A Question of Catharsis

October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments

Debra Gwartney discusses her essay “Cake” in the current issue of Brevity, and the idea of question marks of the soul:

02418I know I’m not the only one whose eyes pop open in the wee hours, 2 a.m., or 5 a.m., or some moment in between when sleep should be a given but isn’t. Those nights, before I can lead myself back down the soft trail to slumber (I’ve heard this is possible; I know nothing of it) my mind gets churning in what I call The Squirrel Cage. I realize it’s a cliché, squirrel cage, but I use it because the label came to me during a wee hour session when I was too exhausted to stir a clever trope. Plus, the image fits, crusty rodent feet scurrying across the lumpy plains of my memory, scrounging up past episodes that don’t need another middle of the night review, and yet I seem crazy-determined to sort through the prickled past again. Why was I so hard on my daughter fifteen years ago? Why was I scornful of that editor back in 1993? Why did I lie to my mother when I was ten? For reasons I have yet to decipher, there’s peace still to be made with certain, and often very small, remembrances of the past.

For instance, the night I ate cake, a single slice I’d noticed in a friend’s kitchen. I gobbled the confection while my ex-husband and the others were around the corner laughing it up at the dining room table. In the dark of night decades after I’d done it, I recalled my brashness at shoving that cake in my mouth and writhed under the covers. This act of embarrassing desperation got at least an hour in the cage while I prodded every detail of the evening, punishing myself for being a silly, sad girl.

The next morning I’d gained a bit of perspective. What was the big deal with eating cake? I snuck it a long time ago and, really, nobody suffered permanent damage, and, besides, if I’d asked for the slice the hostess probably would have given it to me. Why couldn’t I send this memory off into the pillows of the subconscious, where it couldn’t bother me anymore?

In the light of day, it occurred to me that it was worth writing about, this memory that still poked. Such question marks of the soul intrigue me when it comes to memoir writing: seemingly innocuous events that won’t leave you alone years after the fact are often the best fodder. Sorting through the particulars of our Bavarian-themed dinner party and forcing myself to admit what I’d done, instead of drumming up excuses or pretending it didn’t happen (my middle of the night tactic), might, I thought, bring release.

Bring release? It’s curious I would consider this a possibility, as I’m generally opposed to the idea that memoir must be cathartic. That is, memoir has no responsibility, at least I don’t think so, to bring about a “restoration of spirit,” which is one dictionary’s definition (“catharsis” also means “a medicine that purges the bowels”). Memoir isn’t therapy. Memoir isn’t charged to necessarily reconstitute, to repair what’s been broken. I much prefer Kim Stafford’s idea that, “memoir’s job is not to answer the question, but to deepen the question.”

gwartneyAfter I published my book, Live Through This, a memoir about my wrongheaded illusions as a younger mother and the resulting conflagration of my family, many people asked me if I’d written the book as a release, a cleansing, an ablution to wash away the pain of the past. Sure, I’d say. Sort of. There was nothing easy about scraping my mess up off the muddy sidewalk to examine it anew, so I hoped that some good would come of it. Good came. My daughters and I talked with an honesty, an openness, that wasn’t possible before, a welcomed clearing of the air.

But healing a riff with my daughters was never my central aim. I wanted to tell a good story, a captivating story. I wrote seven drafts over a period of eight years until the narrative worked, until I could finally see my role in our dynamic, until I could own my part. I didn’t want to acknowledge how I’d contributed to our troubles, but I realized there’d be no narrative drive without it. A narrative with energy, with urgency and fierce honesty—the opposite of a tedious complaint of bad children hurting their good mother—required that I embrace another cliché: hold your own feet to the fire. And sure, in the process of feet-to-flames I began to know myself better.

I don’t remember, not once, sitting down to write with the intention of repairing the past. I didn’t consciously plan to find enough words and put them in the right order to fix what ailed us. I sat down to write because I couldn’t not sit down and write. Every time I tried to quit, the book called me back. It nudged me in the wee hours, in the middle of the day, upon waking and upon going to bed. The story demanded to be written and so I wrote it. The rather unexpected restoration, the healing, the catharsis—those were added bonuses, arriving of their own accord and not because I forced them.

I feel the same about the little cake essay. I don’t remember the names of the people we ate with that night—they were my then-husband’s friends from work. Even if I found identities and addresses, I have no need to go back and clean up with those folks. I wrote about eating the cake because that one-minute slip had bugged me for decades, dangling many nights at two a.m., waiting to be parsed. And so I parsed it. I wrote until I uncovered the character’s motivations and intentions, the stark loneliness and fear that led the “I” on the page, who’s both me and not, to consume what wasn’t hers. With every draft, I made myself consider what’s best for the narrative, and not what was going to make me feel better about what I did.

And, eureka, self-forgiveness was part of the process. It sidled up when I wasn’t looking. Another nice bonus. Something like the cherry on top of a German chocolate cake.


Debra Gwartney is the author of a memoir, Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she is co-editor of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, most recently Prairie Schooner and The Normal School. She teaches in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program, and lives in Western Oregon.

§ 5 Responses to A Question of Catharsis

  • Ken Dowell says:

    A truly victimless crime. And yet one that reminds me that I have stood in a kitchen, even my own, looked both ways to make sure there was no traffic, and then devoured something.

  • ryderziebarth says:

    I have been the guilty night-eater, knowing that something small was sticking me like a needle in the memory, prodding me awake to chew it away. Since my father has died, I no longer get up to eat. Knowing he is at peace surpasses all other small wounds. Resolution through narrative is a wonderful thing. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Marcy says:

    I had the strangest reaction as I read about that slice of cake. I felt a blush burning my cheeks at some long-forgotten shame that’s woken me at 2 a.m., but the weird thing is I didn’t have a specific memory in mind.

  • Barbara Belland says:

    “…until I could own my part” is the hardest thing to do in memoir. Gwartney seems to write beautiful sentences effortlessly. I find her hard work inspiring.

  • Thank you, Deborah. I often wonder what to do with those mid-night callings. Your candor here is highly instructive.

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