- Just Beneath My Skin: Autobiography and Self-Discovery
"Anything may happen when womanhood ceases to be a protected occupation." So says Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, her great book about the challenge and necessity of writing as a vocation for women. Reading Just Beneath My Skin, Patricia Foster's collection of linked essays that trace the author's journey from small-town Southern girl to writer who lives by her own rules and wits, one senses Foster would agree. Like Woolf, Foster takes up the subject of the struggle to free womanhood from protected status, citing her own experience of growing up hemmed in by the narrow definition of womanhood in the South. "Like many girls, I learned to defer, to apologize, to say what was expected in words that tiptoed into a conversation, barely touching their heels to the floor," Foster laments in "Goody-Goody Girls," the last of four essays in which Foster chronicles her life before she discovered the powerful tool of autobiographical writing.
Once she discovers writing, the move Foster makes, both literal and metaphorical, is from "Inside the Girls' Room" of the book's first section to "Inside the Writing Room" and, finally, "Inside My Skin." She wants to "think about autobiography as both a genre and a process, think about writing as an act of faith as well as a road to self-discovery." In doing so, she acknowledges criticisms leveled at the current glut of memoirs published—"that memoir is so much navel gazing, narcissistic indulgence." Foster, who teaches in the MFA program in nonfiction at the University of Iowa, makes [End Page 182] an eloquent argument for the necessity of memoir. The contemporary memoir takes as its subject not merely the individual experience of one person, but implicitly, Foster claims, the great estrangement and alienation we suffer in a society no longer organized around familial or communal bonds. In this way, the genre functions to "diagnose the culture's ills" by giving a shape to the inchoate sense of our loss of community in the twenty-first century.
I am in many ways convinced by Foster's impassioned defense of the memoir form. It rings true to my own rich experience of reading Bernard Cooper's Truth Serum, a reflection about gender identity through the eyes of a man who grew up gay and Jewish in California; or Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, an account of his poverty-stricken childhood in Limerick that's as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. But Foster's recollections, which take up more of the book than her meditations on memoir as a genre, don't illuminate her own life the way her insights about memoir illuminate the merits of the genre. There's an air of grievance that taints nearly every recollection in this book with the language of victimization. "I don't think of fury as toxic. Instead, it's a resource, a wake-up call," Foster asserts, in one of many sentences that borrow from the rhetoric of that other oversubscribed nonfiction genre, self-help.
Foster refers to the current preference in academia for nonfiction characterized by fragmentation and obscurity and sets this aesthetic in opposition to her own, the personal story told by an "I" narrator with clarity and insight. Yet outside of a few classrooms on the plains of Iowa (or 'neath the kudzu in Alabama, where I admit to teaching the occasional experimental piece of creative nonfiction in a graduate writing course), the kind of memoir Foster champions is alive and well. It's not the stylishly obscure nonfiction piece that threatens the health of the memoir form, but the indulgence of the "Adventures in Self-Diagnosis" impulse that drives enterprises like Dave Pelzer's wildly successful Boy Called It series, in which he catalogues a litany of abuses that were allegedly the substance of his childhood. Foster doesn't indulge in anywhere near the therapeutic excess that characterizes Pelzer's work, but there is a disturbing dependence in Just Beneath My...