I was seated in front of a microphone, onstage at a large outdoor literary festival in Adelaide, Australia, when my interviewer asked, “But what exactly did your grandfather do?”
I paused. We had already established that I’d written a memoir; that was, after all, why the festival had flown me there. We’d already established that the memoir partially concerned sexual abuse I’d experienced as a child. We’d even already established that my grandfather had been the one to commit it.
The audience sat on folding chairs on the lawn in front of me: a couple of hundred people, their faces expectant. It was a beautiful day, the height of the Australian summer, and birdsong filled the trees. I looked at the interviewer, a balding British man with a proper manner. Such a gorgeous afternoon, such a nice trip, so far. He hadn’t really asked that, had he? He couldn’t have. Or perhaps, in that last naïve moment, I was hoping he’d be the one to realise what he was asking – take it back, undo it.
Through his little round glasses, he peered at me. I stared at him.
The audience was silent, waiting.
A little over a year ago now, I published a memoir that’s half investigation into an old Louisiana murder – one that is now, suddenly, a live case again, the appeals court having thrown out the conviction a few weeks ago. The book is also half investigation into a long secret in my family, and the rippled effects of trauma and silence that I carried in my body for many years. I spent almost 10 years writing the book, using 30,000 pages of records I had to track down in dusty archives all over rural Louisiana. I am a Harvard-trained lawyer, as well as a writer. I fought a federal lawsuit to publish the book. I fought the forces in my own life that wanted it kept silent. The book spans almost 60 years and involves three families, and writing it was, among other things, a massive organisational and literary undertaking, one that I spent years of my life learning how to do and that speaks strongly to so much about our international cultural moment, social justice, criminal justice and the strength of women’s stories.
What I am saying is, there is a lot he could have asked me about.
More recently – just two weeks ago – I was staying with a male friend whose memoir came out shortly before mine did. I was in his city to visit a book club that was reading my book, and now that was done and we were sitting in his living room, drinking a nightcap and talking. “I was asked again today how to publish a book!” he said. “I’m asked that all the time. It’s so tiring. How did I do it? How did I write the memoir? Everybody thinks I have the answers.”
I’m pretty sure I gaped. “I’ve never been asked that,” I said.
His turn to gape. “What do people ask you?”
I put down my wine glass and held my fists to my chest, like they were clutching my skin. I mimed opening them wide, peeling back my skin, exposing my heart. “This is what I am asked for,” I said. “I’m asked for more.”
As I said it, I realised how true it was. How, in every interview, I am asked how I feel. I am asked how my family feels. I am asked what I didn’t include in the book, what was too intimate, what too raw, and would I please share it with them? I am asked about trauma, I am asked about how and whether memories still live in my body. I am asked what dating is like now, as a lesbian with a memoir out – and, granted, that one I don’t mind so much because the stories are pretty funny. But still. I am asked always, endlessly, for intimacy. Never about the book I wrote.
To take women’s stories as though they have value only for the pain they recount and the emotional sharing they offer is to diminish them
My friend blanched. “That’s got to be a gender thing,” he said. He told me he’d spoken to another male memoirist friend of ours, and he, too, was always asked about the ideas behind his book. I thought of yet another male friend of ours, currently making the interview rounds, and how I’ve had to stop reading his interviews, because though I love and support him and his book, it is too maddening to watch him treated as an expert on the topics he wrote about – whereas I am treated as an expert only on my feelings.
The American writer Lucy Grealy, asked how she’d managed to remember the exquisitely beautiful scenes that make up her memoir, Autobiography Of A Face, famously replied, “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.” She was responding to the overwhelming tendency to treat stories of women’s lives as though they are simply therapy, poured forth from the heart, having value only as confession.
And there is value in confession. It makes us feel less alone in the world. Writing this book changed my life; I won’t pretend it didn’t. It opened up my heart. It made me stop hiding in silence.
But I wrote this book. To take women’s stories as though they have value only for the pain they recount and the emotional sharing they offer is to diminish them, to position women endlessly and only in the domestic sphere. It is also to use up their stories, to use their recountings of #MeToo for salaciousness, and to ignore the knowledge women have.
That day, onstage in Australia, I simply didn’t answer. I redirected his question – I’m a lawyer, after all.
But I wish now that I had protested. That I had said: Would you ask me this question were I a man? Are you sure? How do you treat the stories women tell, not only in books, but in their lives? Ask me about the ideas in my head. Not only the emotions in my heart.
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of THE FACT OF A BODY: A Murder and a Memoir, which recently received a Lambda Literary Award and the Chautauqua Prize and was named one of the best books of 2017 by The Guardian and The Times.