Thursday, April 26, 2007

My Dad, My Memoir, and Alec Baldwin

Ever since the Alec Baldwin story broke – that is, the voicemail recording of him verbally bullying his 11-year-old daughter, Ireland – there seem to have emerged two dominant points of view.

There are those who think it was unacceptable and abusive for Baldwin to call his child an "ungrateful pig", to tell her "you don't have the brains or the decency as a human being" and threaten to "straighten your ass out when I see you…I'm going to really make sure you get it…I'm going to let you know just how I feel about what a rude little pig you really are".

Then there are those who think everyone else is making far too big a deal out of the whole thing. Some folks debating the issue on Yahoo made the following comments:

"Boo hoo! Parents talk shit to their kids. It's their right as parents," said someone self-identified as "But Seriously Folks". "My mom used to threaten to run away from home and leave 'you ungrateful little fucks'. I found it funny then and now. I'm well adjusted…for the most part…Man up, Ireland!!!"

"DixieNormous" posted, "It's not like he beat or molest(ed) her. They are just overreacting."

Alec Baldwin's biting hissy-fit reminded me of my own dad, and how he talked to me when I was growing up. And the debate around Baldwin's voicemail reminds me of arguments I once had with myself about whether or not to write a memoir.

There was a time when I didn't think the obstacles I've had to overcome in my past were "tragic enough" to warrant a memoir. There were things about my upbringing I was upset about, but I suspected I might be overreacting. Family members told me so, sounding a lot like those people who think we bleeding hearts are overreacting to Alec Baldwin's verbal beating on his daughter.

I certainly didn't think an insecure, needling father was a very big deal. Sure, I spent most of my childhood and adolescence avoiding the man, leaving every room he entered whenever possible. I was convinced he was inherently a little "off" and had serious anger issues, and I hated his guts for all of it, and in particular, for picking on me mercilessly. I saw him as a belligerent, edgy sort of crackpot ex-jock who emanated the specific and constant intensity of straining to hold back a punch.

But in a world where people fight and overcome horrific diseases and live to write memoirs about them, who would care about my insignificant stories?

Like when I was 19 years old, pulling on my jacket in the front hall of our seven-bedroom, three-story stone house (the one my friends jokingly dubbed "Graceland"), about to run out the front door to meet my date who was parked at the curb. My dad appeared from out of nowhere and decided to send me out into the world with some words of fatherly tenderness and wisdom.

"You know, you really are a shrewd piece of work," he said bitterly. "You're out three and four nights a week. You don't really care about any of these assholes who come for you. You and I both know the only reason you go on all these dates is to get your hands on the free food."

The situation was transparent to me even then. My parents were losing everything at that point. My dad lost his job and couldn't get hired elsewhere. Our car was repossessed from our driveway in the night. We were all losing our home and living with a discomforting cluelessness about where we'd land next. Little by little my parents were selling off everything they had of any value – some of it sentimental, some things my mother had waited a lifetime to own: the cream-colored baby grand piano, her blue fox jacket; his gun collection, a Murano glass chandelier. For Christmas that year, friends of the family brought us a carload of industrial-sized groceries from a warehouse club so we'd have something to eat.

Clearly, my dad was terrified and humiliated at not being able to provide for his family. His machismo was taking a hit, and his way of coping was to make me into some kind of TGIFriday's whore.

But that wasn't anything serious, I thought. Who would want to read about that? It was so…well, normal. My parents hadn't died a violent death before my eyes when I was five. We weren't brewing club drugs in the basement as a family project. We weren't in the Witness Protection Program.

Not only would any memoir I'd write be painfully dull, but who could possibly care about me as a character when all I did was dwell on petty crap? Like the time when I was eight years old and my dad and I drove a friend home after she'd stayed overnight. When we got home he slammed the kitchen door behind us and spat at my mother:

"You won't believe what this cocky little bitch did!"

What? Wha--what had I done? I honestly didn't know.

"We dropped her friend off, and then all the way home, she sits in the back seat, like I'm her fuckin' chauffer!"

Who was I to feel anxious or broken-hearted about things that happened in upper-middle class suburbia? There were people with much worse fates in the world. I had a lot of nerve thinking my life was memoir material.

People have reacted strongly to Alec Baldwin's raging "ungrateful pig" voicemail. Enough of them have piped up to say, "It's wrong to talk to your child this way" to reaffirm that my stories are not just the attention-seeking sulkings of a spoiled brat.

There was a time when I needed to be angry – truly, blindingly, teeth-gnashingly angry – at my dad for being such a hotheaded, thoughtless prick. That's when I first became someone who'd want Alec Baldwin's balls on a skewer. However, I've cooled down a lot since then, enough to see the full spectrum of humanity in what happened in my earlier years.

These days, the temperature with which I regard my dad is closer to how the even-handed, middle-ground minority feels about Baldwin. More like Rosie O'Donnell, who had this to say on "The View":

"He's very much of a tortured father who feels alienated from his own child…(Basinger) defies a lot of court orders for him to visit the child, which I think is making him crazy. Not that that's an excuse."

I also agree with Rosie's usual polar opposite on "The View", Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who said, "Hearing something like that from your father could be potentially the worst thing you could ever hear."

In my case, I didn't do anything to deserve the crap my dad heaped on me (and we can't be sure Ireland deserved her dad's ire, either). But at least I can look at where my dad came from and acknowledge how he got to be so bullish and unmistakably unsure of himself. His parents were cold, critical and just plain weird. This helps me to keep a healthy perspective when I'm writing. It keeps me from falling into the "woe is me" trap that, once upon a time, I was so worried my work would fall into.

My therapist also contributed an important point in helping me realize my memoir is not mere sniveling. She was the first to suggest to me that all pain and suffering is relative.

"How do you know that the pain one little girl feels over her father calling her names doesn't hurt as much as the pain some woman on the other side of the planet is feeling because she's lost her son? What hurts one person deeply may be more or less affecting to another."

I'm not saying that the story of a kid being berated by her father is the most important thing in the world. But what I have to say about my experiences may someday matter to somebody else. Maybe my memoir will give a teen in a family similar to mine the tenacity to hang in there and become a well-rounded adult. Maybe my book will be read by a parent with a sensitive child, unaware of the ill effects of their harsh words and actions – and maybe they'll be moved to do things differently. And since my memoir isn't all about bleak dysfunction, maybe some readers will just be happily entertained – which in itself is a perfectly good reason for a book to exist, too.

Since the days before I gave myself full permission to write a memoir, I've read a lot of memoirs by others. I see how many books are published about realities of all kinds. In contrast to my earlier and erroneous beliefs, I now know it isn't necessary to have been raised on cat food or escaped from Turkish prison to have one's memoir published, read and even loved.

We should never stop ourselves from writing about our lives because we think we don't have enough misfortune or shock value to make it "worth it". There are many ways a reader may derive value from a story. And we should never delay an autobiographical endeavor because we're afraid the misfortunes we will write about might be whiny, shameful, or anything else we've been told we are. Let the readers read and decide.

Take it for granted now: you will be read by people who will be unsettled or miffed by your writing, who might even write venomous reviews about it. They might be the same people who think all children deserve a good braining with a two-by-four once in a while, just to keep them in line.

You will also be read by people who will identify with your story, perhaps even call it their favorite and write to tell you so. Maybe they're among the people who think Alec Baldwin was wrong for what he said. Some of them may even have the wisdom to feel sorry for him.

You will never win everyone's hearts. That's every memoirist's true story.

There's a place on the shelf for your memoir. And if you want to write it, don't delay for silly reasons like the ones I used to have. Just write. Claim your experience, claim your space.