Fallibility as Art: The Deeply Flawed Narrator in Memoir

by Jennifer McGaha

Like well-developed characters in fiction, characters in memoir are shaped by the author’s choices—what she leaves in, what she leaves out, what she chooses to explore more fully and what she does not. Everyone in the story is important, of course, but the narrator is the lens through which the story takes form and shape. The narrator not only witnesses events; she also interprets them for the reader. Here is what happened, she says. And here is what it means. Thus, as the narrator probes and decodes her experiences, it is crucial that readers connect with her in some meaningful way. But how? Must she be likable? And, if so, what makes a narrator likeable? Her virtuous life? Her fortitude in the face of adversity? Her moral courage?

Well, yes. All of those things make for good reading. Think, for example, how much we respected Jeanette Walls’ tenacity in The Glass Castle, how deeply we admired Joan Didion’s relentless self-examination in The Year of Magical Thinking, how much we grieved for Frank McCourt’s losses in Angela’s Ashes. But many of us are drawn to creative works by people with messy lives. This is true across all writing genres and across all art forms. Consider, for example, the paintings of Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, the music of Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin, the photographs of Robert Maplethorpe, the plays of Tennessee Williams. Perhaps if these complicated artists were people we knew in real life, we might avoid them—head down the next aisle in the grocery store when we saw them coming, dip into bathrooms when we ran into them at social functions. In the midst of their messiness, they would require too much of our energy, too much of our grace.

But in memoir, where we see fallible narrators not only in terms of the decisions they make in present time but also in the larger scope of their life experiences, they fascinate us. They draw us in. Though perhaps we have long escaped the bulk of the messiness of our own pasts, suddenly we remember what it was like to do lines of coke on floor-length mirrors and chug Purple Jesus straight from the bathtub. We know what it’s like to betray people we love, to act impulsively, to ignore obvious signs that the path we are on is leading to trouble. We, too, have been reckless. We, too, have been foolish. And so these narrators do not simply speak for themselves. They speak to what it means to be human, to continually fall short of perfection.

In her marvelous inspirational craft book, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland says that “writing is not a performance but a generosity.” It is this act of generosity that requires our commitment to telling hard truths, even—and perhaps especially—when those revelations make us look bad, even when they refer not just to one bad moment but an overall sense of struggling to get things right. As a writer, you can use this trait to your advantage, as a willingness to be vulnerable on the page—to reveal one’s imperfections—can be a powerful thing. But how do writers harness this power? How do they know how much to tell without overwhelming their readers? In search of these answers, I looked at the memoirs of three not-always-admirable narrators, and I found that each of these writers displayed the following: an unflinching commitment to honesty, an ability to excavate and convey the emotional power of their experiences, and a sense of searching for answers versus relaying certainties.

Take, for example, Marion Winik’s memoir, First Comes Love, about her marriage to Tony, a gay ice skater she meets in New Orleans in the 1980’s. Very soon after they meet, she turns him on to heroin, and she is forthright and unapologetic about her fascination with the drug:

…I loved the needles almost as much as the stuff inside them. I loved seeing my blood, playing with it, changing its chemistry. I loved the scariness of it, the tiny prick of pain. The absolute focus required. The way when someone else does it for you, it’s almost like sex. I was the suburban boho wannabe with something extra—a death wish, a relentless loneliness that drove me always a little bit further than “a nice girl like you” might be imagined to go. (37)

Here, Winik resists the temptation to minimize her fondness for drugs, to dress it up or explain it away before delving deeply in and probing those depths. She is relentless in her candidness, in her commitment to discovering the truth of her life—as is once again evident when the young Winik, the desperately, stupidly-in-love Winik, tries to seduce Tony: “He was nice, yes, funny, yes, good-looking, yes, but homosexual, yes, yes, yes. It wasn’t a secret, everyone knew it, it was as if ‘the gay ice-skater’ were part of his name. And there I was, wearing his clothes already, a black tux jacket and a T-shirt that said ‘LOUISIANA—A DREAM STATE.’” (19)

At this moment, we, the readers, do not admire her. We may not even like her. Instead, we want to leap through the page and shake her because even though the narrator cannot yet see it, we know this relationship is doomed. But because she so compellingly tells her truth, because we feel her yearning on the deepest, most visceral level, we are drawn to her, just as she is drawn to Tony. Winik recounts time and again how she pressures the reluctant Tony for sex until finally he acquiesces. “We finally did fuck,” she says, “and that’s about all you could say for it.” (39)

