I’m an unrepentant memoir junkie. For some reason, I have always favored true personal stories over fiction, and this year I finally completed a proposal for one of my own.
I say finally because it has taken years — decades, actually. I’m terrified of the repercussions of exposing myself, my friends, and my family members who might prefer to stay off the page. I’ve spent many hours talking with memoirists about this, asking them how they found the courage to reveal so much, and what their personal philosophies are regarding other people’s privacy.
The writer of a memoir must necessarily reveal a great deal about herself or himself, and often about other people, too. You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it. “People either claim it or they sue you,” the head of press at my publisher told me in the weeks before my memoir was published. I knew who might sue or come after me—members of the regime that had killed my father. I comforted myself with the belief that they had for the most part been exiled or discredited, or had gone underground. The only person I allowed to read the unpublished manuscript was my stepmother, because I was concerned about her safety even more than my own. She still lived in the country, and the violence can ricochet for months after a civil war.
In the final draft, I changed one name only—of the man who had betrayed my father for the promise of money, agreeing to give false testimony at his treason trial on behalf of the regime. He admitted this to me during our interview. I despised him and I knew other readers of the book would despise him, too. He had a pitch selling Lotto tickets in Freetown, a small city. Anyone could find him just by asking around, as I had done. Already, one or two one or two suspected former rebel soldiers had been lynched in the city.
For this reason, I changed his name, and privately decided that I would change any other names that my stepmother wanted me to. But without saying this, I let her read the book. When she gave it back to me, she made no comment. On the final page, I found a checkmark and the words “Well done, darling!” Later, she elaborated: if we were going to do it, we would go all the way.
When I moved to Laos in 1998, there was almost no violent crime. The landlocked country had five million people, 57 languages, and 90 million unexploded bombs in the ground. In the 10th-poorest nation in the world, Lao people focused on food, festivals, and family. Buddhism thrived. In my house in Vientiane, the salty scent of the Mekong River drifted through my screens. I was 25, and my first six months there, I rarely thought of the killings that had launched me overseas.
I lived between a temple and a beer shop, the two great traditions of solace: the monks and the drunks. My excessive sleep, a portable artifact of PTSD, blended well in Laos. All around the partially paved capital, people napped in hammocks strung on half-built buildings, on tables of stacked silk at the market, and in tuk-tuks parked in the shade of banyans. My Lao colleagues at our United Nations outpost snoozed right at their desks. I did, too.
So the morning my boss, Patrick, sauntered into my office, he found me cheek to notebook. The monsoon clattered beyond the window. I’d passed out pondering the prospect of turning 26 in two weeks’ time. Birthdays, like rain, stirred up the muck. I was alive. Others were not. Read more…
Eileen Myles attends the annual Edinburgh International Book Festival at Charlotte Square Gardens on August 23, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)
At Rolling Stone, Helena Fitzgerald profiles punk poet and 1992 write-in Presidential candidate Eileen Myles. Myles’s new memoir, Afterglow, was released this week, and their first autobiographical novel, Cool for You, was recently re-released and included an introduction by I Love Dick author Chris Kraus.
Myles (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) has been publishing since the 70s, but has lately experienced a new wave of popularity, gathering new young fans in part because of their Twitter presence and also the character inspired by them on Transparent.
Among other things, Myles talks with Fitzgerald about the importance right now of poetry and art as forms of resistance under the current U.S. presidential administration. Interestingly, though, Myles points out that what’s been happening really isn’t all that new.
In this current moment, the feeling that we’re facing an avalanche, that we might be destroyed, is hard to ignore. When prompted to speak about art in the current political moment, Myles says: “You know, there is nothing new about what’s happening now.” Myles goes on to call Trump’s assembled henchmen “a cabinet of cockblockers: an educational secretary who’s against education, an attorney general who’s a Klansman.” But they also stress that there’s precedent throughout our history for all of these, that none of these people came out of nowhere. As much of Myles’ work — such as the seminal “An American Poem” — has grappled with in the past, this is the America in which we have always lived. The James Comey testimony took place a few days before our meeting, and Myles was passionately skeptical of the liberal praise that has been showered on the former director of the FBI. “They’re like, ‘Oh, Comey’s the good guy!’ Are you kidding me? He’s talking about a Shining City on the Hill; he’s talking about the horror, and the outrage, of people interfering with our election — like that isn’t what we do in the Middle East and in South America. I’ve never been so driven to make the argument about the nature of our history.”
