I heard the boy scream before I saw him. Walking 125th Street, alone, I heard him cry out. Mom, he screamed. Mommy, please. The street was dark; the winter drafts wicked. I spun around to find the boy, no older than six, standing outside a Volvo station wagon, fists banging against the backseat window. Mommy, please. The boy kept pounding, slapping at the glass, his face a crumpled knot of agony, his knees giving out until he dropped to the pavement, begging. A man, or, a silhouette of a man, rushed toward the boy. I’m not sure where the man came from. He picked the boy up in his arms and the boy kicked, flailed, screaming with his little arms reached out for that car, for his mother.
I turned around and kept walking.
Throttled, was the word I used when I described the boy’s screams to my therapist. I’d waited a full week to tell this story. I hadn’t even told my fiancée, Hannah, whom I met for dinner just after the incident, and to whom I confide everything. I was throttled, sick, I said. Couldn’t breathe couldn’t think couldn’t help couldn’t do.
That boy at the car, he’d throttled me back in time in a way nothing else had for years. As he pounded on the window, I pounded at a window. As he screamed, I did, too.
Mother, Father, Let. Me. In.
What was the boy’s mother doing in the car? With a man? Unconscious? Tying up? Too high to hear her son? Perhaps it was more innocuous than all that. Perhaps I am here, projecting. The details didn’t matter to me then, in that moment. They still don’t. A child on the other side of the glass will always be the child on the other side of the glass, no matter how many years we spend banging, wailing, waiting for a door to open.
It must be so healing to write memoir is something I hear no fewer than a few times a day. It must be so therapeutic, so cathartic. These are the most popular words. The people who use these words mean well (for the most part). The people who say these words to me are saying them because I wrote a memoir about being a child—and now, an adult—on the other side of the glass. I have written into the memories and the smells of all the locked bathroom doors, the scorched foils; I have written about my father trying to drink gasoline as he came down from a bender, and my mother’s overdose on opiates, her subsequent coma. I have written about the blood of that. The baseball bat in my father’s hands as he tried to kill me while drunk. I’ve written into the sound of my mother’s skull cracking on tile floor, and I’ve written my father’s body as it lay in a hospital bed, his skin flickering with every color of a sunset like someone beautiful until he died and he went from someone to something and his hands went cold.
But none of that. No sentence, no chapter, no list or description of any of it, throttled me. None of it collapsed the years. Brought on a prickle of the scalp.
It is very healing, I’ve said. I think, before the boy at the car, I may have believed that. I may have believed that to write The Thing down is to take one more step away from The Thing itself, one more step removed, one more page and another and another until there is a thick stack of proof, of growth, of Tada!—the restorative salvation. I wanted my memoir to feel like The Story. Look at it. Feel it, even. I have wrangled it all into something beautiful. Of course I have healed, because I was able to write it. The Story itself is the proof.Art is a superpower that allows creator and consumer to be in dialogue regardless of circumstance or logistics or miles.
But listen. When the little boy’s knees gave up and he sunk and hit concrete, when he screamed Mommy, please, one time, and then a second, and a third, I felt something in my chest first. A tingle that shot up, then down. Stomach-kicking pain. Did the boy want to be let in, or did he want his mother out? My hands stung against glass, my hands beat against bathroom door beat against locks against knobs against cars against the carpet of my childhood home against the trousered legs of men my mouth spun wet with Mommy, please with everything I said everything I never did say all the things I want to say, still. It was all corporeal; all body.
Nothing has healed. The glass, still, hasn’t a crack.
The Story is not The Life.
An incomplete list of what has actually been cathartic and healing for me: dancing, saying No, sex with women, masturbation, driving through Central Park on 86th Street with my windows down—the slight temperature dip that comes over my arms first, just by being near green, therapy, hypnosis, teaching, activism, feeling spellbound and outside of myself in any movie theater, anywhere; driving parallel to powerlines (especially when they silver like needles in the sun), Charlie Parker and Tracy Chapman and Lester Young and Billie Holiday. My fiancée, Hannah. Road trips with the people I love. Making soup—completing every step until those steps add up to something surprising and nourishing and accomplished.
Writing, for me, is no catharsis.
Writing is work. Writing is my job. Writing is the only divinity or spirituality I have found, a medium through which, at my best, I can speak through time and space; I can communicate across state lines and oceans, find my stories pressed between the hands of a girl in a waiting room, or the woman on a train, or a grandfather of six reading passages aloud (these are some of the letters I’ve received) and those hands will hold my stories safe.
