• One of the many sins for which the baby boomers must someday answer is the extent to which their chronic self-absorption has devalued the memoir as a literary genre. Fortunately, it is still possible to write a good book about an unhappy childhood, and Alyse Myers has done just that with Who Do You Think You Are? (Touchstone, 250 pp., $24).
Part of what is so paradoxically interesting about Myers’ book is that it contains none of the can-you-top-this horror stories (many of which later prove to be fictionalized) that are the stock-in-trade of so many contemporary memoirists. Nor does she write of her youthful sorrows with the chop-licking lasciviousness that is no less endemic to the genre. Her story is simple and straightforward, and she tells it with the laconic, unadorned directness of a hurt child. Born into a working-class family of Jews from Queens who failed to make the economic grade, Myers knew the quotidian heartbreak of being raised by a hard-hearted, seemingly loveless mother and a disillusioned father who had withdrawn his affections from his spouse to seek romantic consolation elsewhere. He died of cancer when Myers was eleven, leaving her in the hands of a now-single parent whose coldness was as puzzling as it was painful.
It is, in short, the old, old story, only ennobled by Myers’ transparent style and given further value by the fact that Who Do You Think You Are? is as much a tale of upward mobility as it is a chronicle of disorder and early sorrow. Such tales are growing less and less common in literary America–most of our writers, it seems, now come from comfortable backgrounds and board the new-class escalator in elementary school–which makes it all the more profitable to read about the way things used to be not so very long ago:
I counted the days until my eighteenth birthday, when I would legally be able to move out and rent my own apartment. And the more I traveled away from her, from her apartment, from her life and into Manhattan-to go to high school, to go to museums, to explore the streets and neighborhoods-the more confident I became and the more I felt I deserved everything my mother thought was out of her league.
That last phrase, it seems to me, is the key to understanding Myers’ mother: she had gone as far as she thought she could go, landing a dull job as a switchboard operator at a girdle factory, and her daughter’s modest ambitions filled her with a volatile mixture of fear and resentment. Not until her daughter had a daughter did Myers mère find it possible to express a kind of love for her own child, and not until she died did Alyse Myers make a discovery that helped her to understand the source of her mother’s angry disappointment. Again, there is nothing especially unusual about all this–Tolstoy was wrong about the alleged variety in the lives of unhappy families–but the art of a memoir is in the telling, not what is told, and the unselfconscious simplicity with which Myers tells her tale conceals no small amount of artfulness.
• By a fortunate coincidence, I read Who Do You Think You Are? immediately after finishing Jeanne Safer’s Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life-For The Better (Basic Books, 227 pp., $25). The author is a New York-based psychotherapist who already has three exceedingly readable books under her belt, and this one, like its predecessors, is both sensible and thought-provoking. Don’t be thrown by the honest but macabre-sounding subtitle: Dr. Safer has brought off the hard task of casting a cold eye on the feelings of relief that so often follow upon losing a parent in one’s own adulthood, acknowledging that “the death of a parent-any parent-can set us free” and offering practical suggestions for acting on that insight. I don’t usually go in for self-help books, but Death Benefits is an exception.