Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions and Criticisms

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions and Criticisms

by Michelle Tea

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Winner of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay

"Eclectic and wide-ranging. . . . A palpable pain animates many of these essays, as well as a raucous joy and bright curiosity." —The New York Times

"Gorgeously punk-rock rebellious." —The A.V. Club

"The best essay collection I've read in years." —The New Republic

The razor-sharp but damaged Valerie Solanas, a doomed lesbian biker gang, recovering alcoholics, and teenagers barely surviving at an ice creamery: these are some of the larger-than-life, yet all-too-human figures populating America’s fringes. Rife with never-ending fights and failures, theirs are the stories we too often try to forget. But in the process of excavating and documenting these queer lives, Michelle Tea also reveals herself in unexpected and heartbreaking ways.

Delivered with her signature honesty and dark humor, this is Tea’s first-ever collection of journalistic writing. As she blurs the line between telling other people’s stories and her own, she turns an investigative eye to the genre that’s nurtured her entire career—memoir—and considers the price that art demands be paid from life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936932191
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Michelle Tea is the author of numerous books, including Black Wave, Valencia, and How to Grow Up. She is the creator of the Sister Spit all-girl open mic and the 1997-1999 national tour, and founded RADAR Productions, a literary non-profit that oversees queer-centric projects. Currently she creates Amethyst Editions, a queer imprint of the Feminist Press.

