Originally published in The New York Times Opinionator column, October 21, 2013
I am a serial memoirist — words I never imagined uttering or for that matter stringing together to describe any writer 25 years ago, back when I wrote my first book, “Riding in Cars With Boys.” I sold the book in 1988 on a five-page proposal, using my agent’s advice: “Pretend you have five minutes to tell a garden party why in the world they should be interested in the story of your life.”
By the 1980s I’d read some classics of the genre — Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood — and admired their authenticity. The way the authors strove to make sense of the events and the people who shaped them, how some of the writers could render feeling so well that we ached when they did.
As a reader, I expect the same things from memoirs that I do from novels: illumination about what it means to be alive and why people, myself in particular, think and feel and act the way we do. It’s just that what really happened seems so much more important, interesting, amusing, mysterious and filled with portent than anything I could ever invent.
I was born to be a serial memoirist: compulsive, self-absorbed, narcissistic, bossy and a know-it-all. I not only gaze at my navel; I gaze at my reflection, about a thousand times a day. I was the girl sitting in front of the mirror in high school, telling my own true stories to myself. Even back then, I believed I could help others by sharing my experiences.
We are all works in progress. Change is inevitable, and I believe it’s meant to help us grow. If I were a tree, the world would look much different from 50 feet than it did from five. I expect to continue to have new insights I feel compelled to share.
In “Riding,” I wanted to let those who took a major detour early like I had (I got pregnant in high school) know it’s not the end of the world; hold onto your dreams, and get yourself to college — it can change your life. In my second book, Looking for Mary, I healed from depression, a lousy self-image, rage and guilt by actively developing faith in the Ubermom, the Holy Mother Virgin Mary, whose unconditional love I believe helped and healed me. I had to share this with others.
Soon, being a memoirist began to inform my life even as it was happening. One night in 2001 a thief grabbed my bag and I wouldn’t let him have it. As he whirled me around, as my arm felt pulled from its socket, I was already composing the story I wanted to tell. It was not that I was mugged and the thief ran off with my bag; it was that I was mugged and the thief ran off empty-handed. Which he did.
Seven years ago, I awoke to a serial rapist in my bed — “Don’t scream. I have a knife,” he said. Within 24 hours of the attack, I thought: “This is material”; and then, something bigger: “I am a writer, I can help get him caught.”
A one-man terrorist and break-in artist, he’d attacked four women before me and had been at large for eight months. Only the dates, times and locations of the assaults had been printed in the local paper. I was friendly with two of his victims as well as an ex-F.B.I. agent helping with the case, and before I was attacked, these three women had given me inside knowledge. I knew that after the attack he liked to chat about how sick he was, trying for sympathy, before he raped again. He stayed, on average, for five hours. The ex-F.B.I. agent had told me that this type of serial rapist lacks self-esteem and has a deep-seated fantasy that his victims are his lovers, so if they fight they enrage him. This information helped me keep my head during the ordeal. I did not fight and I refused to talk to him after the attack. Instead, I prayed the Hail Mary out loud, and he left in half an hour.
I shared everything I’d known beforehand and everything that had happened during my attack in an article I wrote for the paper. Accompanying the article was the Hail Mary. People cut the prayer out, they carried it with them, they memorized it, they prayed it. Several people told me, “The energy feels different.” Some said, “He’s going to get caught.” And five days after the article appeared, he was. The detective in charge of the special unit devoted to catching the man paid me a visit to thank me for writing the article.
That attack set me off on a spiritual journey of a lifetime, which is the story in my latest book, Astonished: a Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace.
What’s next for me? I’m going to let that unfold for itself. I hope that as I age and become more excited by ideas and imagery and philosophy, I will not be so dependent on a good yarn that requires something monumentally life-changing, causing a seismic shift in my belief system, to start the next book.
My books so far have been old-fashioned memoirs, the hero’s journey: Falling into disgrace or despair, struggling through the fires of hell to rise, graced with a new life or at least more peace. This classic dramatic arc is not superficially imposed, but the way I think; identifying and tracing the arcs in my own life helps me find meaning and purpose.
I keep trying to improve my identity by evolving into a kinder, more loving, wise, spiritual and compassionate woman, daughter, mother, friend. This is taking a lifetime. Not a bad thing for a serial memoirist.