Kathryn Harrison’s recently published book, “On Sunset,” in which she describes being reared by her wonderfully eccentric grandparents in Los Angeles in the 1960s, is her fifth memoir.
“Typically, when people hear the phrase ‘serial memoirist,'” I said to Harrison recently, “they think of Maya Angelou, who wrote eight memoirs, or Shirley MacLaine, who has written 11. How do you feel about being in that company?”
Harrison, who has also written seven well-regarded novels, two biographies and a book of true crime, but who is best known for “The Kiss,” her controversial memoir about her four-year consensual romance with her father, replied, not uncheerily, “I’m OK with it.” But Harrison then recounted walking the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage in northern Spain which is the subject of memoirs by both Harrison and MacLaine. At one point during her walk, Harrison had fallen into conversation with a British man who was offering refreshments on the side of the path. “When he found out I was a writer, he said, ‘You must be here because of Shirley MacLaine.’ It was so insulting! I was not looking for my past lives!”
A different combination of motives and inclinations prompts every serial memoirist to return repeatedly to the keyboard’s well-worn “I” button. If the searing emotionalism found in the work of most repeat memoirists (Angelou, Augusten Burroughs, Mary Karr, Jamaica Kincaid, Joyce Maynard, Frank McCourt, Lauren Slater) would seem to have been generated by forces other than those fueling writers who, at the end of, or well into, their careers, tack on a few autobiographical works to their oeuvres (Diana Athill, Gore Vidal), one quality unites all these writers. Their lingua franca is candor.
That said, outside of “stunt journalists” (Henry David Thoreau, George Plimpton, A.J. Jacobs) and famous or notable personages compelled to leave behind a historical record of their existence on the planet (any celebrity or politician with a pen), serial memoirists would seem to fall into two main camps — those who simply want to capture life as they themselves experienced it, and who happen to have more than a book’s worth of material; and those for whom an additional memoir or memoirs is a form of repudiation or correction.
At first blush, the phrase “serial memoirist” seems distinctly postmodern: Before the self-empowerment boom of the 1960s and 70s, writing a memoir was thought to be the province of a reflective senior citizen. “Whether I serve one or two terms in the presidency,” John F. Kennedy said in 1961 at the age of 43, “I will find myself at the end of that period at what might be called the awkward age — too old to begin a new career and too young to write my memoirs.” But if we take a broader view, we see not only that St. Augustine started writing his “Confessions” in 397 at the age of 43, but that this early example of memoir can also qualify as serial: Each of the 13 books was composed as a discrete unit (meant to be read aloud, each taking about an hour to perform.)
Of the two main camps of serial memoirists described above, Harrison falls into the former. Although Harrison’s agent, Amanda “Binky” Urban, will sometimes try to coax her client into writing something for commercial reasons (on the heels of Josephine Hart’s novel “Damage,” Urban tried, “How about a little book about adultery?”), Harrison said she needs to be thinking about, if not obsessing about, a topic in order to take it on. “'The Mother Knot’ is typical,” she said, referring to her fourth memoir, in which she achieves equanimity over her long-troubled relationships with her parents by sprinkling her dead mother’s remains in the sea. Harrison said she had not been planning to write “The Mother Knot.”
“It was only when I was on the phone with the funeral director out in Los Angeles, asking him to dig my mother up, burn her up and send her to me, that I thought to myself, ‘You’re behaving weirdly now. Perhaps you should start taking notes.'”
Writer Dani Shapiro’s upcoming work, “Inheritance” — her fifth memoir — can be classified in the repudiation or correction category. After blithely submitting her DNA to a genealogy website in 2016, Shapiro discovered that her father — son of the founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, brother of the former president of the Orthodox Union — was neither her biological father nor Jewish. (Coincidentally, in New York magazine last month, Elizabeth Wurtzel recounted her own recent discovery that her birth father was famed photographer Bob Adelman.)
That Judaism is matrilineal seems, in Shapiro’s case, to take a back seat to the fact that Shapiro, over the course of her memoirs, has not been shy about positing herself as a Jewish person who doesn’t look Jewish (she is blonde and Californian-looking). In her first memoir, “Slow Motion,” Shapiro recounted how her Holocaust survivor neighbors in New Jersey would tell her, “We could have used you in the camps, little blondie. The soldiers would have given you extra bread.” In her second memoir, “Devotion,” she refers to herself as “the blond sheep” of her family. Thus, “Inheritance” can be viewed as a kind of crisis management of the Dani Shapiro brand.
In this second category of serial memoir, the theme of repudiation or correction is often more overt than it is Shapiro’s case. As Joan Wickersham pointed out in Harvard Review last year, Emily Fox Gordon and Karen Armstrong are notable examples. In her 2010 personal essay collection, “Book of Days,” Gordon writes of her 2000 therapy memoir, “Mockingbird Years,” “The narrative of my memoir was a lie,” referring not to factual accuracy but to context and scale: “I presented what was only one of a multitude of possible autobiographical stories as if it were the story of my life.”
Similarly, Armstrong has explained the existence of her third memoir, “The Spiral Staircase” — partly a rewrite of her second memoir, “Beginning the World,” describing the ex-nun’s trials with depression and temporal lobe epilepsy — by saying that the second memoir “did not tell the whole story!” The publisher of “Beginning the World” didn’t want Armstrong to be perceived as an intellectual, so the book has no discussion of theology or the purpose of prayer; but in between the publication of this book and “The Spiral Staircase,” Armstrong wrote her international best-seller “A History of God” and became a celebrated religious historian.
The impulse to repudiate or correct also fuels what might be termed the call-and-response memoir. After literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote two memoirs that neglected to mention that he was African-American, his daughter Bliss Broyard corrected the score in 2007 with her own memoir; two years after Sean Wilsey cast his gimlet eye on his socialite mother in “Oh the Glory of It All,” she fired back with “Oh the Hell of It All.”
In the end, serial memoirists, regardless of what categories we file them under or what motives we ascribe to them, serve as a litmus test of a reader’s humanity. If memoir is, according to serial memoirist Mark Twain’s friend and adviser, William Dean Howells, “the most democratic province of the republic of letters,” then it makes a certain kind of sense that critics and cognoscenti often sniff at writers who repeatedly offer up literature’s answer to fried dough. Consider the editor faced with whittling down the notes that H.L. Mencken appended to the three memoirs he published during his lifetime, from 1,200 pages to 200.
But aren’t serial memoirists expressing something deeply human? In 1971, psychologists Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett conducted an experiment in which they asked subjects to rate a series of individuals — their fathers, their friends, Walter Cronkite and themselves — in terms of traits like aggression and generosity. If the subjects wished, they could choose “depends on situation” as a rating. To a large degree, the subjects chose “depends on situation” only for themselves, while positing more definite character traits for the other three categories of people. While we tend to think of other people as having fixed personalities and traits, we view ourselves as inherently flexible. A cottage industry is born.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.