Book Review

Bearing the burden of soiled family linen

CorrespondentJune 3, 2007 

There is a time, as Robert Goolrick writes near the end of his memoir, "The End of the World as We Know It," when our families, especially our parents, literally mean the world to us. "Sometimes, that time lasts as long as we live. It is eternal as breath. It is changeless and deathless." Mature adults weep disconsolate tears at the loss of a senile parent after a long life; no matter how diminished the life is, that death means a lost world. But sometimes that love that means the world ends early, irrecoverably stolen, as in Goolrick's life. If that love were simply replaced by sadness, we might grow accustomed to its disappearance; but when it is replaced by shame and longing and blame, we are face to face with the latent pathologies of everyday life.

My students are reading memoirs of early life with me as I write these words. Each one reveals in its own way the face of a vigilant, aware child, eyes turned back in adulthood to trace the course of formative love and experience, in that early time before we are mindful of its patterns. We are sharing the uncommonly fine narratives of Mary Karr, Lucy Grealy, Haven Kimmel, Barack Obama and others. We want to know what life stories do for us, how they expand our knowledge, how we incorporate such stories into our experiences as human beings. What do we want from the storyteller?

What makes a memoir memorable, momentous, enormous in our own reading lives is that we come to trust the writer as an authentic witness, nearly a sibling, yet we need him also as an artist, an advocate of his own story, so we can believe in its truth as it is told. While autobiography tells us about growing up, memoir tells us about growing through, the voice frequently whispering to us through pain, shame and loss. In rare cases, we get an insight for ourselves, using the life we know best as our lens.

We could not ask for more from Robert Goolrick. Through his eyes it is clear that, at least in those early years when we are new, our lives are something done to us, something forced upon us. If necessary, we live through the damage and learn to forgive. It would be too much, I think, for Goolrick to forgive his monster parents, whose like do not appear outside of sadistic horror films. We believe the story he tells, but the work is not fiction: every stale glass, every overflowing ashtray, seems to hold a fresh truth. His parents are cruel, abusive, disappointed, drowning alcoholics, craven liars to the core, fabulists about themselves and their own gentility. When they ceased to give a benign world to Robert, in the halcyon countryside of mid-1950s Virginia, where his father taught history at a military college, they gave him its opposite, an eviscerating alternate childhood, constructed by artists in the infliction of neglect and humiliation. With narrow knives in their slim, capable hands, Goolrick is opened to bleed on the page.

As an adult, he bleeds, literally. He cuts himself. He drinks, deeply. He lives in a haze. He engages in simultaneous affairs, with men, with women. He tends to his family members, who hate him in return. But he is also brilliant and gifted, as a child and a man; he is clearly a writer who rushes into our lives the moment we open page one. The early chapters seem to be almost light, a knockabout look back at Southern boyhood -- lived in a dark tunnel of pretense. By the end of the book, all veils are removed, the dark tunnel is illuminated, and the stark, pale, naked crimes of Goolrick's weak, fading parents are laid out on a genteel dining table for us to see. For the thousand violations of his person and identity, this book is a small remediation.

For Goolrick's graceless family, this is soiled linen. For us, it is brilliant writing, repainting and making fresh the facades we have seen before in Southern households: elegantly vicious lies, cruel words, even crueler silences. Goolrick is our contemporary, however; he is no fictitious rebel or runaway bad boy. He lives broken beyond childhood, to endure the heritage of alcoholism, mental illness, familial terrorism, parental incompetence, loveless need and boundless disappointment. It is not an easy book in any way, but it is a form of reckoning for every thoughtful reader, as it is a self-rescue for Goolrick.

Often at the end of a memoir, as in this book, we have a conundrum, and something like a burden. We may find solace in the writing, and in the author's survival. But, bearing the mysteries of another's experience, we grow more deeply complicit in unraveling our own.

"We become, finally" Goolrick writes, "the biggest burden we have to bear, the burden of our own known selves." Shame and longing, once we admit them to our lives, do not easily leave; they are so unspeakable, so subtle, and so futile to expiate. They last. They are ours. They intensify as we utter them, and return to us stronger in our solitudes. Shame is the worse of the two, because it has neither object nor remedy; longing at least allows us an idyll or pipe dream for solace. To read "The End of the World as We Know It," a brief yet powerful record of long familial dysfunction, makes us hope for solace in Goolrick's life, although that is to hope as he has lived, against the odds.

(David Carr teaches librarianship at UNC-Chapel Hill.)

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service