Read an Excerpt

My twenty-month old son sleeps in a twin bed on the floor of his bedroom, wedged into a corner so he doesn’t tumble out, the corner stuffed with pillows so that he doesn’t bonk his head during bouts of violent toddler sleep. I think there is something wrong with the corner; a bad Feng Shui, or perhaps a terrible energy has snagged there. In the haunted punk rock flophouse I spent my twenties in, my bandmate Cheryl once told me black balls of energy were roosting in the corners of my kitchen “like bats.” Cheryl was clean and sober and Native American and a mystic; when she got into fights with people she prayed for them, which baffled and infuriated her enemies. I believe that there were bad energy bats flapping through that house because of the nightmares I’d had, the prickly sensations, the creaking floorboards and the shadows moving room to room. Classic haunted house bullshit. The transient roommate population tended toward the alcoholic and the pill-addled, smokers of crystal meth and injectors of ecstasy. People with badly compromised psychic immune systems. None of us would have felt the sting of the bad energy bats as they sank their fangs into our auras and sucked out all the pretty colors. Lying in my son’s bed, as I do nearly every night, I wonder if the bad energy bats are with us, tucked into the spider-webby corner of his pale blue bedroom. He’s been sleeping worse than usual, tossing and turning, crying tears through dreaming eyes. What do babies dream? Lying beside him one night, I too began to cry. At forty-five I seemed to have just realized I would never again be sixteen years old. I would never again feel what it feels like to be high on that particular mixture of youth and hormones, my still-pillowy brain not yet hardened to risk, everything possible, probable, permissible. When I think of being sixteen I think of wearing a very short black velvet dress, the torn hem dangling thread. My hair was home-bobbed, choppy and chunky, a harsh burnt-orange color, the result of a failed effort to bleach my hair out from a chemical black. I’m drunk, of course. Did I land on sixteen because drinking never felt as good as it did that summer, drunk in the Boston Common, making out with boys, riding in the trunk of my best friend’s car all the way to Worcester to see The Cure? The ghost of this girl hovered just above my son’s bed, flapping her black wings, and I wept. Later I texted my sister: I’m sobbing because I’ll never be sixteen again. She texted back: I’m sorry you will never be sixteen again. That’s a hard truth. And I’m sorry you have PMS. It was not bad energy bats, of course. Later I lay on the couch and tearfully live-Tweeted my period. Amidst feelings of intense greasy zit bloat absurd horniness gross. But then weeks later I lie in the same spot, and on the verge of falling asleep, have the startling revelation that there is no god. I get that feeling like stumbling from a curb; I jolt awake and quickly there are tears. My son, exhausted from kicking me repeatedly in the abdomen, sleeps through my jerk and sob. The despair is intense, the disappointment. This is all there is, a sprawling dark flash cracked like lightning the length of my universe. What will I pray to? I think dumbly. Oh, no more prayer. I realize that I actually love praying. Something I began skeptically on recommendation became a more habitual way to harness my mind became something that brings me real joy. I love sending love out to the world with my son each night as he falls asleep, even though he actually refuses love to most everyone. We send love from our hearts to Uncle Bear? No. We send love from our hearts to cousin Chloe and cousin Jude? No. Yes, we do, I insist, annoyed, and he responds, No, no, no, no no. Even a child can tell you there are no webs of magical energy strung between the hearts of those who love each other. I’m a fool. Everything fun about life seems gone. I cry myself to sleep. The next day I take a smoldering bundle of sage and walk it around the house, spending extra time in the corners above my son’s bed. I tell my wife we’ve got to move it to a different part of the room, it’s got bad Feng Shui. I tell her about my crying jags. What the fuck do I care about never being sixteen again? I rant. I hate nostalgia. Same for god or no god. I pray regardless, because it makes me feel good and even science has acknowledged it changes your brain. Changing my brain is my favorite high. I pop three Celexa a day with the intention of sinking new grooves into that busted record. Have you been taking your meds? She asks. Yup. This has to be a magical problem. It’s hard to know where to put my son’s bed. The room is small and cluttered with toys, with dressers and shelves. I lay down with him again, stretched out beneath the flap of the bad energy bats. Drowsy, I think about how in my last book I called an ex-boyfriend “Cruise Dude.” Because he took me on a cruise, a bad cruise, the most miserable two weeks of my life, as is the point of the story. “Cruise Dude.” I cringe. Why did I call him that? I feel utterly humiliated. We will never, ever be friends again; how could such a moniker ever be forgiven. “Dude,” a shade less grotesque than “Bro.” Named after a two-week getaway, no identity outside the bad feelings he gave me, barely a mention of the decades of friendship that preceded our doomed affair. I vaguely remembered a fuck it feeling as I wrestled with what to call him. Cruise Dude was a placeholder that stuck; mostly I didn’t want to care too much about it. There is a certain stance you must take to write a memoir, a spell you cast upon yourself at the keyboard. You must not remember that your characters are actual people, people you once loved or maybe still do. Cruise Dude was brought into my memoir to illuminate a point, that I had dated people I shouldn’t have, and thusly have learned hard romantic lessons. Still, why didn’t I call him, like, Charles, or something? Shutting the