Just go read Cristina Nehring’s review of Rachel Adams’s Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery (Yale University Press, 2013). I don’t want to exerpt any of it, it’s just so unbelieveably mean. So go ahead–I’ll wait.
I haven’t read the book, but it strikes me as completely appropriate (insofar as I can tell through this rather nasty review) that Adams writes about her own experiences of parenting a child with Down syndrome, as the subtitle suggests. As one commenter at the Chronicle notes: “I admire Adams’s restraint in focusing on herself. I am alarmed when parents seem to think that all aspects of a child’s growing up are theirs to tell. Adams has told a story about herself and is clearly careful to draw boundaries between her story and her son’s story, as any thoughtful writer would do.”
Word. Too many parents rush in to tell their children’s stories, making them props in their books or characters in blog posts.
I also think it’s an interesting and rather brave choice for a woman memoirist not to make herself the virtuous heroine of her own story. (I’ll tell you right now: I don’t think I could do it.) I’ve been thinking a lot about this since reading Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007). A few of my graduate students really did not appreciate this book at all, and I wonder if it’s because they didn’t like the Saidiya Hartman that the writer Hartman had crafted. In a word, it’s not a flattering portrait–she frequently makes herself look cowardly, or foolish, or obnoxious. While this intrigued me as a reader and as a woman writer (as well as a fellow sometimes-coward, sometimes-fool, and frequently obnoxious person), it really put off some of my students, who accused her of narcissism (as Nehring accuses Adams in this review.)
It’s almost as though people don’t understand that a memoir is a literary creation, and that the version of the author in the text is not the author herself but rather an invention of the author. I think this goes double for women writers, and maybe quadruple for mothers who write about their experiences of motherhood. Imagine that!
All I know is that even if I felt exactly the way Nehring felt about Adams’s book about any memoir I were asked to review, I’d decline to review it before I’d publish a review like that. Maybe that’s related to my (narcissistic?) resistance to make an unflattering self-portrait? Maybe Nehring is just doing what Hartman did in Lose Your Mother, i.e. craft an obnoxious personality for her character as “book reviewer?” Maybe we women would all be better writers if we dropped our “good girl” vanity?
(Is this all too meta? Is that the only way we can write about this fracas without picking a side and digging in?)