Power of Memoir in Spotlight at ASJA 2014

Randy Dotinga

Emma Brockes’ mother stood up against family abuse as a child in South Africa. Michael Hainey’s father died mysteriously, and a code of silence obscured the truth for decades. A hitman robbed David Berg’s brother of his life, leaving a legacy of guilt, fury and regret.

These tales are littered with secrets, shame and guilt. But as a rapt crowd learned last spring, heartbreak gave way to insight and even redemption in the hands of these three gifted storytellers.

“Nobody gets through this life without tragedy,” Berg told dozens of journalists at the 2014 ASJA National Writers Conference. “The question is: Does the tragedy define you? Or do you define the tragedy and get through it and wring all the self-pity out of it?”

Here are some excerpts from the panel discussion.

Attorney David Berg’s brother was murdered by a hit man in the 1960s. He found a way to deal with his pain by writing “Run, Brother, Run: A Memoir of a Murder in My Family .”

Berg: I went 40 years without talking about my brother’s murder or talking about my brother.

I loathe self pity and think that’s at the heart of too many memoirs. What I tried to wring from this book was any semblance of self pity. One of the reasons I didn’t write the book for so long was that I didn’t want to invoke “I’m sorry.”

This book did more for me than all the therapy I ever had. When I was done, I left almost all of that on the page. When you write memoir, it strips away all the years, all the layers of denial, layers of shame, and leaves you very vulnerable, and in touch with your feelings.

Michael Hainey, a journalist at GQ Magazine, never knew why his father died suddenly in 1970. His dogged investigation reveals the truth in “After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story.

Hainey: I was five years into it. I’d written a draft, and I took it to a friend. Three weeks later, I sat down with him, and he said, “I have to tell you something: I don’t see any of you in this book. You came back from all these reporting trips, you told me these amazing stories, but there’s nothing of you.”

This light went off over my head. I was telling my father’s story, and he was in the foreground, but I was in the background. It was both our stories.

Journalist Emma Brockes knew her late mother had endured intense horrors as a child in South Africa. But she didn’t know the full story until she did the research that produced “She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me.”

Brockes: I’d resisted writing and talking about it for a very long time. The events that constitute the material of my book were never spoken in my family. I had that taboo to deal with and sheepishness about writing this kind of memoir.

I’m a big fan of denial, and I think it gets a bad rap. If I could have been able to get away without doing this, I would have. But there were two problems. First, if you know you’re in denial, you’re not in denial. You’re faking it. And secondly, when a parent dies, irrespective of how racy their background has been, your relationship with their history changes. You need to decide whether to take it on or let it vanish into oblivion.