April 26, 2013 by Clare
by Julie Rak, author of the new book Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market
I’m intrigued by Sarah Hampson’s visceral reaction in “When is telling all too much? Drunk Mom memoir pushes the boundaries” [in the Globe and Mail], which is supposed to be her interview with Jowita Bydlowska. Bydlowska is the author of Drunk Mom, a recent tell-all memoir about a taboo subject, motherhood. The reason why Hampson is so upset about Drunk Mom isn’t really about alcoholism or addiction, a subject that has been written about by many memoirists, from Hunter S. Thompson, to James Frey to Chelsea Handler, the author of Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea. And there are a lot of memoirs in print about motherhood, including Kelly Oxford’s recent bestseller Everything is Perfect When You Are a Liar. No one seems to get that upset about these kinds of books, unless the author exaggerates or lies.
So what’s the difference here? It’s the combination of the two things, motherhood and addiction, and the refusal of the author to create a moral from her story which makes everything alright. Memoirs about alcoholism and other addictions are written in two ways: they are about the idea of treatment and cure (think about Patrick Lane’s brilliant There is a Season, or Frey’s A Million Little Pieces) or they make light of addiction somehow in order to make it “fun” or at least interesting (Thompson, Handler). Memoirs about motherhood often have to be uplifting or comic in the same way. In Canadian society, we appear to need and want stories about motherhood and addiction (or disability, or racism) to be uplifting or amusing, partly because so often, in real life, that’s not the case. So what happens when a writer decides to publish a tale about addiction which is neither?
What happens is that media pundits and members of the public take it personally. They are outraged. They question the ethics of the author and attack her ability to parent. They wag their fingers and pronounce judgements. Sarah Hampson begins her interview by saying that “this is not just an interview.” She’s right that it isn’t: Hampson excoriates Bydlowska for being too revealing in her memoir, claims that she wants to protect her, and then attacks her. She muses about Bydlowska’s therapist and what he or she might say. She accuses her of acting like an alcoholic because she decided to tell the whole story. She criticizes Bydlowska’s taste in clothes, as if her fashion choices represent a kind of moral failing. She even writes, “I feel both protective of her and annoyed by her – which is not what an interviewer is supposed to feel.” She’s right about that too. But she clearly feels outraged by this memoir and this memoirist because motherhood is not supposed to be written about in this way. A person recovering from an addiction who parents is supposed to reassure the rest of us (and by this I mean the Canadian middle-class rest of us) that recovery is possible, that children are protected, that motherhood remains the sacred institution that it has been since the nineteenth century. The comments on Hampson’s article echo all this: most of them recommend interventions by service agencies, accuse Bydlowska of mental illness and make other kinds of ethical pronouncements.
It is in the nature of memoir in our time to be confessional, particularly when it is written by people who are not public figures. In the United Kingdom, there is a whole genre dedicated to this kind of writing, called “Misery Memoirs.” If the authors are not celebrities or artists or politicians or saints, what we want to see is what Frank McCourt gave us in Angela’s Ashes, an elegant confession of someone’s suffering and inner life. This is what makes people read about the lives of others. We see what they see. Perhaps we even feel what they feel. But when someone like Bydlowska steps over an ethical line and gives us too much suffering or too much confession without enough redemption to make readers feel alright again, then the desire to see someone confess becomes revulsion. That revulsion is an expression of guilt or shame at having been a witness to that confession, and not having been given a sentimental or even an easy way out of its dark message. The result for Hampson was a confession of her own as her feelings spilled over and overwhelmed the interview itself.
Julie Rak is a professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. In addition to Boom! she is the author of Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse (2004), the editor of Auto/biography in Canada (WLU Press, 2005), and co-editor, with Anna Poletti, of Identity Technologies: Producing Online Selves (forthcoming).