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Family Trouble

Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

Joy Castro

Publication Year: 2013

Whenever a memoirist gives a reading, someone in the audience is sure to ask: How did your family react? Revisiting our pasts and exploring our experiences, we often reveal more of our nearest and dearest than they might prefer. This volume navigates the emotional and literary minefields that any writer of family stories or secrets must travel when depicting private lives for public consumption.

Essays by twenty-five memoirists, including Faith Adiele, Alison Bechdel, Jill Christman, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Rigoberto González, Robin Hemley, Dinty W. Moore, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Mimi Schwartz, explore the fraught territory of family history told from one perspective, which, from another angle in the family drama, might appear quite different indeed. In her introduction to this book, Joy Castro, herself a memoirist, explores the ethical dilemmas of writing about family and offers practical strategies for this tricky but necessary subject.

A sustained and eminently readable lesson in the craft of memoir, Family Trouble serves as a practical guide for writers to find their own version of the truth while still respecting family boundaries.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5


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pp. v-viii

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Introduction: Mapping Hope

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pp. 1-14

Writers of all genres wrestle with the challenges, obligations, and consequences of including autobiographical material in their work. Which material is legitimately theirs to include, and whose stories should be discreetly omitted? How do their friends and families react when the work appears in print, on stage, or on screen? ...

Part 1 · Drawing Lines

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Chewing Band-Aids

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pp. 17-28

Every time I give a public reading from my memoir Darkroom: A Family Exposure, someone wants to know: “In your book, you reveal a lot of really personal information. How did your family react?” Look at my subtitle. If anyone has brought this question upon herself, it’s me. ...

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Sally Could Delete Whatever She Wanted

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pp. 29-32

When I was writing a book about the way my job as an emergency room doctor almost wrecked my family, my wife and I had the following agreement: I could write whatever I wanted, and she could delete whatever she wanted. No apology, no explanation. ...

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Case by Case: When it Comes to Family You Still Have to Talk to

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pp. 33-37

When the acquisitions editor called to say, “I love the manuscript, but I love your husband even more!” I thought, Really? The times that I called Stu a moron, or implied it, in 230 pages of my marriage memoir didn’t faze her. I was glad. ...

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At Its Center

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pp. 38-40

When I’m writing about anyone I know, be it a family member, a friend, or the landscaper down the street, it’s pretty much a given that I’m taking a few traits and putting borders around them, with the assumption that we all know that no story can fully capture human character in all of its range, ...

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The Day I Cried at Starbucks

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pp. 41-49

It could’ve been blissful, my four-month visit to Miami Beach in 2009 to escape the dreariness of a Michigan winter. I was on my own. David was teaching in Michigan and Gabriel had already graduated from nyu and was living in Brooklyn. I’d rented an apartment in a historic Art Deco building a block from the ocean. ...

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Memory Lessons

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pp. 50-57

Like any memoirist who writes so revealingly about family, I’m inevitably asked what my family thinks about my work, which is a diplomatic way of asking how my family feels about my showing the world the intimate portraits of our household. ...

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The Part I Can’t Tell You

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pp. 58-68

I’ve written a book-length memoir, dozens of short stories from real life, and several collections of autobiographical essays, so my students figure I’ll be able to answer their simple questions. And I do have a couple of answers. But I have more questions, too. ...

Part 2 · The Right to Speak

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What the Little Old Ladies Feel: How I Told My Mother about My Memoir

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pp. 71-72

I knew I would have to tell my mother that I was writing a memoir about my father. But I didn’t do it until I’d been working on the book Fun Home for a year. I wanted to make sure I had enough of a purchase on the material so that no matter what kind of reaction she had, I wouldn’t lose my grasp. ...

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Truths We Could Live With

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pp. 73-77

Although my mother, Elaine Gottlieb, was a writer and wrote occasionally about me, she never wanted me to write about her. Until she told me so, I never imagined the possibility that she would forbid me. She was a short story writer and sometime novelist who, in her youth, ...

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Writing the Black Family Home

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pp. 78-87

As a memoirist, I am called to track down, research, and write about family members. As an African, I am wired to define family in the broadest, ever-widening sense—nuclear, extended, ancestral, clan, village, region, tribe/ethnicity, nation, continent, race, gender. ...

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The Deeper End of the Quarry: Fiction, Nonfiction, and the Family Dilemma

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pp. 88-94

The first time that I wrote honestly about family secrets was in a short story documenting my mother’s weakness around alcohol, including a particular time when she had fallen spectacularly off the wagon. My mom was in her late sixties at the time that she had this episode, and I wrote the story about six months later. ...

