Masochism and memoir

I’ve been at a few storytelling events in which adults bring in the diaries they kept as a teenager and laugh at the things they wrote. I laughed along, but with some sense of disquiet. There are limits to looking back on your direct experience – as you lived it then – with a jovial posture. Reading through my own old experiences would not be funny. My old diaries talk of a deep sense of misery and loneliness. Reading them aloud would be enacting a cruelty to a self that no longer exists but who I feel protective of, and sad for. I also don’t think it would be an ethical representation of a woman, nor of a person who lives with mental illness, nor of myself – even though what’s in the diaries are (more or less) a true account of what I’ve gone through.

Representing one’s life, whether through writing or performance, is an act that is ethical and political as much as it is personal. Recently in Overland, Maree Giles reflected on writing about her own trauma of being imprisoned at the Parramatta Girls’ Home as a process that felt ‘important, urgent and necessary’. She points out that there were downsides (such as being seen more as a survivor than a writer, and the burden of having a brutal story to tell) but personal stories are a nonetheless evocative way of uncovering damaging practices. They allow readers to empathise with what others go through, which seems to create an impetus for relating and reform far greater than dryer, statistical reports do. In my work as a writer, I’ve found that including the personal side of issues tend to be more engaging for audiences and gives them a more vivid sense of what’s at stake.

Memoir has a powerful history of asserting a place for marginalised voices. The implicit belief that underlines many examples of life writing: that one’s experiences are worth recording – and should be read – can be revolutionary. It can also be a galvanising story for those with shared or similar experiences of oppression to realise that they aren’t alone.

With a sense that my own experiences are in some way important, I embarked on an experiment with writing about myself (in unpublished, abandoned-rough-draft form). The experiment was to write pieces about my experiences in my early 20s of becoming very mentally unwell. It was to depict the frightening experience of losing contact with reality and losing the will to live. It was also to depict a contradictory treatment landscape that involved a long, nightmarish fog where I was too overmedicated to realise that I was overmedicated, but at a different point was denied treatment (‘you’re fine, lots of girls like you go through similar things’) and gaslit by professionals. I’ve written about these things in essays and analytical pieces, but this was different because it was raw narrative. I was writing in the first person, in the present tense, as though the incidents were ongoing. It was about how it felt to be me then.

The experiment cannot continue. I’ve discovered that memoir can be a form of masochism as much as it can be a potential assertion of progressive politics.

Memoir evokes the ethics of representing oneself, or past iterations of one’s self. Until I started drafting in this vein, I didn’t realise a story that you wrote about yourself could be unethical. But my writing attempts felt gross – and ‘gross’ is the best word for it. I felt as though writing about suffering was an infliction of suffering, not unlike that feeling you get when you watch a horror film and you urge the person who you know will be the next murder victim not to go upstairs. And then you watch them go upstairs and there’s nothing surprising about their unpleasant death, but there’s a curious sense of failure – the film has cast you as an impotent bystander of pain. Likewise, when writing about my life, I couldn’t do anything to change what had happened, nor could I use my subsequent experiences to try to explain what was happening to my past self. I became a bystander, looking on at pain, and unable to do anything about it.

The reason I was interested in writing a present-tense description of my experiences was because that’s how I lived those moments. I didn’t always have the words to describe what was happening to me, which added to my overall anxiety. Many of us rely on doctors and other health professionals to confer meaning onto our experiences, and while the labels apply are often lacking, you don’t automatically experience symptoms as such, or even (in many cases) realise that there’s something wrong that isn’t your fault and can be addressed. The sense of being lost – the time before your analytical mind can kick in – was very much part of my life.

But in my depiction, I felt complicit in my own and others’ suffering. I was adding to the existing reams of stories about women as powerless; those with mental illness as confused and out-of-control. I feel like I owe my communities something better – something to hope for. I also feel like I owe my past self greater kindness. I want to be able to stand up for that young woman who happened to be me.

This gross feeling might be what people mean when they evoke the term ‘misery porn’: the representation of pain for its own sake. Such representations may have literary merit, they may even be vital and relevant, but they are also cliché. Popular culture is rife with depictions of wounded women to the point where, nowadays, as Leslie Jamison argues in her essay ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, most of us take cover in the posture of the ‘post-wounded’ or ‘sarcasm quick on the heels of anything that might look like self-​pity’. It’s a difficulty, Jamison suggests, to write about pain without shirking from it, without a sense of irony, and also without reducing it to yet another episode of female victimhood which goes so far as to render despair salacious. She argues that ‘the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it’. But for me, this permission is not enough. I want my writing to lift something heavier than representing pain – it needs to be ethical, analytical, engaged, even though I was not always these things when I experienced the pain in question.

Otherwise, my efforts would fit into the category of confessional memoir that many commentators have deemed exploitative, where someone (usually a woman) sells their stories of pain for $50 a pop on websites like xoJane (now defunct) or Bustle. Amy Gray pinpointed the problem when she said that such pieces ‘tend towards performance rather than analysis’, that the writer’s experiences matter more than bringing other forms of expertise to the work, such as rigorous research or reflection. As Gray argues, sidelining the potential insights women may bring to their autobiographies can be exploitative in that it ‘thwart[s] our ability to build a collection of progressing thought’. Indeed, there are plenty of stories of mental illness where we’re asked to recount the very worst things that have happened to us so as to add the copious volumes of clickable stories that are violating: the story is salacious, and commentary is beside the point.

Given the sensitive politics of representation in memoir, I feel as though I have to sideline the effort to convey how my life felt to me in order to contextualise the past cruelties I faced from the privileged vantage point of retrospect. I’m left wondering if there’s room – ethically, but also creatively (narratives about suffering are, after all, hardly fresh) – for a first-person account that is embedded in moments as lived. I don’t have an answer but for me, for now, I suspect there isn’t. The potential intrigue or catharsis or recognition the story might bring is not worth the price.

There’s value in our stories that is greater than how we felt. There’s likewise a need to be more than a bystander to injustice, even if the injustice has passed. Even if the injustice was inflicted upon ourselves.



Erin Stewart

Erin Stewart is a writer based in Canberra. She tweets at @xerinstewart

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Brilliant. Cleared some personal things up for me with “when writing about my life, I couldn’t do anything to change what had happened, nor could I use my subsequent experiences to try to explain what was happening to my past self.” Thank you.

  2. I meet so many inexperienced writers who have no idea about ethical considerations in writing, let alone self-care and understanding the possibility of re-traumatising oneself with memoir writing. It is good to see something I feel is very important to consider when writing potentially traumatising material being talked about.

  3. Very astute points!
    I hate those misery mills. They trade in exploitation rather than in healing, sharing, or understanding – and certainly don’t add to the grasp of what it means to be human and suffer.
    I’m very glad I found your essay, and will share it with others who were not so lucky.

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