Placing a personal memoir squarely in the context of its time and place can save first person nonfiction prose from the solipsistic cliché of the “misery memoir.” Context is reality. Imagination comes into play as the writer invents a way to position herself in the text, or, alternately, must speculate, imagining what she doesn’t know.
To the five senses we are taught to summon when re-imagining a real-life event might be added a sixth: thought. The mind integrates the wider world, both observed at the time of the events being narrated, and synthesized long afterward. Context adds dimension and creates resonance.
In Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave her Away, June Cross tells her personal story through the lens of her childhood family memories, but in the context of growing up bi-racial during the American Civil Rights Movement.
The critic and essayist Vivian Gornick declares, “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance … the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer.” Born in 1954 to a mixed-race couple, Cross’s personal story is also her situation. Her mother was a poor white girl who grew up on an Idaho Indian reservation. Cross’s father, Jimmy Cross, was an African-American comic dance performer of great promise, who at age 22, had already appeared in a film with Ronald Reagan. His public association with June’s white mother in the early 1950s killed his chances at big-time stardom. The relationship crumbled under the stress. June’s mother saw that the only way for either herself or her bi-racial daughter to have a future in 1950s America would be if they, too, separated – at least in public. June’s mother went on to become the Hollywood wife and manager of a prominent actor; at five June was sent to Atlantic City to live with black foster parents. But she kept a close, if long-distance relationship with her biological mother. June attended Radcliffe and became a high-achieving journalist, but remained haunted by conflicting loyalties, and the fact that she was forced to live a lie.
Much narrative nonfiction is driven by a question the text must eventually answer. Hers is: “Who am I? What is my relation to my mother?” Her opening sentence: “I search for my mother’s face in the mirror and see a stranger.”
She can only answer this personal question by viewing it through the lens of American history. The danger lies in drowning the reader in background facts; likewise moving the reader from the broader story to the personal. Cross structures transitions from the personal to the broad context, and vice versa, through the microcosm of ordinary household objects – her foster parents’ book and record collections first support her declaration of a fortunate childhood, then pave the way to a larger discussion of black history. Seamlessly throughout her memoir, she uses this film technique of zooming in on then and pulling away:
“Described from the ridge of adulthood, my childhood seems impossibly difficult. Yet, no one who knew me in those years remembers a downtrodden little girl, and I don’t remember feeling like one. Indeed, my life seemed charmed. I studied piano and dance. I owned a pet miniature schnauzer I named GiGi. My Barbie doll wore hand-sewn fashions copied from Vogue. In the home where I grew up with Aunt Peggy and Uncle Paul, I felt surrounded by love and the affirmation that I could achieve anything I dreamed of. Our church reinforced those values and gave me a community that cared about me. At home, piles of Ebony magazines documented the success of people like us who had gone before; books by Booker T. Washington and Langston Hughes were displayed next to those by Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot, William Faulkner, and Charles Dickens; recordings by Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan nestled in the large record cabinet next to those by Chick Webb (Uncle Paul’s favorite) and the McGuire Sisters (Aunt Peggy’s.)”
But it would be Aunt Hugh’s children and grandchildren who ultimately defined family values and personal achievement for me. W.E.B. DuBois, the great black intellectual of the twentieth century, would have referred to the Gregorys as “the talented tenth…”
Context is the framing device when her mother and June’s step-father buy their dream house in 1960s Los Angeles as the Watts riots fester:
“They were living a life of Hollywood dreams: expensive car, big house, designer clothes, paparazzi following them down the street … Ten days after I arrived in Los Angeles in August 1965, police stopped a black motorist in Watts, tried to arrest him, and ignited a riot. Sitting in my mother’s living room, watching the riots on TV, I had only to look west, through the sliding glass door, to see smoke rising from the valley below.
‘What do they want?’ [her mother] asked. It was the question of the day, being asked by whites all over America, and even some Negroes. ‘Why are they burning down their own neighborhood?’
A lifetime of forging relationships with people who weren’t my blood relatives, of being with my mother only when she chose, of absorbing the perils of revealing our relationship, informed my answer. ‘They’re angry,’ I said soberly, ‘because they’re tired of being not wanted by whites. They’re stuck in the ghetto because whites won’t let us live anywhere else. You don’t want us around.’
