Poor Man’s Feast: When the Bough Breaks

Posted inCreative Voices

I am writing from midcoast Maine, where I am at the beginning of a two-week writer’s residency, working on my next book, On Permission. I’m a late summer visitor to this part of the world and have been for years. Susan and I have been coming here for more than a decade now and intend to move here as soon as we can; I spent many college holidays here visiting the family of my best friend, who was born and raised here; I was here last August to do a collaborative workshop with Katherine May; it is the place where the weight of daily life recedes, and I am able to breathe and work, uninterrupted. To be offered this time and space has been a gift, and not one that I take lightly.

When I arrived here on Saturday afternoon after a five-hour drive north from my home in Connecticut, I pulled into the driveway, unpacked, headed out to do some grocery shopping for staples, and— because I didn’t feel like cooking after such a long trip— took myself out for dinner to a favorite restaurant where I sat at the bar and ate a bowl of wok-charred rice noodles and vegetables. Admittedly, I did what most people do these days when they’re dining alone: I looked at my phone. And I found in the neighborhood of 20 “news” post alerts in my email about Harry, Duke of Sussex, and various revelations from a leaked copy of his book— some inane, and some of which could make your hair go straight up— meant to tease and titillate. They were, as we used to say in trade publishing, sticky, meaning: addictive. Once you looked, you couldn’t look away. When I got back to my residence, I found myself wondering why I cared more than I wanted to admit.

I haven’t really been paying attention, Susan said, when I called her later that night. We’re busy, we have bills to pay, your mother is driving us crazy, we’re all getting older. (All true.)

Completely ridiculous, said three of my English friends via WhatsApp; two of them are Labour supporters and one of them, a devoted Tory. One of my friends is vehemently anti-monarchy, and the other two are not. Of the latter, one of them described the monarchy as sort of a cultural wallpaper: always there. As for me, I openly wept when the Queen died, and that is all I will say on the subject.

Over the next day, I received a number of texts from writer friends and some of my memoir students wanting to know what I thought about Harry’s book, since I am writing about this very subject—permission to tell one’s story. So I spent a lot of time that night watching various news clips, reading pieces about Harry and his book, and the presumed family response, which remains conjecture because they do not speak directly to the public about private matters, as a centuries-old rule. This is what I came away with, sans side-taking (which would be ridiculous since I don’t know the parties, and likely neither do you; we only know what we know, or what we think we know):

My work space in Maine.

Every one of us who walks upright has the right to tell our own story the way we wish it to be known. Every one of us is responsible for our own narrative, both internal and external. And every one of us who tells our own story the way we wish it to be known must also be able to live with the fallout because, whether we are royalty or a lowly author and teacher of memoir the way I am, there will be fallout, and we cannot predict or control what it will be. Further, if you reveal something that undoes the reputation of one of the parties in the book, you do not then get to simultaneously plead love and the naive desire to have everything go back to being the way it once was. Because it won’t be; it will never be again. It took me a decade to fully grok this fact, despite what my friend Anne Lamott says: if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

In the writing of memoir, one— prince or pauper— has to get to a certain place of internal understanding and acceptance that rage as it manifests on the page cannot be undone. Even when it is subtextual, rage is hot; rage is palpable. Rage has its own pulse and rhythm and smell. Rage has its own energy. Those of us who write memoir come to understand this quickly, and if we don’t understand it going in, we find out soon enough. After three memoirs, including one that got me excised from my family of origin in 2013, I teach my students that the question one must ask oneself— and it’s a hard, complicated thing to do in our angry, distracted, pugnacious world— is this: what is my motivation for telling this story? If I must tell it, why must I? Is it a necessary piece of the narrative, without which it will fall apart like a game of Jenga? Is it part of the narrative foundation? What will come of it?

In every workshop I lead, I talk about revenge writing never, ever being a good idea: revenge is, as they say, like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. Revenge writing deflates language, destroys art, flattens souls, renders characters cliched and one-dimensional and lifeless. If we are certain that telling a story about someone who did something heinous will get him back because the asshole deserves it, we then have to ask ourselves: and then what? How do we then move through our lives? What next?

Does revenge writing give the reader the fullest, clearest sense of who a character is at the human level, be they kind or cruel? No. Remember Vivian Gornick’s deeply human dictum: For the drama to deepen, we need to see the cunning of the innocent and the loneliness of the monster.

Ten years ago, I wrote a linear memoir about love, and sustenance, and what it means to rethink the way we nurture our bodies and our hearts. A vital part of the story revolved around my father’s desperation when, as a three-year-old boy, his mother walked out on him, his eight-year-old sister, and his father. My father’s need can be summed up in the poet Jane Hirshfield’s words:

“A wise elder once told me that ‘every human heart has in it a hole that can’t be filled…’ We live our entire lives in its company and its dread. And we make our choices because it is for each one of us, there.”

What I did not known in the writing of the memoir was that while my father spent every day of his life— and my childhood, where it was spoken about nightly, over dinner; as a result, I suffered from stultifying separation anxiety far too late into my teens— ruminating on his loss and trying to make sense of his ancient trauma. My aunt, who was deeply ashamed of the story, made a very different choice: she never told her family about it. When my book came out, half the family was blindsided by my spilling a family secret that I didn’t know was a secret, and the fact of the revelation about something that had happened nearly a century earlier was enough for them to say goodbye to me. My life changed instantly and irrevocably. Over the years, I have spent countless hours in therapy reconsidering my choice to tell the story because it had cost me so much. Could I have predicted the response? No. Was it necessary to the foundation of the narrative? Yes, it was; it was at the core of the narrative. Was it meant as revenge against the longtime cruelties of certain parties? No, it wasn’t. (I reserve that for my journals.)

I do not write celebrity memoir; I am not a celebrity. But many years ago, I was an editor of an A-list celebrity memoir, and so I can say with some authority that they are always built upon the assumption and promise of titillation. But when I streamed Anderson Cooper’s interview with Harry, I did not see a celebrity whose goal was to throw his family under the bus. His body language, his face, his eyes all pointed instead, to this: unresolved, profound grief born of unspeakable loss and a decades-long obsession with that loss, and the knowledge that he was brought into this world as an extra, a supplement, a just in case.

Who among us could carry such knowledge in our corpuscles, which is where the need to tell one’s story always begins, whether one is royalty or not. Sorrow is the great leveler, and as the world gawks and the press ravages and his family cringes, it would do well for us all to remember that.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.