In a surprising email exchange the other day with the Tin House Lost & Found editor, I pitched an essay about the the first memoir I ever read—an obscure little book by Dale Evans Rogers. (Remember her? Wife of Roy Rogers. Had a horse named Buttermilk.) Lost & Found promotes “culturally neglected” work, books at least 10 years old by lesser-known authors, and I was stunned when the editor informed me that another writer* had beat me to the punch with an essay about Angel Unaware, which he cannily pegged as “spectacularly weird.”
[Aside: when pitching to an editor, first research whether and how recently the magazine has already covered your proposed topic. End aside.]
I will never forget the spell the heart-rending yellowed pages of that weird little book cast over nine-year-old me. All stretched out on the backseat floor of my dad’s Buick (before seatbelt laws) on a road trip through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and across the phallic Great Lake by ferry to the shores of Michigan, I was riveted by that faded book, my mom’s original copy from 1953.
Funny how an old book by a TV-cowboy’s wife can push a person’s to memoiraholism.
But while brainstorming alternative essay topics for Lost and Found, the steady diet of biographical comics my mother fed me came back to me—all those colorful flimsy 8×10 rags scattered across the gold-shag floor of my childhood bedroom. To develop my dogma, Mom kept me in illustrated faith stories of Dutch Christians hiding Jewish neighbors under floorboards during the Holocaust; street gang bangers trading switchblades for Bibles; a country singer finding redemption from addiction.
Were the “comic books” my first memoirs? Can a comic book even count as memoir?
Reviewing Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, a Chicago Tribune writer calls memoir a “lexicographer’s dilemma”:
How do we define the word? Is memoir, for example, an autobiographical poem? Is it essay, “new journalism,” fiction that feels true, ghost stories, an A-to-Z recounting of me? Is it narcissism, and if it is narcissism, what finally redeems it? Memoir can take many forms. But what, in essence, is it? Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune
Those attempts come close to a writer’s definition; how does a reader define memoir? True stories that haunt, move, or change a person?
And at what point can a comic book pass for a “graphic novel” like Maus or “graphic nonfiction” like Stitches? When its pages are numerous enough to require glue and sturdier binding? Is it about production quality? Structure? Tone? Style? Fine art? Are those just industry labels? I don’t really have answers, but I am certain that the Spire comics I consumed as a young child shaped my psyche with more force and depth than all the Archie & Friends stacked in my closet.
The technicolor tellings of Corrie ten Boom, David Wilkerson, and the Man and Black burrowed down into my soul and challenged my convictions. They bored into my imagination and, in an early exercise in empathy, caused me to consider how I would respond to such extreme circumstances; could I show such courage if forced to watch my sister being bludgeoned with a seething guard’s rifle butt for being cheerful on a sunny day in a concentration camp?
I was young and impressionable, and those graphic stories scarred me a bit, implanting in me the belief that ending up in such straits was a foregone conclusion. Martyrdom was a real possibility to me because of those unfunny comics, and I was genuinely surprised to reach 20 without the communists invading Indiana and imprisoning or torturing me for my beliefs.
Mere comics can’t spook a person to that extent, can they? Only an actual memoir has that power—even if presented as a cartoon, right? Karr says that memoir “is an art, a made thing” and, above all, “a democratic telling open to anyone who has lived.” And if one of the most celebrated memoirists of our era struggles to nail down a precise definition of memoir, I won’t sweat it.
What was your first experience with memoir? How were you hooked?
*George Estreich, the Lost & Found essayist who was quicker on the draw, wrote about raising a daughter with Down syndrome: The Shape of the Eye: A Memoir.