I was only eleven years old. Adults had invented this system. How could she not understand why we were angry?
“She fixed me with a long stare, then turned and looked out the window toward the tornado of smoke rising from Watts. High up in the Hollywood Hills, we gazed out the sliding glass doors that lined the patio. I was nearly as tall as she. We stood with our arms around each other’s waist – white and black, mother and daughter, observing the smoldering city below.”
Cross juxtaposes rejection by the Harvard Crimson staff in the early 1970s:
“You just don’t have what it takes,” [the student editor] advised. Go find yourself another discipline; you’ll never be a reporter.”
I inhaled, turned, and walked out into the bitter November day, then into the warmth of Brigham’s ice cream shop. There I ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a black-and-white shake. I thought back to the good old days with Mommie when we were living in New York City, when eating a grilled cheese sandwich with a Schrafft’s vanilla shake constituted perfection in my world.’
With another rejection memory, meeting one of her mother’s white suitors in the 1950s:
“That dreary day, sitting in Brigham’s, I also remembered going to Schrafft’s with my mother when I was three or four. She had brought me to meet Dixon, an army colonel she was dating. I’d been warned to be on my best behavior so that Dixon would think well of me.”
Once again, something commonplace, the hamburger and milk-shake meal, serves to bridge the two thematically related memories.
“When he arrived, he took one look at me and exploded at my mother … Mom had grabbed my arm, yanked me from my chair, and dragged me out of there so fast my feet barely touched ground, tears running down her cheeks, tears of incomprehension running down mine – what had I done? Why couldn’t I finish my lunch? Why had the man yelled at her?
It had been afterward, I think, that she started leaving me in Atlantic City. Fifteen years later, feeling that same sense of incomprehension, that something was wrong but I didn’t know what, I put my head down on the table and cried.”
By the book’s end, the author answers the personal question she posed on the first page – Who am I? This personal narrative resonates all the more deeply for being intertwined every step of the way with its historical context.
One crisp blue Thursday, maybe two months after Mom had passed, I headed to the dentist … visiting his East Side office meant crossing so many memories: retracing the steps along West Sixty-seventh Street we had walked every day when I was a child, walking through the park, passing the playground where my mother had brought me to play. Tears filled my eyes most of the way.
Crossing Madison Avenue, I caught my breath. A woman was approaching me, and she looked familiar: the almond-shaped eyes slightly askew, the prominent forehead, the high cheekbones – I started, and stared. Mom? I drew closer, my heart skipping beats. Then, as I stepped up onto the curb, I saw the beige tint of the skin and blinked.
It was my own reflection I had seen in the window; the woman I thought was my mother – she was me.”
June Cross, Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave her Away (Viking Penguin, New York, NY, 2006) All excerpts, Copyright June Cross.
We Went to Saigon, Granta 94, Summer 2006
Voice and Persona
Sometimes when the facts can’t be verified, the author must speculate on and imagine them. Fifteen-year old Tia Wallman had not heard from her military officer father for so long, she assumed he was deceased when two plane tickets to fly her and her older sister to Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War.
In memoirs recounting events from decades past, there are two personae at work: the mature writer who reflects, and the earlier self who is reflected upon, who could not know the full meaning of what she experienced at the time. This memoir opens with a voice that speaks from the distance of time and the perspective of wisdom:
“When my mother called the Penninsula Hotel in Hong Kong that August 1967, the receptionist at the front desk simply told her, ‘They not here. They go Saigon with father.’
She imagines how the impact of this news — the brutality of flying two young teenage girls into a war zone –must have been magnified by the bluntness of Asian-spoken rapid-fire pidgin English. She then imagines an alternate exchange in English, where the news would have been cushioned in ambiguity: “I’m terribly sorry, but they haven’t left a forwarding address. Would you like to speak with the manager?”
Repeatedly through the narrative, the older self re-imagines the younger self through metaphor, comparing herself to the ubiquitous Vietnamese Water Buffalo:
(p. 17) “My sister and I stood on the tarmac, dumb as beasts in crossfire.” … (p. 28) “We stood listening, like cows flicking their ears for the faintest sounds of conversation.”
