- American Autobiography after 9/11 by Megan Brown
U of Wisconsin P, 2017, ix + 155 pp. ISBN 978-0299310301, $64.95 hardcover.
The title of Megan Brown's book, American Autobiography after 9/11, as well as the opening image of "The Falling Man," the iconic photograph of an unknown man plummeting from one of the Twin Towers, may raise the expectation that the book will primarily be concerned with the psychological residue of that national trauma. Contrary to such expectations, Brown does not focus her study on subject matter that directly connects to the fallout of the 9/11 attacks, such as issues of national security, terrorism, Islamophobia, patriotism, revenge, or collective trauma. Instead, Brown concentrates her analysis more broadly on "issues of subjectivity—specifically, finding ways to manage subjects" that "emerged" in the "aftermath" of the terrorist attacks (4). Brown culls a broad spectrum of autobiographies for her analysis—an analysis as much cultural as it is literary—including the ethnic fraud memoirs of Nasdijj and Margaret B. Jones; the "self-care" journey of Wild; the empire-driven memoirs of Three Cups of Tea and Eat, Pray, Love; the "bromoirs" of Alternadad, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and Jarhead; and the business advice memoirs of the Lean In variety. American Autobiography after 9/11 offers a rich and compelling reading of the post-9/11 cultural moment through the subjectivities represented by this non-traditional selection of autobiographies.
Even as she situates her analysis within the cultural events surrounding 9/11, stating that "American memoirs today are very much 'of their time,' symptomizing [End Page 384] contemporary U.S. tensions about [. . .] identity in the ongoing aftermath of 9/11," Brown clarifies that her work examines the "reverberations" of the events of 9/11, not the events themselves (5). Rather than working more directly with the cultural trauma of 9/11 and its aftermath, Brown is concerned more broadly with the "anxiety" she sees as predominant in the autobiographies of this cultural moment. The concept of anxiety, an overarching theme of the book, is loosely defined in the "sense of its sociocultural manifestations—fears of what must be managed or policed, tensions about categorizing potentially unruly masses according to individual distance from cultural norms" (10). That loose definition fits well with the uses of the concept in the book, as it is fluid enough to provide an entry into such disparately focused memoirs.
Foucault's concepts of biopolitics, governance, and technologies of the self undergird Brown's analysis of how autobiographers seek to improve the self through the representation of self, and how this desire for self-improvement is rooted in contemporary American culture's drive to normalize citizens through self-discipline. Brown demonstrates how contemporary autobiographies negotiate anxieties about identity, subjectivity, authenticity, and ethnicity, and how they act as guides for the self-discipline of other selves. In addition to her cogent analysis of the texts in her study, Brown concludes the book by considering how the ethical and philosophical questions of authenticity and representation raised by autobiography play out in a classroom context. In stylish and accessible prose, Brown discusses the real-life reverberations of the questions raised by post-9/11 autobiography in the classroom and the larger culture.
Brown begins her analysis of post-9/11 autobiographies by delving into the fraudulent representation of ethnic identity in Margaret B. Jones's Love and Consequences and Nasdijj's Geronimo's Bones. Placing the fraudulent autobiographies within Leigh Gilmore's category of the neoconfessional, Brown argues that because of their redemptive arc, the stories become focused on the triumph of the individual rather than directing the reader's gaze to the systemic ills they portray. The connection between these works and themes to the overarching trajectory of the book—the interaction between the fallout of 9/11 in America and the work of autobiography—is somewhat tenuous. Relating stories of Islamophobia that spiraled into acts of violence in the wake of 9/11, Brown connects this hatred with the "reductive thinking" used to portray authenticity in hoax memoirs—thinking that assumes that...