Art is a superpower that allows creator and consumer to be in dialogue regardless of circumstance or logistics or miles, a shared experience, a third plane found when two people meet by seeing one another through the page (beautifully and more thoroughly described by Alexander Chee in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel). But to render the art, to render the experience, does not, in my practice, involve “bleeding into the typewriter.” It does not entail a writer spilling or spewing the memory onto a blank page, nailing it down, healing. Why not? Because that is literally impossible, and, while I can appreciate the romance of such proposals, the hypothetical possibility of this would not make for effective or moving literature.
Consider the writer bulking pages with the Full Experience, true and accurate to every degree—exact wording, exact description, complete dialogue transcription, every person and their backstories and histories and traumas (because, of course, this is what we carry every moment of our lives, what we bring forth to every interaction) filling the scene. There is no room within that scene for the reader. No space for the third plane, for the Me too, for the reader’s response or touch or memory to graze what’s being offered. More importantly: it’s boring. The story obsessed with Exact Accuracy of The Full Experience is the man in a fedora bloviating at a party about the book he would write if he only had the time.
If the writing feels cathartic, I wonder if I’m doing my job, says Jaquira Díaz, as we’re fielding The Question at a Q&A in Miami: But tell us more about the catharsis? Are your books your therapy? Jaquira and I agree there is room for working things out in words. There is value to journaling, to keeping notes; there is no question that funneling our fears and observations and desires onto a page can be a productive way of transforming energy. This can be true for anyone; creativity as a coping mechanism has been studied ad nauseum. But our books are not our journals, says Jaquira, And even if they were, I add, they wouldn’t come any closer to the truth.It must be so healing to write memoir is something I hear no fewer than a few times a day.
I am not proposing that we ignore the healing benefits of creation. What I am proposing is that we get real about what it means to render an experience for the sake of art, for the sake of sharing. To craft something and chisel it until there’s room for more than catharsis. What I want is the space for you, as you’re reading this essay, to read these words and supplant your own knowledge where mine breaks, to apply these ideas to your own work and your own opinions and purposes. To remember your own moments as a child on the other side of the glass. I want us to de-romanticize the way we’d like to read and describe memoir—voyeuristic and raw and vulnerable and brave—and wipe the metaphorical blood from the typewriter (eh hem, computer) and admit that all writing, all art, is projection, illusion, a performance. Documentary photographers are still lighting their shots. They are still choosing just the right angle to allow us—the viewers—to take in the glory of the subject, or the absolute despair. There are other people and other scenes just inches outside of the frame, other ways to focus the lens. The photographer is not choosing the low speed film and wide shot to dupe us, they’re making these choices to show us the truth.
I was recently interviewed by a lovely, sharply intelligent woman who admitted she was nervous to ask me questions about my book. I am used to interviewing fiction writers, she said, and inquiring about character development. I’m not used to asking about the real people in somebody’s life. I politely (I hope) stopped her there. They’re still characters, I explained. The people in this book are not the people in my life. They are, and I am, projections.
I always feel a deflation here. A disappointment. It’s the first glimpse of the magician’s elastic thread as it hits the spotlight; the playing card is no longer spinning through the air by sheer force of the magician’s mental want, it’s being pulled, manipulated.
So, it’s a lie? they ask.
Well, sort of.
Our brains recall memory and information with a different wiring than when we verbalize that information. Simply put, the recollection is operating on a different plane than The Story. Once we tell the story, once we weave the threads of the most fascinating details, once we rearrange and shorten and emphasize certain parts, adding our own diction, our personal flourishes, our distinct “patter” as the magician might say; once we bring that story into the room where our grandmother might add I didn’t even know how to swim when we went to the river and our mother might reenact the exact way she held you over the water, we are creating a new memory altogether.
From then on, as we tell and retell the story of the raft or the wet rock or was it a story about women and oceans? Or resilience? Or vacations? Or the fact that grandfather wasn’t alive to be there? We are essentially only recalling the last time the story was told. The purity of The Memory is gone. It has become texturized, woven, dramatized, for better and for worse. It is both the deepest loss and greatest gift I’ve experienced in my life.
Now imagine transforming the oral story, the great mythologies built around The Memory or Idea, and attempting to both reduce it and expand it on the page. When I am doing my job, I am not throttled; I am acting. I am an actor whose only job is to make you believe me. To believe the world I’ve built, to not question the tremble in my voice, or the accent. The act, for me, requires a tremendous amount of reading and studying. It’s mimicking the greats until I find my own signatures; it’s building the characters and the scenes and the dialogue until the whole mood and color feels exactly right, hitting the same notes I once felt in my body. Would the story be most effective following a comic or tragic form? If tragic, do I want to chase a three-act structure, or an eight-episode structure? Where do I end the story in a way that will allow it to transcend?
