Surviving the Memoir: A Writer Reacts to Amy Chua

I’m writing this post as a kind of self-courage builder. Let’s call it survival inspiration for myself.

I haven’t yet read Amy Chua’s controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but I’ve just completed my own memoir, and as I begin to send it out into world to be read and judged by agents, publishers and eventually (I’m hopeful) readers, Amy Chua gives me pause.

I’ve been a writer all my life. When I was a teenager, writing was my lifesaver, the way I secretly kept myself sane. Although my three published full-length books are fiction, I surrendered to non-fiction in 2008, after surviving the latest in a long line of personal calamities, breast cancer (diagnosed just six weeks before my daughter’s wedding) and a surgical infection after a mastectomy that nearly killed me.  My book is (well, partly) an attempt to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” in my life, including for starters three miscarriages, serious family mental illness, and the worst of the worst, the 1994 death of my son, Michael.  

And here’s Amy Chua, who seems to be everywhere these days. I even caught her the other night on Colbert, who joked to his audience, “Get back to that Mendelssohn concerto before she drowns your bunny!” I admit I laughed, even though as a psychotherapist and mother, I do find some of what I’ve heard about her “Chinese” child rearing practice appalling and even abusive, even IF the Chinese are poised to overtake us.

As a writer, however, I find it painful to watch Chua deal with the craze of Chua-abuse sweeping the nation, even hate mail and actual threats, these being an unfortunate part of the American landscape these days. She’s been called everything from a monster to a wimp, the latter by none other than David Brooks, the conservative Times columnist, who claims, “Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.”

Some might look at the public reaction to Chua’s book as karma. The cynic or PR person might quote Barnum to the effect that ALL publicity, even really BAD publicity, is good for sales. Yet no matter how well Chua is selling, it still gets me in my writer’s heart to keep hearing her have to defend herself: “It isn’t a ‘how-to’ book, it’s a memoir. “

Many people, usually those who shout the loudest and get the most attention, simply lack the capability to understand nuance, the kind of emotional arc you find in most memoirs, such as the arc Ms. Chua points to in her own defense in eventually pulling back from her practices.

Mr. Brooks says he “hopes Ms. Chua’s daughters grow up to write their own books, and maybe learn the skills to better anticipate how theirs will be received.” Nonsense.  You never really know how people will react to a piece of writing.

In the case of my own memoir, these are some of my worries:  Some might be appalled at how candid I am. Certain relatives might call me a lying big mouth. Other people might object to my attempt to write a book that’s often funny and ALSO takes up the death of my son. Some might complain that exposing my brother’s mental illness is wrong, even though I attempt to disguise him by changing his name. Some might object to certain medical decisions we made for our son, even though one of the points of the book is to expose the arrogance of certain public officials who would presume to intervene in the horrendous PRIVATE medical decisions that people make everyday in this country, real decisions made by real people like my husband and me. (For the moment, research Terry Shiavo for further details.)

Writing is always an act of faith; the writer who doesn’t know that is doomed to suffering. The writer who thinks she’ll be congratulated for telling the truth is also doomed to suffering. I’m trying to keep in mind a great quote from David Sedaris: “Writing gives you the illusion of control, but then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff to it.”

I write, first and foremost, to make sense of the world (as Huxley says, to make order out of this disordered life), and so whatever happens with my memoir of survival stories, the project will have been worth doing.  As a writer, whatever the risks, you write because you simply have no choice. And this writer, in her faith, remains hopeful that most readers will find my book funny, moving and (God forbid) inspirational.

In an upcoming post, I’ll tell you the name of my book. My ex-PR man husband says I should hold off on that one. I always listen to my husband.

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