Even when she describes the encounter as a “quick, rough, unsexy kind of sex that scared me,” our sympathies still largely remain with Tony, the pursued, the lost, the innocent, now drug-addicted gay ice skater who is a victim not only of Winik’s whims, but also of his own need for love and stability (40). Later in the narrative, Winik walks out of the bathroom at a bar one night to find Tony kissing a man. She is enraged. “I don’t know what made me think I had the right...to demand fidelity from someone who didn’t even share my sexual preference, but somehow I did,” she says. “And Tony wants emotional security so badly that he accepts it in return for the same loyalty pledge.” (63)

This moment of insight into the enormity of her demands does not make her particularly lovable—insightful, maybe, but not lovable–and as the book hurls toward its tragic end, readers cannot help wondering if things might have turned out differently had Winik not been so intent on trying to mold Tony into someone he was not. We do not forgive this narrator her shortcomings because we come to understand them from her older, wiser perspective. We forgive her because her love for Tony is so apparent on the page, and we are captivated by her determination to stand witness to the wreck she has set in motion.

And the wrecks keep coming. Soon after their marriage, Tony tests positive for HIV. However, undeterred in her quest to have a family, Winik gets pregnant. Though their first baby dies in utero, their second two children are born healthy and free of HIV. Convinced they are all somehow immune to the virus that is ravaging her husband, she decides to breastfeed her infants. Here, again, we see the narrator making careless choices. “I thought there would be a cure,” she says. “I thought there would be exceptions. I thought things would be fine.” (99)

She thinks these things even though she has no basis for thinking them, and portraying this mindset is tricky. She risks losing readers who want her to make more prudent choices, who yearn for her to, if not apologize for, at least explain her reckless disregard, to perhaps imagine how things might have been different if only she had been different. Instead, she sticks to the facts, to what she did and thought in those moments, such as in the scene where she discovers Tony has been using money from their joint bank account to buy coke. Here, readers get another huge dose of Winik’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of honesty:

Among all my other reactions, there was a little unexpected resentment: how could he do all that coke and not even offer me any? Now why was I thinking that if I was so reformed, so pure? My resistance to drugs was very provisional; the provision was that they not be in front of my face. Put a baby in my arms and get the shit out of the house and I do all right. Otherwise, I was not such a saint, as would become clear over the next few years. (146)

What if Winik had left out this paragraph? How would the story have been different? It must have been tempting, after all, to simply point the finger at Tony, to make him the bad guy and her their children’s gallant savior. After all, we, the readers, need never have seen the smallness of that moment when she begrudged her troubled husband those fleeting, costly moments of pleasure. Nonetheless, Winik chooses to dig deeply into her own psyche, to extract the hard, emotional truths of her experiences. As Tony descends more and more deeply into illness and addiction, he becomes increasingly volatile and occasionally violent. The couple argues, reconciles, argues more, and in one particularly poignant scene, Winik calls Tony a “junkie faggot with AIDS.” (160) When she finally files for divorce, no one is more relieved than we, the readers. Finally, she has made a rational choice.

The story has now come full circle, or almost. In the end, though they are now separated, Tony, ravaged with full-blown AIDS, asks Winik to help him end his life. It is a decision she does not linger over or apologize for. She does not debate the morality of this choice or struggle on the page with the sticky ethical issues at play. Instead, she simply asks, “Who but me, closest to him of anyone, should help?” (239) This single, matter-of-fact question succinctly conveys her conviction that helping Tony die is her job—as his wife? As the person who first introduced him to heroin? As the mother of his children? It is hard to say exactly, but Winik’s grief here is wrenching and real, and when Tony dies at their home, leaving Winik and their two young sons to carry on without him, there is no accounting of who did what wrong and who did what right. It is not, after all, a Sunday School lesson or a fairy tale. It is an exploration of the human heart in all its complexity, a work of art shaped by, not in spite of, the flaws of its narrator.

Similarly, in her memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed chronicles the self-destructive choices she makes as she struggles to accept her mother’s death from cancer. The first of these comes early in the narrative as Strayed cheats on her husband, Paul. “My mom had been dead a week when I kissed another man,” she says. “And another a week after that.” (34) And then, when her husband takes a job in another city, the kissing turns to full-fledged sexual affairs:

When Paul accepted a job offer in Minneapolis that required him to return to Minnesota midway through our exotic hen-sitting gig, I stayed behind in Oregon and fucked the ex-boyfriend of the woman who owned the exotic hens. I fucked the cook at the restaurant where I’d picked up a job waiting tables. I fucked a massage therapist who gave me a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. All three of them over the span of five days.