The soldier who guards the girls repeatedly conjures images of death:
(p. 28) “His lips were all dried up, like those on a desert corpse.” (p.42) “He had a way of training his eye on you if you got too close, like a cigar-store Indian: resentful and dead.”
The pervasive sense of danger is grounded in concrete remembered details that spark her to imagine to the worst possible outcome:
(p.25) “The seat covers were torn and smelled faintly of dung and sour milk, and the stewardess had a huge dark stain down the front of her ao dai, and although she was very kind, she looked distracted and her eyes flicked from the stain on her dress to the pilot’s cabin, so I thought this must be the sort of plane that crashes. What were a few more dead, traveling to the city of the dead? What was the point of reaching Saigon safely?”
When their father locks them in his room while he’s off working, they scour his personal belongings, and find a picture of a young Viet Cong couple torn in half. They guess that their father had sought out and murdered them.
(p. 42) “The funny thing about that summer is that, however selective memory may be, particularly in the way a fifteen year old’s is, I can’t remember seeing a dead body. Except the couple in the photograph; I knew the lovers were dead without having to ask.”
The question Wallman poses in this memoir is: Who was my father? She concludes that he remains a mystery, but in starting to remember, she will find out. She imagines, alternately, that he was or was not the top flight CIA operative he claimed to be. She also finishes the personal narrative by connecting it to the broader context:
(p. 44) “When I saw the recent pictures of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the ones tortured by the Americans in this new war, I realized I still hadn’t settled questions from the old war in Vietnam and my personal war in Saigon. I started to miss my father in a way I hadn’t for years. I used to think he was like a Willy Loman who bungled and loved haphazardly – but in earnest. He didn’t know himself in the end, even though he had tried his best, and I was comforted by the fact he had been a failure in the war. But he’s left me the task to find out who he was, like an inheritance, and I have to take it up. But I’m afraid … I might lose him forever when I find out more about what he did in Saigon. The thing I am most afraid of is that he may not have been a failure at all; he may have been very, very good at his job.
But I tell myself I could be wrong. These might not have been the events at all. My memories of that summer seem so clear to me, but I could be wrong now. I could have been wrong then. Who is there to tell otherwise? My sister assures me she remembers nothing. She only looks at me in wonder and says, gently, ‘Is that so?’ ‘Did it happen?’ ‘How can you remember such things?’
The truth dwells in this ambiguity, and the tension derives from the pull between what can be documented, and what must be imagined. The best memoirs don’t draw simple conclusions, but dwell in complexity.
Voice and the Witness
My implied question is: What is War? How are we guilty of practicing war in a microcosm? I highlight the people who get stuck in the crossfire. I both address and subvert an implied question: Why did the planes hit here? Why an office building? Why civilians? The obvious answers are: The World Trade Towers were symbols of power and hubris. I skew that assumption by witnessing that the underlying, harsh conditions of the people working in the Towers already held certain aspects of war and heroism; I try to take the broad symbol and bring it down to the level of individuals.
Throughout I used a deadpan detached tone rather than an emotional one that would have obscured the facts. The overriding structure is an imagined metaphor: Wall Street as War Zone. The metaphor is supported by evidence as well as imagined – The President and Chinese Premiere sought the advice of then-AIG CEO Hank Greenberg for his experience and insight, the firm was staffed by ex-army men; third world coups and sex tours in Thailand are speculations.
At a time when the op-ed columns were filled with uninformed speculation, I felt drawn to come forward with facts about the only aspect of the event I was qualified to witness. I only offer an opinion briefly at the end. I bring the question around – who is a warrior, who is a hero? And presume to answer it.
Excerpts from: WAR ZONE (Excerpts from: London Review of Books, Vol 23, Number 21, Nov. 1, 2001; September 11, 2001, Feminist Perspectives, (2002); Fake City Syndrome, Red Hen Press, 2003)
It always felt like a war zone to me. The huge, monolithic buildings. The dearth of sunlight, the vast barren stretches of concrete, and above all, the foreign, giant-scale money culture. It was all a far cry from my liberal arts degree, the left wing weeklies and glossy literary magazines I wanted to work for that were so progressive, they couldn’t pay junior people anything at all, with the result that only the sons and daughters of the wealthy could afford to hone their skills there.
