Posted by Charles
The misery memoir – awful childhood, frightful beatings, Oliver Twist never had it so good, that sort of stuff, ooh – has, it seems run its course. The torment vultures have flown the well-picked corpse and are now feasting on bereavement.
I’ve been aware of growth of this new genre and largely ignored it, mostly, I expect, because I am not presently freshly bereaved. I think I feel very much as Bill Morris does in this very good article: “Is it mere voyeurism, or schadenfreude? Or is something closer to empathy – a way of preparing ourselves for the unthinkable by witnessing the suffering of another?” I think he might have added that it can be very useful to hang out with others who are going through the same as you. I’ve nothing against the genre in principle. The biggest sob-buster out there now, in case you’re interested, is Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. Everybody wants to be the next Joan Didion.
Then I read an article about the grief memoir in the Guardian. It’s written by Frances Stonor Saunders. Ever come across her? Let me tell you, she’s seriously brilliant. Here are some of the things she says:
“We know that extreme physical pain drives out language,” Julian Barnes writes in Nothing to be Frightened Of, but “it’s dispiriting to learn that mental pain does the same.” … If grief drives out language, how can language be pressed into its service? How can the writer orient disorientation?
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, founder of the modern grief movement (she gave us the “Five Stages of Grief” theory), insisted that “Telling your story often and in detail is primal to the grieving process. You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” This instruction comes straight out of the principle of catharsis, but there is little evidence to support its efficacy over other, possibly more reticent, ways of grieving. Barnes calls it the “therapeuto-autobiographical fallacy” – writing doesn’t help, he testifies gloomily, your suffering is not alleviated.
Saunders surveys the field with a scholarly, wry eye. You have read it all.
She also bequeaths us an excellent anecdote. Kerry Packer, recovering from a near-fatal heart attack, whispered to his sons: “I’ve been to the other side, and there’s fuck all there.”
Read the entire Saunders article here.