A few months back, I was invited to take part in a program for ABC television called “You Can’t Ask That.” The premise of the show is that there are taboo subjects about which it is difficult to have an open and honest conversation, death being one of them. The producer of the program explained that I would be required to answer a number of questions on camera. She said questions had been sent in from all over the country, and the ten most common had been selected. I wasn’t to know what these were until the day I went into the studio for the filming.
It turned out that the producer of the program herself had a need to talk about death, as she had recently lost her father to cancer, and was struggling to cope. This is so often the case with people I talk to about my situation: they listen for a while, then they tell me their own death story, but always with a vague sense that it is shameful, that the whole sorry business is somehow their fault. In taking part in “You Can’t Ask That,” I wanted to do my bit to change things around, to win back some dignity for the dying, because I don’t think silence serves the interests of any of us.
The questions, as it turned out, were unsurprising. Did I have a bucket list, had I considered suicide, had I become religious, was I scared, was there anything good about dying, did I have any regrets, did I believe in an afterlife, had I changed my priorities in life, was I unhappy or depressed, was I likely to take more risks given that I was dying anyway, what would I miss the most, how would I like to be remembered? These were the same questions I’d been asking myself ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, back in 2005. And my answers haven’t changed since then. They are as follows.
Murnick recalls learning in 2001 that her childhood best friend, Ashley Ellerin — an ex-girlfriend of Ashton Kutcher’s — had been stabbed to death at 22 in L.A. Ellerin had visited Murnick at college in New York just eight months before. During that visit, Murnick got a peek into the fast life Ellerin had been hiding from her parents and others who’d been close to her growing up.
On our walk from the subway across 110th Street toward my apartment, she told me that her part-time job at Sephora was just something she held on to so her parents would stay off her back. Actually, she was spending more of her time — and making a lot more money — at a strip club, working bachelor parties and pole dancing for tips; occasionally there were arrangements that happened in hotels, too. She relayed the information with the same casual remove she had used to give the waiter her order at lunch: The chopped chicken salad, no onions, honey-mustard dressing on the side.
You had to have a manicure and pedicure every week, she was saying, which was kind of a drag, but even a tiny chip in your nail polish could ruin the fantasy. She usually did light colors or French; once she had put baby blue on her toes and it hadn’t gone over well. Tanning too — religiously. Men expected you to be a certain way, and attempting to work around that was more trouble than it was worth.
I tried to appear blasé, to take it in stride, but what I really felt was utter confusion. Was I angry at her? Was she telling me this to brag? Should I be wearing my concerned hat now, or would that be unfairly judgmental? I hadn’t yet seen any comparable life developments in a friend and didn’t know what it all meant, for either of us or the two of us. Maybe this was good, cool, right — To each her own? You go, girl? — and I was the one with a problem, a prude. Did everything make sense now, or did it all make even less sense than before?
We rounded the corner onto Amsterdam Avenue. Ashley’s confessions were picking up speed — actors, crystal meth, the lease to her car being paid for by some guy in his 50s, how much she charged for an hour. She talked of martinis and pills and being on top during sex; the guys always told you they wanted you to go as slow as possible, but she still found ways to get through it quickly. It was almost as if she needed to get everything out before we entered my apartment, an unmasking in public so we could be on the same page in private.
Below is an excerpt from the first four chapters of The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s gripping hybrid memoir of a murder case and family secrets. Blending crime reportage with first-person narrative of her own struggles, the braided story wrestles with trauma, violence, and the ways we try to understand the past, especially when those we trust betray us. Our thanks to Marzano-Lesnevich and Flatiron for sharing it with the Longreads community.
