Sometimes I imagine my sons, who are 9 and almost-12, sitting around in their dorm rooms during their first week of college. Everyone's trading life stories, and my kids say... what? What will their formative memories be, the things they take from the lives we made for them? Sometimes I worry that we haven't given them enough material. We're not alcoholics (yet) and we've never done cocaine, let alone in front of them, and never slapped them with wire hangers. There are no diagnoses in the picture, no boarding schools, no wars, no fame, and neither wealth nor poverty. We can be sort of crabby, and I'm pushy about them practicing their instruments, but other than that, the only source of drama around here is an aggressive rooster. Well, no doubt they'll come up with something, if, heaven forfend, they get the memoir bug. But please, please, let it not be a Momoir.
There are two kinds of momoir: the ones about one's mother, and the ones about being a mother. The ones about one's mother are usually unflattering, and the ones about being a mother are usually about difficult children. After all, if everything is nice and pleasant, there's not much to say (there are exceptions). I find them both horrifying, yet irresistible.
I can understand the urge to write about your mother if she's dead: you want to memorialize her. It makes sense. But why write about your mother if she's still alive? Plenty of memoirists -- Susanna Sonnenberg, Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, and others mentioned in this New York Times Book Review essay -- have done it. I can only think of one reason: revenge. I disapprove. Don't hurt your mom! It is just bad karma.
Anyway, the trend -- which started, I guess, with Mommie Dearest -- has more or less run its course. Newer, and more shocking, are the memoirs about people's terrible, brilliant, troubled, or otherwise remarkable children. (There are also many memoirs about losing children, which are pretty damn near unbearable to read. Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is an exception, and is simply a beautiful book -- she lost her first son just before giving birth to him -- while Ann Hood's Comfort, which is about the death her five-year-old daughter, is too painful. It's excruciating. And I've thought about it almost every single day since I read it.) Debra Gwartney's Live Through This is possibly the most fascinating of these "troubled kid" books. Her two oldest daughters, at 14 and 15, ran away and lived on the streets for a time. Gwartney is unusually self-lacerating and spends much of the book blaming herself for the terrible relationship she had with her daughters, which puts the reader in an unusual position -- do we agree, and blame her? But what if it happens to us???
David Sheff's Beautiful Boy is another book about the mystery of a child's unhappiness in the face of his parents' efforts to give him a good, normal, upper-middle class life. (A Dadoir, I guess.) Sheff's son became a meth addict. It's really a horror story -- classic Stephen King. But interestingly, Sheff's son wrote his own memoir, and his book, Tweak, is both more sad and less scary. It gives the impression that he became a drug addict because he was really, really devastated about his parents' divorce and having to live several states away from his mom. Of course, I would read it that way.
Michael Greenberg's Hurry Down Sunshine is a memoir of his teenage daughter's first descent into mental illness, and it's unusually self-effacing, lovely, and saturated with love for her.
There are more of these memoirs to come: I just glanced through the galley of a book called something like Hell is Other Parents, by the mother of the child actor who plays the young Spock in the new Star Trek.
And what about mine? Or my sons'? Let us hope they are a long, perhaps infinite, way off.