There is a scene in Jerry Stahl’s memoir Permanent Midnight, where he is out in the middle of the night scoring drugs in some decrepit Los Angeles Pico-Union shooting gallery. But unlike similar passages in the book this time he has his 6-month old daughter with him, and he’s holding her in his arms while waiting for someone to sell him dope, and a toothless crackhead, covered in weeping open sores, asks if she can hold his baby. Stahl is not only repulsed, but he’s also scared, seeing himself in this emaciated crackhead, or actually he’s seeing his future, what he can or will become, if he continues using drugs the way that he is. And when he doesn’t allow the woman to hold his child she yells at him, “least I don’t bring no kid here. Least I don’t drag no baby girl into this.” And then Stahl writes: “I don’t know if I could have stood another minute standing in front of the mirror that talking corpse on the floor represented. But she wasn’t really my reflection. She was better. She wouldn’t bring her baby down into this. And though I stayed frozen, and didn’t say a word, we both knew it. You are worse then me! That was the message flickering from those tombstone eyes.”
This is perhaps one of the most powerful scenes I have ever read in any drug addict memoir. It truly represents a horrific moment in Stahl’s life that he could have probably gotten away without ever having told a soul. And the question is why would he ever tell this to anyone, let alone publish it in a best selling memoir? Is it some narcissistic need to tell all, an incessant desire for attention, or a not so silent scream for help? I mean really, aren’t some subjects better left alone, untouched in the dark, to fester away? What drives Stahl to display such vulnerability?
And then you have an author like Jeannette Walls in her memoir The Glass Castle who writes an opening like this: “I was sitting in the taxi, wondering if I was overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blistery March wind whipped the steam coming out of manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading. Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet.”
Walls’ memoir is about growing up with her totally insane parents who eventually become homeless. But not before dragging Walls and her siblings through numerous episodes of their mental health and personality disorders, while traipsing around the United States in a series of horrible living situations, and even worse locales. It is a childhood one wouldn’t wish on anyone and that Walls survived to tell the tale is nothing short of amazing. But here we are again bordering on the “too much information” of over disclosure. What drove Walls to write this book? Wasn’t she embarrassed? Wasn’t she afraid what people would think of her once they knew where she had come from? And besides, is it really fair to write about family and friends? Isn’t everything that happened between them private?
A good memoir mines emotions. It digs deep and exposes all the little crevasses of hidden secrets and awkward and uncomfortable events from the writer’s life that a “normal” person would not want other people to know. If done right it gives the reader a full perspective of the author and a further understanding of how and why they came to be in the situations that they have. Yet that is the reader’s perspective, and if we were to turn this around and ask just what does the author gain from this type of exposure, what do you think the answer would be? Is there a benefit to the writer to tell all, other than book sales and a congratulatory slap on the back?
Three years ago my eating disorder returned to my life full force. Although it had not really gone away, it had always been hovering around the perimeter, dancing in when I was depressed or particularly stressed out. Yet it is not something I ever talk about, as my bulimia has always been a secret I have kept it from family and friends and practically everyone that I know for well over forty years. Its origin a deep-seated childhood trauma that I have never addressed, and it evokes a lot of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. And the result is I have such bad body dysmorphia that unless my jeans are a 28” waist, or less, then I know I am so incredibly huge and fat that I am unlovable and ugly. I will not weigh myself. I avoid mirrors. I over exercise. I under eat. And I avoid situations where food is involved. Sadly I have always assumed that my eating disorder would just fade off into oblivion, and that when I’d reach a certain age I would grow out of it, as if it was some cherished t-shirt from when I was a child. But I am in my 50’s and it hasn’t gone away, in fact this last time it came back so strongly I was scared enough to finally do something about it: I wrote a personal essay about my life long struggle with bulimia, then I submitted it to an online magazine, and it was published.
Although I am a writer whose career, such that it is, has been all about divulging past transgressions and not so pleasant secrets—I wrote a memoir chronicling my decline into drug addiction and crime, and have published numerous essays on suffering from depression, childhood trauma, and family dynamics—but none of those subjects ever felt taboo, or too off limits. They were who I was, or who I am, and the personal “payoff” for writing about them was that when I emotionally deal with my past, I come to a better understanding of my part in it. Taking full responsibility for my actions, as well as finding a place of acceptance and forgiveness for the roles others played in those events. Which ultimately affords me the ability to let go of resentments and put to rest all those haunting memories that are distorted by anger and fear. And herein lies one answer as to why authors write the self-divulging material that they do. The cathartic value of writing, whether it is published or not, is unparalleled for self-introspection and acceptance.
Yet, knowing all that it was still very hard to confess that I have an eating disorder, let alone publicly announce it on a website that gets over 2,000 readers a day. But I knew that if I did, there was no going back, and really, when I saw my essay published online there was this incredible sense of relief, and a long held fear was finally over. Since then I have sought out the help that I needed and I am finally in a better place than I have ever been with my bulimia. Now I am not advocating that everyone has to publicly admit all their worst secrets. What I am advocating is that everyone should write about them.
Patrick O’Neil’s Course Food is Not the Enemy: The Language of Eating Disorders begins May 31st.
Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books), and the excerpted in part French translation, Hold-Up (13e Note Editions). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including: Juxtapoz,Salon.com, The Weeklings,Razorcake, Sensitive Skin,Fourteen Hills, and Word Riot. Patrick is an editor for the NYC-to-California-transplant-post-beat-pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music anthologySensitive Skin Magazine. And a two time nominee for Best Of The Net. He is a regular contributor to the recovery website After Party Chat, and has been blogging at Full Blue Moon Dementia for over ten years. Patrick holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, lives in Hollywood, California, and teaches at a local community college. Check out Patrick’s web-site for more information www.patrick-oneil.com and his blog Full Blue Moon Dementia http://patrick-oneil.com/blog/