Biography 26.3 (2003) 461-463
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Intimate Reading begins with Janet Mason Ellerby's own memoir: a poignant rendition of the secret kept by her family for thirty-five years, a history of the memory that continues to shape her life and to mark all her relationships—including those with other memoirs and memoirists. Although she will return again and again to the sorrow she feels over giving up for adoption the daughter she bore at sixteen, it is the elaborate set of lies created almost instantly by her parents to spare the family shame—and to make her real life a secret—that draws her to read and to write about the memoirs of other contemporary women who decide to share their secrets.
Ellerby links her secret to two others which serve as proof that her family engaged in thoroughgoing denial and secrecy: a suicide three generations earlier on her mother's side, and her paternal uncle's murder-suicide. But it is her own story, the story of "bearing Sorrow" (the name she has assigned her daughter, following Tess of the d'Urbervilles), that is her obsession.
After the two-chapter memoir, Ellerby turns to seventeen other memoirs by American women to demonstrate the practices of "intimate reading," which she has described, briefly, in her introduction. While she names several recent feminist critics of autobiography as significant influences—most notably, The Intimate Critique (Duke UP, 1993), edited by Diane Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, which theorizes and demonstrates a female critical practice that is relational, even conversational, and generative—Ellerby explains the genesis of intimate reading as a process she created: "my blend of autobiography and literary analysis, trying to capture the intimate interior confluence I was experiencing as writer, reader, and critic of the contemporary memoir" (xvi).
Her readings are divided into chapters according to the kinds of secret the memoirists lay bare: family secrets, dysfunction and addiction, sexuality, trauma, psychiatric illness, the secrets of others. The "blend of autobiography" is obvious. Ellerby reads her own story everywhere. Typically, she summarizes the memoir, notes a number of points at which the story resonates for her, and then turns again to her own story. It is the "capture of intimate interior confluence," I gather, that is the heart of intimate reading. As the following examples point out, though, for a third reader—neither the memoirist, nor Ellerby as memoir-reader—the experience is altogether like being witness to a conversation in which a memoirist is trying to tell a story while her interlocutor continually interrupts with "Oh, that's just like the time I . . . ." [End Page 461]
When Lessard describes herself as "marooned in family history" (236), she is also depicting my experience. Marooned in a history of family secrecy and isolated from others—even other family members—because of my pregnancy, I reentered life after Akron repudiating a critical part of myself because my most intense and demanding emotions had to be buried. Such fragmentation left me unable to effectively negotiate relationships. Famished for approval and highly vulnerable to any demonstration of kindness, I had no trustworthy foundation from which to measure other people. (58)
I love Karr's splendid anger; in my anger, I too long to reach out beyond these pages with my own emphatic testimony. I often find myself imagining. . . (65)
Like Farrow, I too turned to my first husband, Allen, looking for loving assurance and finding only a venomous possessiveness. . . . Her marriage to Sinatra, like mine to Allen, is a catastrophe. (108)
Perhaps the most blatant instance of takeover comes in her reading of Nancy Venable Raine's After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back. Ellerby devotes most of eight paragraphs to Raine's memoir as Raine's story; in another eight, Raine plays a cameo role (often only supplying a quotation that explains how Ellerby feels); but a full...