last, this as-told-to memoir (gleaned from 200 hours of phone conversations in 2014) with novelist and oral biographer Clark, will open new vistas into knowing and understanding Conroy even better – moles, skin tags and all.
Here is Conroy at his most outrageous, and at his rawest and most emotionally naked.
Take, for instance, his response to an article in the Atlanta paper about the history of the Piedmont Driving Club before the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996. According to Conroy, the club at that time was male, white and WASP. No women. No blacks. No Jews. Conroy says that the article quoted a Sims Bray, a past president of the club, who, when asked why the club did not admit Jews, answered, according to Conroy: “A club is like a home, and I would never invite my Jew friends to my home.”
When Conroy learns that a 13-year-old Jewish boy reads that statement and weeps at his kitchen table, Conroy writes a letter to the editor: “I would like to invite all my Jewish friends to my home anytime they want to come, and all my black friends, please feel free to come. And all my women friends, come on in my home, because home means something different to me than it does to Sims Bray.”
Here is the Conroy who dials the wrong number and ends up talking to a stranger for an hour and a half; when he learns this woman doesn’t have a car, he goes out and does her grocery shopping for her.
Here is also the Conroy who decks his second wife’s ex-husband (with provocation, he says), then “stuffed him head first into the bushes where his two legs were sticking out like a V.”
Conroy doesn’t hesitate to admit: “Everything I seem to have done in my whole life has been based on emotion, not thought.”
Conroy also talks about his breakdowns and the therapy that he says saved his life: “There was no manliness connected with this particular breakdown (which included a suicide attempt while struggling to finish “Beach Music”). I had simply come apart, come loose. Whenever I have a breakdown, my manliness goes into the toilet; my head goes into the oven.”
A Hilton Head therapist named Dr. Marion O’Neill put him back together. She insisted he stop drinking, Conroy says, and he saw her five days a week for five months, driving two hours each way, from the South Carolina island of Fripp where he was living, to her office. In all, he says he saw her for two years, until he finished “Beach Music.”
Conroy fell ill before Katherine Clark could have him proofread the manuscript. However, Clark asked a number of the people Conroy mentions in the book – and many others not mentioned, including lawyers – to read it for accuracy, including his wife, Sandra King. King tells Clark that the book sounds “just like him,” though in the introduction, Clark relates King saying that “these pages do not do justice to her husband’s boundless kindness and generosity.”
I promise you this: “My Exaggerated Life” is the most side-splitting, heart-wrenching, awe-inspiring book you’ll read this spring.
You will also enjoy these recent releases:
“The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath,” by Leslie Jamison. A reviewer in the online magazine Vulture points out that Jamison, while in the throes of her own addiction, managed to complete coursework for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees, nab a top agent, write an acclaimed novel, all while working a 6 a.m. shift at a bakery. Still. Jamison admits to the same shame and guilt as any other addict, no matter how high-functioning she might be.
In a book that Stephen King calls “required reading,” Jamison gives us memoir laced with social history. She explores the lives of several literary alcoholics – among them Raymond Carver, John Berryman, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace. She also talks about the benefits of AA meetings for her, the age-old question of whether alcohol enhances or negates creativity, and she offers many inside glimpses of the Iowa Writers Workshop where the idea for this book was born.
A fascinating read, though at 534 pages, better to sip than swig.
“The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery,” by Barbara K. Lipska, with Elaine McArdle. When cancer invaded neuroscientist Lipska’s brain, she became a different person – one with a total lack of empathy, judgment and tolerance. Here, she describes how cancer and brain injuries change the way brains function. Now three years since the first tumors were discovered, she is training for a summer triathlon, according to the Guardian.
“The Art of the Wasted Day,” by Patricia Hampl. Acclaimed poet and memoirist Hampl investigates leisure or loafing or wasting time, a commodity many of us both desire and fear. If you have trouble believing E.M. Cioran, when he says, “Alone, even doing nothing, you do not waste your time,” this book is for you. Hampl quotes extensively from her hero Montaigne, the 16th century French essayist, a man she calls the first modern daydreamer. Writers, Hampl insists, “need to pine for solitude, court it, steal it away from the rest of so-called real life.” A woman who knows her days are dwindling, Hampl show us how she narrows her sights about spending time in order to achieve the widest possible view.
“Don’t You Ever: My Mother and Her Secret Son,” by Mary Carter Bishop. Bishop is a former Observer reporter who joined the Philadelphia Inquirer team that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of nuclear leaks at Three Mile Island. Here, she tells an intensely personal story of how her mother’s shame about bearing a son outside marriage led her to deceive her family and reject the son, demanding that he never call her mother. An adult before she discovered that Ronnie was her half-brother, Bishop sets out to understand how he came to be who he was. She blames her mother’s shame on the poverty, fear and social expectations of the rural Virginia area where they lived. This is a powerful study in empathy as Bishop, the golden child born after her mother married, befriends and cares for her difficult, ailing, often unappreciative, outcast brother. July.
“A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety,” by Donald Hall. As the poet nears 90, he seems more comfortable with essays than with the poems he once labored over every morning as his wife, Jane Kenyon, worked away in another room on hers. Here he muses on aging and the pleasures of solitude, remembering, too, his friendships with other poets, such as James Wright, Richard Wilbur and Seamus Heaney. July.
“All the Colors We Will See: Reflecting on Barriers, Brokenness and Finding Our Way,” by Patrice Gopo. Gopo, who now lives in Charlotte, grew up in Alaska, the child of Jamaican immigrants. She never knew what it was really like to grow up black in America. Lured to settle here by a magazine cover of a black family and words proclaiming Charlotte one of the 10 best cities for black families, Patrice and husband, Nyasha, with their two daughters, began to find out what it can be like here. The surprise of Confederate flags, for one thing, hanging in front yards. “I want to say these years have been seamless and the move blessed our souls with a certain fullness, but I can’t. In many ways we flounder… .” August.
“Fashion Climbing,” by Bill Cunningham. The late Bill Cunningham, who shot fashion photos for the New York Times for 40 years, left behind in his rent-controlled shoebox apartment, much to everyone’s surprise – including his family’s – a memoir. It begins with his Catholic childhood in Boston through Korea, his hat-making and his years as a journalist. September.