Alison's complaints about memoirs, written in a scholarly way

You all know I have complaints about the way many memoirs are written.  I wrote a friendly version of these complaints in a piece for Skirt! magazine a while back ("Maybelle vs. the Memoir").  At the same time that I wrote that article, I wrote a scholarly piece critiquing memoirs written by parents of children with disabilities.  Because academic publishing is a slow business, my article has just now been published.  It's in a journal called Disability Studies Quarterly, which is the big U.S. journal for disability studies scholarship.  I'm thrilled to be part of that community now!

If you want to read my essay, it's called "Saints, Sages, and Victims:  Endorsement of and Resistance to Cultural Stereotypes in Memoirs by Parents of Children with Disabilities."


Jay Crockett said...

Alison do you think you'd ever write your own memoir?

Alison said...

I was considering writing a memoir. That was what led me to read a bunch of memoirs--and then I got increasingly pissed off, and I couldn't turn off my analytical brain.

So I had the realization that I'm truly an academic, and I wrote an academic article and began planning an academic book (with some personal elements included).

KMB said...

Very nice!

Elizabeth said...

I am reading your paper in pieces as it's very intense, and there is much to digest and think about. I have to admit to not enjoying the parsing out of such things -- I remember feeling the same way about literary criticism when I studied it in college. As a writer, I write because I must -- and whether that is "enjoyed" by others is of no consequence to me. I can only feel hopeful that the plethora of memoir about parenting children with disabilities opens the closed doors a tiny bit and imagine that more sophisticated discussions will come, piece by piece. Like yours!

starrlife said...

Lovely article and a lot to think about. For me I keep thinking about how I read and my developmental process and growth around topical material. I remember how and when I first read a book about the A-bomb being dropped on Japan, how much it affected me (5th grade) and how it led like a trail of bread crumbs to more variety and more sophisticated ways of thinking about that topic. I guess I'm a civil libertarian about writing in that I feel it all has it's place in a process- it's all important even in order to react to, either for or against it. I enjoy that whole process and all perspectives (why I don't watch the news shows much) and the idea of parsing thru it myself, kind of like picking through a junkyard or library shelf. Hope that makes sense :)
I note that you haven't mentioned Margaret Benders book - From Grief To Celebration, How One family learned to embrace the Gift of Down Syndrome- which are excerpts from her blog? Have you read that?
I also enjoyed the Eva Feder Kittay perspective- thanks so much for all of the thoughts and ideas you generate!

Anonymous said...

The article is so well-written and really thoughtful. Thank you so much for posting it!

I have a similar question to the comment above. The standards you are applying are very well-described, but why must memoirists abide the standards being set?

I see the good of the standards, but I don't yet see how or why they are obligated - is it for the sake of ethics? or justice? honesty? Is it for the good of their children? For the greater good? what is the standard they are being held to?- What the pay off is for them? How are they connected, in other words, to what you are recommending?

And are these standards put on everyone who expresses grief over anything, or is there a special burden in the case of writing of raising a child? (As I read it, that would be: make sure you reveal your child's humanity.)

The literary standards confuse me a little, too. Must a memoirist not conform to the typical uplifting ending to a memoir? Is this because it loses literary quality (do we "enjoy" them less)? Or is it because doing so (on these topics) violates ethics? Justice? Honesty? Maybe authenticity? Is it harmful somehow (perhaps humanity-depleting)?

Would love to hear more. I realize I probably missed these explanations in the paper or I just don't have the background to know what the answers are.

Eliza McGraw said...

So much scholarliness and yet so smart and readable. Also now I don't have to read any of these memoirs.

Alison said...

Whoa, it is truly unusual for me to get so much thoughtful feedback on a piece of my academic writing! How cool! THANK YOU for reading the article!

Let me give a couple of quick reactions here.

Elizabeth, I hear you on not enjoying the parsing of literary texts. I loved and love it, but it's not for everybody--and since you're a creative writer, it's not surprising that you approach writing like this in a different way.

Re: starrlife and being a civil libertarian about writing: I'm in no way meaning to say, in this article, that every piece of writing must abide by my standards. I would never (is this true? I think so) suggest that texts I don't enjoy or approve of shouldn't be published. I embrace the conversation, where someone writes something, and then I get to come along and say, "Whoa! That totally pissed me off, and here's why!"

Alison said...

And anonymous (I know who you are and am happy to talk about this in person if you want!), I don't contend that memoirists MUST abide by my standards. What I'm trying to do in this article is to show what I think the consequences are if they don't.

The thing is, I got the overriding sense that most of these memoirists were trying to write books that did humanize their children. And I thought many of them really failed in that effort--but they'd never know they failed, since the mainstream public celebrated these books. Thus, my good friend gave me a book that she thought would make me feel better at Maybelle's birth, but it actually dragged me down.

The books certainly can be published. We all have a right to say what we want to say. But from a disability studies and disability rights perspective, these books are troubling. In many ways they fed into and perpetuated damaging stereotypes. I wanted to share that.

Anonymous said...

lol. I forgot I need a code name, right? So my dumb comments aren't googlable?

I always tend to think everything boils down to ethics, and love/ need reminders as to why other people don't think this. If this were ethics (of a sort), one could say: you, the person/ writer themselves, will be better off if you see things differently/better/ more realistically. I wonder if you think this might be possible to assert?

It is also interesting that cultural preconceptions might be mitigating from one perspective (a purely ethical one might say "how could he know better?") and blameworthy from another. From either perspective, though, just as helpful to point out.

Another thought you've encouraged: we probably buy into parental happiness to a greater degree than is warranted. If empirical studies on such things are trusted (and I think they can't be, but I'll go with this anyway) parents are less happy than non-parents. I know this is the other way round, but I imagine some degree of "celebration" of NT children is really just egoism of some sort, anyway. Children aren't a credit to us, and we never know how hard tomorrow might be.

Thanks for the paper. I've shared it with my family members who have also had reason to read every single memoir out there. They'll appreciate it, too.

krlr said...

Belated fence-straddling comment - I agree w/Elizabeth in that the parsing of personal stories makes me a little uncomfortable but at the same time I feel the same way about the books I've read. Impatience, I suppose, with the 5 stages of grief. Yes, yes, we know, you were sad - now what about the rest of it? Not very kind of me, and not claiming any higher wisdom, but there are worse things.

Sending you an email to swap book lists.

Kit Tisdale said...

Thanks for the strong analysis (and for reading those memoirs, which people keep giving me, so that I don't have to). I'l be sharing it.

Blogs have the same issues, no?

Alison said...

You know, one of the reasons I felt that I was "allowed" to parse the personal stories is because of Maybelle. I don't know if that's valid--I'm not trying to defend this as a stance--but I felt that I could say picky things because I have a child with a disability. If I hadn't had Maybelle, I might have felt just as critical, but I bet I wouldn't have felt I had the right to complain publicly.

But I also get that my analysis and critique is part of how my academic brain works. Not everybody needs to see things that way.

As for ethics, I don't know if I'd feel comfortable telling another person what would make them better off. I feel more comfortable pointing out the consequences for a broader public conversation than for an individual.