laptop on that passage, I had smirked internally. Look – he didn’t even warrant a name in the book of my life. That’s what you get, Cruise Dude! If you don’t like it – goes the memoirist’s familiar refrain – you shoulda acted right! It felt good enough at the time. Now, in bed beneath the bad energy bats, a low-level shame pervaded my body. How petty. I always told students not to write for revenge, just tell the story, but when your story is I’ve been done wrong how can you help but steal a morsel of pleasure from the inherent vengeance of tattling? How can you, the wounded author, be trusted? If I understood the desire to confess, it would have saved me a great deal of unhappiness. That is neurologist Alice W. Flaherty in her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block and the Creative Brain. Neurologists have found that changes in a specific area of the brain can produce hypergrafia – the medical term for an overpowering desire to write. Flaherty herself became hypergrafic in the storm of a post-partum depression that followed the late-term miscarriage of twins. She had always been wordy, but now her pen flew off the margin. Her brain had been changed. When she became happily pregnant a second time, her brain was changed still and the writing mania came back. Mental illness is not completely separable from sanity, she writes. There is a sense in which mental illness is awfully like sanity – only much, much more so. I have always written. In second grade I started a class newspaper, The Schoolyard Gazette, of which I was the Editor, Publisher and sole Staff Writer. Chicken Pox Is Sweeping the Second Grade rang my first, sensationalist headline. I did the comics page, inking a crude heart coming at another heart with an axe; Don’t go breaking my heart! the caption quipped. When I too fell victim to Chicken Pox I decided to use the time to pen my first novel. Using a paperback as a model, I removed the scratch-proof socks I had on my hands and got to it. Beginning at the beginning, I drew my cover. With a glance at the back, I wrote some blurbs boasting of the story’s special genius. Then I had to write the actual book. I was stumped. I returned to an earlier project, a humorous re-writing of the dictionary, where Abundance, for example, was a social mixer for pastries. In fourth grade I took inspiration from the headlines of the garish Boston Herald American, the low-brow alternative to the Globe and what my grandfather read at the dinner table. When a young girl was finally killed by a mother who had long abused her, I wrote a fictionalized version and dedicated it to her memory. After scanning a piece about the unfair treatment endured by developmentally disabled individuals I penned a short story called The Retard’s Sister. In it, a girl makes a wish that her sister die so that the horrible kids at her school will stop teasing her. And her sister does die, and the guilt is such that she will never again have a happy day for the rest of her punishingly long life. In fifth grade I wrote scripts for The Facts of Life, in particular one wherein Jo inveigles The Go-Go’s to perform at a dance at Eastland Prep. In sixth grade I tried to adapt Judy Blume’s Blubber into a play. In seventh grade I mainly wrote and rewrote Billy Idol lyrics into Lisa Frank notebooks. Then, when I was twenty-one, powerful things happened. I realized I could have sex with girls, and my life exploded. I realized all of society and culture was a misogynist conspiracy to oppress women, and that this web of oppression tangled with other oppressions, racism, say, or how people liked to beat up homeless people, or go fag-bashing; it linked up with anti-Semitism, Fascism. The connection between a police officer in Provincetown who would not allow me to sunbathe topless on the beach and the obliteration of generations at Buchenwald were so clear to me they stung my brain. When I called the cop a Nazi, I meant it. The way agriculture is produced, with chemicals, harvested by brown people sleeping in tents and pissing in the hot sun, was linked directly to slaughterhouses which was linked directly to American slavery. I stopped eating. My stepfather admitted he had been spying on me and my sister, for many years, through holes he’d carved into our walls. This was no different than my mother phoning our old landlord, a friend she had had a falling out with, to warn that a Haitian family was coming to view the apartment. None of this was any different than the dumping of nuclear waste into third-world dumps where workers brought the glowing material back to their children, to delight and kill them. My brain was thoroughly changed. I moved to San Francisco, and began writing. In earnest. I remember being inside a night club, sitting up on top of a jukebox, scribbling into my notebook by the light that escaped it. All around me the darkness writhed with throngs of females, their bodies striped and pierced, shaved and ornamented as any tribe anywhere, clad in animal skins, hurling themselves into one another with love. What feeling it filled me with. An alcoholic, an addict, I know what it is to crave and the need to take this story into my body was consuming. For years I sat alone at tables, drunk, writing out the story of everything I had ever known or seen. Hypergrafia manifests primarily as personal narratives, memoir. My brain did this to me.

Table of Contents

1. Art + Music a. Valerie Solanas b. Andy Warhol c. On Erin Markey d. On Chelsea Girls e. Purple Rain f. Minor Threat g. Gene Loves Jezebel h. On Sonic Youth’s Magic i. The Rocky Horror Picture Show 2. Love + Queerness a. Transmissions from Camp Trans b. How to Not Be a Queer Douchebag c. Hard Times d. HAGs e. My Husband-Wife 3. Writing + Life a. Pigeon Manifesto b. Lost Jobs c. Telling Your Friends You’re Sober d. Sister Spit Feminism e. Death in the Family f. On Being Polish g. Baba h. Dire Straits i. Against Memoir

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