Like the army, Wall Street will take anyone. They don’t care what school you went to, or who your father was. They will find you a job. When I signed on, I quickly discovered a sense of camaraderie, of opportunity – if not quite equal opportunity – lacking in more prestigious, academic, and creative fields.
Civil rights are abridged in the war zone. There is no racial profiling. Everyone gets fingerprinted, drug tested, hooked up to wires and interrogated upon being hired, and at random intervals thereafter. Criminal intention is assumed. Pages long questionnaires about personal habits, violations of drug and securities laws – Only indicted, but never convicted? Indicted more than three times?
The first Wall Street company I worked for was a huge, mysterious international conglomerate. Its ranks filled with ex-army men, “spooks” from the CIA and FBI. We heard stories we didn’t know whether to believe – that the company was behind third world coups, and had a sideline in sex tours to Thailand. The top secret organizational chart showed over four hundred subsidiaries. It was said the company was kept deliberately complicated, so no one could tell how much money it actually made.
The company was its own fortress, the conglomerate of buildings a self-contained world. In the upper echelons a private dining room that opened its doors to the sky. The company chief, in whose presence you swiftly understood the seductive charisma of history’s great dictators, here showcased photographs of himself flanked by then-President Reagan and the Chinese Premiere. The other executives – many of whom had landed at Okinawa and Normandy – were so afraid of him that when he entered a room would disburse as if a smoke bomb had landed in their midst. At meetings, they were too rigid to laugh at his jokes.
Wall Street gave me my first inkling that there was another point of view. A Cuban-born Chilean executive explained, quite convincingly, why his adopted country’s dictatorship was preferable to Castro’s Cuba, which he had been driven from in violence as a child. A girl who interned in my department, the daughter of a middle eastern executive, told me exactly what it was like to grow up, sleeping in the hallway every night, a pillow over her head, to block out the sound of mortar shells showering her native Beirut, what it was like to see her beautiful city destroyed, building after building by her twentieth birthday.
The second Wall Street company I worked for put itself up for sale the day I arrived. A demagogue gathered us in a room and told us there would be no mass firings, not in 1987. Two days later the company announced five thousand people would be laid off after Christmas. The acquiring company looked each of us over to decide who would stay, and who go.
Though we knew we would likely be fired, we worked till midnight at a downtown printing press to get our work to the field brokers out on time. One of my coworkers was 23 years old and seven months pregnant with twins. “Maria’s a real trooper,” our boss said, because Maria could have got her doctor to write her out at six months, but soldiered on through this crisis. I remember eating with her in the Orwellian, cavernous cafeteria in Two World Trade Center, at ten p.m. on New Year’s Eve. She was so ill I had to fetch her her food, and looked so dreadful I couldn’t swallow my own. It was my last night with the company. I remember looking at my ill, pregnant co-worker, and thinking, This is no place for women. We got our newsletter out, and before dawn my co-worker gave birth to her twins, each dangerously underweight. She was so ill she doesn’t remember any of it, or anything that happened at all for the next two days.
During the last Gulf War, my co-workers, Viet Nam Vets all, would cluster in my office to listen to Desert Storm on my transistor, whose usage was otherwise restricted to hourly stock market updates. They recalled their own battles, glory days or otherwise, and discussed artillery makes and the pros and cons of various jet bombers.
At our company, the enemy was internal – the surprise attacks coming from above, a side effect of the prolonged bear market. When I was forced out my male colleagues considered me lucky – they were equally abused, a rash of cardiac disease was sweeping the building. But their harassment had no framework of accountability, no legal classification, nor protection. It was just business as usual.
When I left the third company, I swore I would never go back downtown again I should have evaded the draft, I should never have gone down there. There’s a reason people avoid places like that. People who’ve worked there understand. It takes a certain kind of person to stick out those conditions – people unafraid of either risk or sacrifice, in the name of company, capitalism, the American dream. I wasn’t one of them. What I do know is that everyone in those World Trade Towers, hard at work at 8:30 a.m., was already a warrior, long before any planes hit.
Above is the text of a presentation I made at the Inaugural Ocean State Writers Conference held at the University of Rhode Island on Techniques in Narrative Nonfiction/Memoir: Imagination Versus Reality