It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again. To cure me of myself. (35-36)

Like Winik, Strayed refuses to pretty up this part. Even her word choice (“fucked” vs. something less raw) reflects her commitment to telling the messy truth. Like Winik’s determination to seduce Tony, there is something about this that, rather than being off-putting, draws us into the story. She is not telling us sensational, superfluous details of her life. She is telling us what we need to know to understand the depth of her loss. These are the hard facts of Strayed’s life, and though she may not be particularly likable in this moment, she is someone we can believe. It is a tactic she uses again and again. Take, for another example, this next passage about the man Strayed begins dating after she separates from her husband:

I was cuddled up with Joe, postsex, on his ratty couch the first time I used it, a week after we’d met. We took turns sucking up the smoke from a burning dab of black tar heroin that sat on a sheet of aluminum foil through a pipe that was made of foil too. Within a few days, I wasn’t in Portland to visit Lisa and escape my sorrows anymore. I was in Portland falling into a drug-fueled half love with Joe. I moved into his apartment above an abandoned drugstore, where we spent most of the summer having adventuresome sex and doing heroin. In the beginning, it was a few times a week, then it was every couple of days, then it was every day. First we smoked it, then we snorted it. But we would never shoot it! we said. Absolutely not.

Then we shot it. (52-3)

The last few lines of this section are key as Strayed acknowledges her inevitable downward descent. When her ex-husband shows up to rescue her from the shady, ne’er-do-well Joe, readers feel immense compassion for the man she is so intent on leaving. In the ensuing pages, Strayed matter-of-factly chronicles her pregnancy and abortion, then her impulsive decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Though she will gather strength and resilience throughout the story, at this particular moment, she is not impressive or brave. She is reckless, rash, grossly naive, and soon even the hike itself emerges as a model of what not to do.

However, readers willingly stick with Strayed as she hitchhikes her way to the western edge of the Mojave Desert because she does not ever let us forget how much she has lost and how deeply she is hurting. By masterfully weaving in flashbacks of her childhood and of her mother’s illness and death with “present time” scenes of the hike, Strayed gives her entire story shape and form and context—in other words, meaning. Readers begin to see her poor decisions in the context of her suffering. Though we may not relate to her decisions, we relate to her utter devastation, to the sense of boundless loss she relays again and again. We may not all have been pregnant heroin addicts. We may not all have cheated on our spouses. But we have all been weary, grief-stricken, unable to move forward or back. For Strayed, grief obliterates everything else. It requires all of her energy, and even this passage about her divorce turns quickly to the horror of her mother’s death:

I sat in the darkness beside him, wanting to believe that I was capable of finding the kind of love I had with him again, only without wrecking it the next time around. It felt impossible to me. I thought of my mother. Thought of how in the last days of her life so many horrible things had happened. Small, horrible things. My mother’s whimsical, delirious babblings. The blood pooling to blacken the backs of her bedridden arms. The way she begged for something that wasn’t even mercy. For whatever it is that is less than mercy; for what we don’t even have a word for. Those were the worst days, I believed at the time, and yet the moment she died, I’d have given anything to have them back. One small, horrible, glorious day after the other. (100)

Here, Strayed’s unpretty truth—her desire, however momentary, to have her mother back in any form, at any cost, even if that means her mother’s suffering—reveals the depth of her own suffering. In the midst of her truth telling, Strayed gives us something to grab onto, something we care about. Because her storytelling is honest, raw, and real, we feel her anguish, believe that her grief for her mother overshadows everything, and when she finally makes to the Bridge of Gods on the Washington-Oregon border, we are her biggest cheerleaders, her greatest fans.

Similarly, in his memoir, The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, His Own, David Carr probes his past with brutal honesty. A reporter for The New York Times and a recovering addict, Carr spent three years interviewing sixty people in order to recreate many events he did not recall well, if at all. He then pieced together the stories to write this book. As in Winik’s and Strayed’s books, Carr examines his darkest moments with a sense of urgency. “Going back over my history has been like crawling over broken glass in the dark,” he says. “I hit women, scared children, assaulted strangers, and chronically lied and gamed to stay high. I read about That Guy with the same sense of disgust that almost anyone would. What. An. Asshole.” (186) Writing his memoir grants Carr a degree of separation from his life, and this sense of questioning—of writing as a means to discovery—is powerful.

This book is heavy with low moments. In fact, there are very few moments that aren’t low, and, at times, it is almost too painful to wade through Carr’s troubled past with him, especially through the scenes involving Carr’s twin girls who are born addicted to cocaine. One frigid winter night when they are a few months old, Carr pulls up in front of his dealer’s house with his two daughters in the backseat. Because he remembers little of this incident, Carr could easily tread lightly in this section, skip over the painful details. Yet he refuses to gloss over this moment. “I saw two sleeping children,” he says, “the fringe of their hoods emerging in outline against the backseat as my eyes adjusted to the light. Teeny, tiny, itty-bitty, the girls were swallowed by the snowsuits.” (162) The image of the innocent, vulnerable babies stands in stark contrast to the despicable character Carr becomes in the moment he decides to leave his daughters in the car as he goes inside the house in search of drugs. It is a decision that will forever change his life, the one thing that will ultimately jolt him out of his dazed state, and his strategy here as a writer is to tell what happened without making excuses that would, inevitably, fall flat for the reader. Carr stays inside the house for hours, and it is only as he is leaving that he remembers to consider his babies alone in the freezing car:

How long had it been, really? It had not been ten minutes tops. Ten minutes times ten, probably, if not more. Hours not minutes. I walked toward the darkened car with drugs in my pocket and a cold dread in all corners of my being.

