Guest blog by Rifka Kreiter
I closed the book with a contented sigh just as the sun peeked through my bedroom window one summer morning in 1961. I’d been reading all night. Published in 1959, Mary Astor: My Story was one of the first confessional autobiographies to come out of Hollywood, by the actress best remembered for her role in The Maltese Falcon. Although I was only fifteen, Astor’s honest account of her struggles with emotional dependency and alcoholism, and her valiant efforts to overcome them was the first memoir to move me deeply. Since then, I have been inspired again and again by stories of women who go their own way. It is in large part thanks to them that I was inspired to share my own stories in the memoir Home Free: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties.
To echo Cathy’s last blog, I loved books that made me feel that I wasn’t “alone, that there is hope, that there is a path to a better and more fulfilling life.” As I wrote and re-rewrote Home Free, I always said if just one reader found solace and hope in the book, my goal would be attained.
Stephen King has said that the most important quality in a book is that the reader keep thinking, “…and then what happened?” As a lover of great literature, I balked when I first read this. What about character and style, setting and tone? What about structure?
But I’ve come around to seeing King’s point. In the many memoirs I’ve read, it’s generally the life story itself that has the most power. Having struggled mightily with my own fraught childhood, I’m particularly drawn to stories of women who’ve overcome traumatic histories.
Here are some of the memoirs that have pleasured my hours and illumined my path over the years.
Mary Karr’s memoirs have it all: strong stories beautifully written and delightfully spiced by her sassy voice. (I confess that, when peeved, I’ve paraphrased the retort Mary used as a little girl in Texas: “You can kiss my rosy red derrière.”) The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000) and Lit (2009) offer the particular satisfactions of sharing a life as if in real time, from childhood through adolescence, to her adult engagement with alcoholism.
But setting lends power to story. I often visualize certain scenes long after I’ve forgotten details, and this reminds me of my global impression of that book including insights it may have catalyzed. In The Road From Coorain (1989), Jill Ker Conway provides the texture of the utterly-unknown-to-me Australian outback of her childhood. When images of a place are well painted, the setting can feel like a character itself. I can still see the young Jill riding horseback on those wild Aussie plains. She was seven before she ever saw another girl child, much less a school. Following her unlikely path from there to becoming president of Smith College is a journey that has stayed with me for decades.
Educated by Tara Westover (2018) similarly recounts a life transformed by education. Here too, the setting of her Idaho mountain home, lyrically evoked first in the prologue, is a vivid backdrop to the unforgettable events of Westover’s hardscrabble childhood. I have friends who say they were put off by her personality. This made me wonder: do you have to like the subject of a memoir to enjoy the book? I too perceived Tara’s personality as (in her own words) hollowed out and brittle, the result of a lifetime of privileging her family’s view of reality over her own experience. But it is just this travesty that seemed so horrifying to me. I couldn’t wait for her to FINALLY wake up, all the while marveling at her success in overcoming such enormous obstacles.
Of course, it’s a normal task of maturation to separate psychologically from one’s family of origin and become one’s own person, to find one’s own voice. When childhood is traumatic, becoming a healthy adult can be charged with difficulties—which makes for good reading!
I love the exceptionally apt title of Sally Fields’s engrossing In Pieces (2018). Here, the writing is just good enough to tell the tale of her fragmented personality and how she’s been managing to put the pieces together—a process I could relate to big time.
Contemporary memoirs often use creative structures, such as braiding different time lines and themes through consecutive chapters. I’ve loved such elegant books as Andrea Jarrell’s I’m the One Who Got Away (2017) and Dani Shapiro’s memoirs. But, when structuring my own memoir, I knew that— if the climax was to convey the impact it had on me—the tale needed to unfold chronologically. My eureka moment came when I found a way to frame the story as a flashback, giving the book the lift it needed to read smoothly. How I love it when a reader tells me she’s stayed up all night to find out “and then what happened?”
An astrologer once told Rifka Kreiter that a certain planetary conjunction in her chart signifies “an unusual life, full of unexpected happenings” and this has certainly proved true. Her memoir Home Free: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties recounts her passionate quest for liberation, personal, political and spiritual, leading through all the movements of those times, from Civil Rights marches in Mississippi, to est seminars in Manhattan, to meditation intensives in the Catskill mountains. Rifka lives in suburban New Jersey and teaches meditation in the tri-state area. Visit her at rifkakreiter.com.