Writing—both fiction and nonfiction—is simply an attempt at translation. I have two composite characters in my memoir—one is called The Senior, and the other is Addison Katz. A composite character is not written to deceive, to pull one over; in the case of my story, The Senior is standing in for the many figures to whom I once gave my body in exchange for flimsy, sexual validation. Addison, the many bullies I both loathed and desired in middle and high school. These characters are not so much non-truths as they are multiplicities of truth, truths too vast and complicated to resolve in a sentence.
I fell in love with illusion magic when I was a child. My father was a compulsive gambler, dragging me and my mother to Las Vegas with him every couple of months so he could sweep the poker tables clean. He’d keep me with him at the tables as a Good Luck Charm, even let me drink, until I’d be inevitably expelled from the casino floors, screaming for him.
Eventually, my mother found the solution: Magic Shops. My sweet mother would take me from shop to shop, day after day, until I’d learned every trick in every hotel and bought every foam bunny and magic ring and magnetized playing card in stock. I took magic classes, both in Vegas and then back home in South Florida, until I could blow on my fist and make any object disappear.
My love for magic, still, is all about mechanics. Construction. Physics. My knowledge of how tricks are done does not deaden the awe and admiration I feel—it deepens it. Sometimes I work hard for that knowledge. In certain cases, I’ve thought so tediously about a trick that I’ve solved it in my dreams, imagined up the solution; I’m fanged with the obsession of how. How did they make me believe? How do they keep doing it?
I opened this essay with the boy at the car. My job was to bring you with me to 125th Street, to feel the wind, the vacant dark, to hear his voice. If you want The Truth of The Experience, I do not remember what kind of car he was banging on—I’m not the kind of person who knows, identifies, or remembers the details of cars; that’s my lens—but I did falsely remember it as a Volvo station wagon before I remembered that my mother once drove a Volvo station wagon when I was a child. I’d projected her car onto the boy’s car because I’d projected myself onto the boy. I’d forced the connection. My catharsis.
I want the magician’s thread to hit the light and for it to make you appreciate the flying card even more. What skill and choreography it takes to spin the card without breaking thread, without a tangle. What skill to make us care. To make us want to examine the card after the thread’s wax is scraped from the back of the card, to say Wow.
Here’s my magician’s thread, my space behind the curtain: I’d planned on coming back to the boy at the car at the end of this essay. I knew this right away; I wanted the full swoop, recursive gut punch of that (I also wanted to examine that return here, for you, a trick I recall Julie Buntin exquisitely pulling off in her essay “On Making Things Up”). A set-up must always have a pay-off. Even better, a defamiliarization. A transformation. I wanted to execute what Charles Baxter describes as Rhyming Action, a memory stutter of imagery, a light handed metaphor.
As a writer, doing my job, I considered a few possibilities to achieve this: I could repeat the scene, simply bring us back to my body, to the epiphany. Another, stronger option: I could bend us back into the scene, but extend it with new information. I could turn around instead of walking away, looking for the boy. I could return to the car after dinner to see if either the mother or boy were still there, and perhaps there’s a trace of them—a lost button, an earring. I could identify the man, or silhouette of a man, as the boy’s father. Make peace by connecting that boy’s father to my own. A final, different route: I could resist the epiphanic ending and flatten the opening scene. Pan to me, walking away in the dark, on an ambiguous note about the wind howling. Maybe even use the rhyming action to link the sound of the boy to the sound of my mother, now, breathing. That’s the writer’s impulse in me. That’s me storying the experience, tidying it, creating the kind of arc you might feel.
But The Truth of The Experience is this: nothing happened. I went to dinner; I smiled at an award’s ceremony an hour later. I didn’t speak of the boy or the car for a full week, perhaps because I’d wanted to preserve the purity of memory, that real pain—guttural and true. I didn’t and still don’t remember the make or color of the car, but I used Volvo station wagon in my opening paragraph because details will help the reader along. Because details might help you believe. I sacrificed this particular memory by bringing it to paper, sacrificed the body of it—throttled—in order to communicate what I mean.
But is writing your therapy? My writing about being the child on the other side of the glass will never come close to seeing that boy on the other side of the glass. My writing is all scaffolding and reconstruction, imagination and reach. But perhaps when someone asks after it—catharsis—it’s a reverse projection at play. It’s the readers’ experience of the work, what we writers are after in the first place: an arrangement of words that serve as someone else’s boy at the car. A scene felt through space and time. A hand, slapping at your window.
That memory is no longer mine. It’s yours.
T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is available now from Bloomsbury.