I cracked the front door, reached around, unlocked the back, and leaned in.

I could see their breath. (164-165)

Every time I read this passage, I find myself holding my breath. How does Carr bring himself to relive this moment, to linger in those details of the babies he almost lost due to his own negligence, his own disregard? Why does he go here—to this darkest of places? To pay penance? To find redemption? To remind himself of the two most important reasons he has to stay clean? Perhaps his motivation includes some combination of all of these, but we stick with him through the ensuing litany of arrests, of friends and family members loved and lost, of promises made and broken because of his determination to discover the truth about his own life. How was it that he came to do these things? And how did he learn to be better?

Throughout his memoir, Carr vacillates between being the deeply flawed character we see in this scene and a man we admire—a generous friend, a loving father, a brilliant reporter. He recovers from addiction. He relapses. He gets better again. His addiction struggle is real, but more important, he wrestles with what it means to be human, to be funny and smart and reckless and arrogant all in the same body at the same moment in time. Rather than writing to escape his past, he writes to understand it, to discover how to live in harmony with his own failings.

Winik, Strayed, and Carr all provide potent examples of memoirs that are bold, emotional honest, and convey a sense of searching for answers versus relaying absolutes. But how exactly do we, as writers, achieve them? What specific strategies and techniques can we use to write about difficult things without resorting to sincere yet cringe-worthy emotional outpourings, without vomiting on the page?

First, writers can use reflection to stand back from our “in the moment” experiences to frame and interpret them for the reader. Sometimes, as in the case of Carr, this means acknowledging the myriad ways we have gone wrong, to account for all the better decisions we could and should have made. Other times, it means exploring the motivations behind our behaviors. For example, when Winik confesses how much she loves the prick of the needle when she does heroin, the pleasure that is “almost like sex,” we are inside her body, wanting what she wants, fleeing whatever she is fleeing. Her desire is so vividly rendered that we begin to see this as something larger than it first appears, something we can all relate to—the craving for physical pleasure so intense it obliterates everything else.

Secondly, memoirists can structure their narratives to emphasize specific themes and ideas. For example, if Strayed’s story had been told in strict chronological order, the reader might not have fully grasped the significance of this ill-planned foray into the wilderness. We would have seen the what without ever understanding the why. Because flashbacks interrupt the present time narrative, however, readers are continually reminded that this hike represents Strayed’s journey to healing, that this is the journey that saves her. Because we want to bear witness to her transformation, the why keeps us reading. We want to know the narrator in all of her brokenness so that, at the end of the book, we can see her emerge, perhaps not whole, but profoundly changed by her experiences.

Finally, writers can use sensory details to recreate the emotional truths of their experiences. Carr’s description of his sleeping infant daughters—their tiny bodies ensconced in snow suits, their breaths in the frigid air—lets readers know how very much is at stake here for the narrator. Winik’s t-shirt that says “LOUISIANA—A DREAM STATE” illustrates how desperately she wants to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, she and Tony can live happily ever after. And the images of Strayed’s mother as she is dying—the blood pooling underneath her arms, her incoherent babbling, her cries for mercy—speak to more than grief. They speak to the horror of death, to the shock of a daughter who has lost her mother too soon, at just the moment when she needs her most.

Toward the end of First Comes Love, when Tony is very close to death, he asks Winik to read a poem she wrote. This is a line from the poem she chooses: “Love your old mistakes like broken, helpless animals/and they will heal/and they will lead you home.” (231) This line serves as an important testament to the power of truth telling, to the notion that when we write with candor and inquisitiveness, with vulnerability and courage, our painful experiences are elevated. When we write our truths, no longer are we the victims of the wrongs that have been done to us, nor are we the sum of all the things we have done wrong. Instead, as we begin to see our mistakes more clearly, we learn to forgive others and to forgive ourselves, to become more compassionate, empathetic human beings. We may not have hiked over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, but we have made our own journeys, and we are transformed in our own ways. By sharing our stories, we are enlarged, emboldened, invigorated. Now, our fallibility is art.

Jennifer McGaha is the author of the memoir Flat Broke with Two Goats (Sourcebooks, January 2018). Her work has also appeared in The Huffington Post, The New Pioneer, PANK, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Baltimore Fishbowl, BackHome Magazine, and other publications. An experienced teacher and workshop facilitator, Jennifer earned her MA from Western Carolina University and her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.