I’ve recently read three strong memoirs written by three unique and passionate women. Two are touted on most best-selling book lists for 2018, one published in January 2019, and all three clearly demonstrate how contemporary American women have truly thrust themselves out of the shadow of men into their own well-deserved and hard-earned limelight.
The first memoir is Becoming by Michelle Obama, and it is no surprise regarding the book’s popularity. Michelle Obama is a famous person, married to the 44th President of the United States; she has led an extraordinary life. Her memoir traces her life from its humble beginnings on the South Side of Chicago, growing up as Michelle LeVaughn Robinson, from her early childhood through her undergraduate years at Princeton University, from earning her law degree at Harvard Law School through her early professional years in the legal and non-profit sectors, from her fortuitous meeting of Barry Obama through her extraordinary life as first Lady of the United States. It is the story of her steady rise to accomplishment through hard work and dedication, along with the lucky or fateful roll of the dice that introduced her to her soul mate and future husband, Barack Hussein Obama.
The second memoir is Educated by Tara Westover, a formerly poor, uneducated Mormon girl from rural Idaho brought up in the towering and domineering shadow of her extremist, bipolar, survivalist, Mormon father. Raised literally in the scrap heap of her father’s salvage yard at the foot of the isolated high Sierras, Tara never attended school until she was 17 years old, grew up scrapping iron and preparing natural herbal remedies for her midwife mother’s home business, and never went to a doctor until well into her twenties. Her hard-headed, Mormon-indoctrinated father forced the entire family to stockpile fuel, water, ammunition, and canned peaches for the ominous and imminent Christian “end of Days.” The book is not completely unlike Ms. Obama’s, as it is the story about a young woman of impoverished means overcoming her predictable “destiny” with study, mentorship, and hard work. The trade-off of her family for an “education” reads like a ready-made-for-Hollywood movie, as unlikely as it may seem. Tara Westover now has a doctorate in history from Great Britain’s Cambridge University.
The third memoir is Maid, a simply-titled but powerful book by Stephanie Land, who also has overcome an intensely-impoverished life in the American Northwest to eventually fulfill her life-long dream of becoming a writer. At 28, however, those plans were cut short when a summer fling turned into an unexpected pregnancy, and Stephanie’s life took a hardscrabble turn into poverty. The father of the child was wildly abusive, and Stephanie has to leave him to bring up the young girl on her own, working to make ends meet as, you guessed it, a maid. She is forced to count every dollar she earns from her back-breaking work, and she lives on food stamps and government housing, suffering the judgment of not only her employers and friends, but also that of her neighbors in the local super market and the government employees there to “help her.” Maid explores the underbelly of the working poor in contemporary America, unflinchingly describing both the haves and the have nots, and Ms. Land’s honestly-raw and compassionate re-writing of the American Dream from below the poverty line becomes a testament to the strength and determination of the human spirit.
These days, “memoir” has become the new “autobiography.” Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I read plenty of biographies, but very few autobiographies. Perhaps it seemed too self-serving and egotistical to tell your own story in the buttoned-down 50s. But times have changed and now there is a plethora of memoirs, from that of the former drug addict, James Frey, disgraced on Oprah’s national show for his lack of veracity—to these three remarkable ones, just tipping of the iceberg of what’s available online, the new bookstore of the 21st century. In my fields, theater and literature, storytelling has existed from the beginning of recorded time, captivating audiences with comedy and tragedy, laughter and catharsis—from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, from Dante to Philip Roth. And just like autobiography and memoir, “solo performance” is terrifically popular in contemporary theater, allowing both affordability of production (only one person, duh!) and audience satisfaction, featuring the entertaining and poignant stories of monologists like Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo, Julia Sweeney (from Saturday Night Live) and many more.
I even think it’s time for me to write my own memoir. I mean I’m 71 years young. I’ve had an interesting life. I ran for Mayor of New York as a clown. I ran away from home to become a modern dancer at twenty-two. I got married for the first time at age 54 to an Indonesian woman 31 years my junior who didn’t speak a word of English. We adopted our 8-year-old Indonesian nephew and I became a father for the first time at age 68. And more! Lots more! But—my wife dampens my enthusiasm for the no-doubt, tedious long haul in front of me when she bluntly asks me, “Who’s gonna read it? You’re not famous!” Perhaps she has a point. I demure, but then again, look at two out of three of these memoirists!
So—back again to the three books I’ve described above. On a literary front, I think there is no comparison between the first two books. The first, Becoming, is mundanely written by a journeywoman writer; the second, Educated, is a beautifully-written book by a young woman who almost alchemically transforms herself before the reader’s eyes from the “scrap heap” of Morman fundamentalism into a courageously-educated Harvard and Cambridge scholar. Whereas I find Mrs. Obama’s story admirable and worthy, I find Ms. Westover’s totally unique and inspiring, in both its precise use of language and its vulnerability of storytelling..
Of course, not every woman gets to marry the future President of the United States; but very few, if any, are able to escape and overcome the forced and limited belief system of such an extremely closed and stubborn-minded family. It is simply remarkable to see Ms. Westover withstand the assault and abuse of her father and brother to discover and invent a new life for herself beyond the ties of family dogma and provincialism.
For me, Maid lies somewhere in between the two. Stephanie Land’s life is certainly not one of privilege. She doesn’t end up married to the President of the United States nor a Harvard fellow or Cambridge PhD. Yet precisely because of that, she has me (the reader) rooting for her. She is the proverbial underdog. Nothing comes easy for her. She has to fight for every victory she earns, no matter how small, no matter how indifferent the world is to her struggle. Rooting for her is like rooting for Rocky. Down on his luck, screaming for his wife, Adrian, who doesn’t want Rocky to at least stay on his feet against Apollo Creed? Similarly, we root for Land who seems like an authentic blue-collar hero.
If I had to choose, I guess I would say that Educated is the best literary book and as such, I hope it wins every memoir prize it is nominated for this year.
Yet I would highly recommend the other two as well. Each book is a joy to read; each writer a marvel to follow. Each earns her path to “success” with strength, hard work, perseverance, and grace, and I congratulate all three memoirists for making it even more evident that this is truly “the year of the woman”.
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