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Mama’s Voices

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pp. 95-113

When my daughter Maia was twenty-one months old, I left her for ten days to attend a writers’ conference in Vermont. Maia stayed at home with my husband, who took some time off work. From the moment of her adoption at the age of ten months, Mark had been a full partner in caring for her. ...

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Living in Someone Else’s Closet

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pp. 114-122

The first piece I ever wrote about family was a poem about my birth-mother, a year after I’d searched for and found her. I was a senior in college and I was infatuated with this beautiful, charming woman who had given birth to me twenty-one years before, and then given me up for adoption. ...

Part 3 · Filling the Silence

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The True Story

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pp. 125-130

Why not write a novel? My father asked me that the day I told him I intended to write a memoir about the surrender of my child to adoption in Kentucky in 1973. We were standing in the kitchen in his house in Frankfort, and I remember most how he went on cutting bacon and red peppers and onion into careful little piles. ...

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I Might Be Famous

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pp. 131-136

I had just finished a memoir, Reasonable People, about adopting a boy with autism from foster care, a boy said to be profoundly retarded. The book traced his remarkable journey from an abused three-year-old to a straight-A, honor-roll student at our local middle school, ...

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A Spell against Sorrow: Writing My Father In

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pp. 137-145

A few months after my father was born, while his mother was still recovering from a difficult delivery with only her other young children for company, on a day when her husband was out “de fiesta” with his drinking compañeros, a flash flood inundated the house. ...

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Things We Don’t Talk About

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pp. 146-159

There’s an essay on my desk. I wrote it a year ago and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since. I used to open my computer, read the essay again, and make revisions. Recently, however, I’ve declared a unilateral revision freeze. The problem isn’t that the essay is poorly structured or badly written. ...

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You Can’t Burn Everything

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pp. 160-168

Near the end of the spring semester, just before finals, I turned in a large ream of manuscript, handwritten, titled “The Diary of a Mad Housewife’s Daughter” for extra credit to Mrs. Minor, our sixth-grade English teacher. She’d been so decent to me, never treating me as if I were different from anyone else in the room, ...

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Done with Grief: The Memoirist’s Illusion

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pp. 169-174

My grandmother, Frieda Hambleton, died in 1983 in her house on Grant Street in Wichita Falls, Texas. A year later it burned to the ground. The house had been sold, but no one was living in it at the time. When my aunt called to tell me about the fire, I said, Oh good. She said, I feel the same way. ...

Part 4 · Conversations of Hope

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The Seed Book

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pp. 177-181

I have been instructing my students to do this for nearly a decade now, yet I have never actually done so myself. For starters, if my parents actually were dead, I wouldn’t be writing at all. I would be strapped to a gurney in a psychiatric unit, mumbling at the ceiling. ...

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Calling Back

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pp. 182-188

My daughter, Marie, is gifted, impulsive, and scary. As she lurches toward thirty, her teenage years are still too traumatic for me to recall without doubling over, reaching for a chair. Once during this time, when she had the habit of climbing out her bedroom window to roam dark and empty streets, ...

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Like Rain on Dust

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pp. 189-196

I’m back in Pennsylvania at my father’s kitchen table where the opening scene of my memoir, Half the House, takes place. My publisher’s lawyers want signed releases from the people portrayed in the book. ...

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The Bad Asian Daughter

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pp. 197-200

In the community of Vietnamese Americans in Michigan, where I grew up in the 1980s, good Asian daughters become dentists or pharmacists. Engineers or lawyers are also acceptable. The bad daughters— well, they’re the ones who run off with older boys, dye their hair brassy, barely pass high school, ...

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Your Mother Should Know

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pp. 201-207

Now, just so you know, I’ve already revealed, through my writing, that my father sexually molested me, that my mother didn’t protect me, that my sister, to protect herself, abandoned our family as much as possible. In addition to childhood secrets, I’ve revealed adult secrets as well: ...

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Writing about Family

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pp. 208-214

More than kittens, candy, or dolls, it was true: I loved houses. I memorized the parts, the possibilities: fascia, clerestory, breezeway, ogee. My mother always thought I would be an architect; for her, my nonverbal learning disability was not a factor. But I didn’t want to build houses. I wanted to live in one. A good one. ...


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pp. 215-216

Source Acknowledgments

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pp. 217-218


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pp. 219-224

E-ISBN-13: 9780803248717
E-ISBN-10: 0803248717
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803246928

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Autobiography -- Authorship -- Anecdotes.
  • Biographers -- United States -- Anecdotes.
  • Family secrets -- Anecdotes.
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