Note: This work is not authorized or approved by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center or its clients, and the views expressed by the author do not reflect the views or positions of anyone other than the author. The author’s description of any legal proceedings, including her description of the positions of the parties and the circumstances and events of the crimes charged, are drawn solely from the court record, other publicly available information, and her own research.
The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same dead-end street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it. Settlers from Iowa named the town after their home state but, wanting a fresh start, pronounced the name Io-way, even as they kept the spelling. The town has always been a place people come for new starts, always been a place they can’t quite leave the past behind. There, the boy and his mother stay with whoever can pay the electricity bill one month, whoever can keep the gas on the next. Wherever the boy lands, he takes his BB gun with him. It is his most prized possession.
Now it is the first week in February. The leaves are green and lush on the trees, but the temperature dips at night. Lorilei, Jeremy’s mother, isn’t working. She rented a home just for the two of them—their first—but the electricity’s been turned off. Her brother Richard lives in a sprawling house up on the hill, but she isn’t staying with Richard. Instead, Lorilei and Jeremy are staying with Lorilei’s friend Melissa, Melissa’s boyfriend, Michael, and their baby. The baby is two years old, old enough that he wants to play with the boy and screams when he doesn’t get his way.
In the familiar eschatology of addiction memoirs—David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun,” say, or Bill Clegg’s “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man”—an ambitious protagonist is bested by the wearying force of substances, only to later conquer his dependency and return, relatively unscathed, to the more wholesome business of achievement and success. But both “You’ll Never Eat Lunch” and “How to Murder Your Life” are remarkably honest in foregrounding the invidious parallelism of their subjects’ multifarious drives. It turns out that, for some addicts, drug use doesn’t just subvert ambition—it also mimics it. For Phillips, the deal-making stops, but the same desires that fuelled her career trajectory continue to animate her addiction. “Smoking freebase has pretty much been my job for the past year,” she writes of a particularly extreme period. And even after she quits cocaine, she begins exercising compulsively so as not to become a “fat tub of goo.” “Had she figured out a new and exciting addiction?” she wonders after injuring herself working out, describing the pain in a swollen ankle as “little jolts all along the way . . . painumb, painumb, painumb,” beating rhythmically like so many ticks on a never-ending workday clock.
We are in an uncomfortably small conference room. It is a cool June day, and though I am sitting stock-still on a corporate chair in heavy air-conditioning, I am sweating heavily through my dress. This is what I do in job interviews.
A month earlier, I had applied for a position at Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary company. The posting was for an editorial assistant, a bottom-of-the-barrel position, but I lit up like a penny arcade when I saw that the primary duty would be to write and edit English dictionaries. I cobbled together a résumé; I was invited to interview. I found the best interview outfit I could and applied extra antiperspirant (to no avail).
Steve Perrault, the man who sat opposite me, was (and still is) the director of defining at Merriam-Webster and the person I hoped would be my boss. He was very tall and very quiet, a sloucher like me, and seemed almost as shyly awkward as I was, even while he gave me a tour of the modest, nearly silent editorial floor. Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly.
“So tell me,” he ventured, “why you are interested in lexicography.”
I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer. Read more…
“…during our call, we agree that life is bad. It’s clear from her own case that money can’t buy happiness—it can only buy the stints in psychiatry units, or therapy sessions, or however you take your self-care. Wanting to die while living among the rich and being one them, perhaps, makes the emptiness of our current setup and its values all the more pronounced.
“There’s a lot that’s terrible about life. I think some people have a guard up against it. They overlook it,” she says. “I think that people who suffer from depression are sort of finely tuned to it. I write somewhere in my book that depression is the loss of necessary illusions. You need a certain amount of illusion to live.” She adds, “Depression can be very humanizing. I’ve thought to myself, If [Donald] Trump suffered from some type of depression, he’d be a different person.”
However, until we change the world, which might be more possible now than ever, we need to take care of ourselves and continue living. Merkin recognizes that life is all she has: “I think [suicide] affords a kind of—this is putting it strangely—a paradoxical relief to a very depressed person, to think there’s one way out of it,” she tells me over the phone. “I would somehow think if I commit suicide then I’ll be happy, but where am I going to be happy?”