Linda Joy Myers: Do Memoirs Have a Gender?

Guest Article by Linda Joy Myers
Linda Joy Myers

Wayne, I’m glad you are pursuing the discussion we began at the National Association of Memoir Writers' roundtable on May 12 about men and memoirs. I have followed with interest your posts at the Life Writers Forum, too.

As a therapist for the last thirty years working intimately with people of both sexes, of course I’ve observed some differences between men and women, but most of the time people challenge the stereotypes. I really grew tired of the old saw that all abusers were men and that all women were tender and more emotional and kinder and more available. I just do not see it playing out that way, although stereotypes are based on some kind of observable phenomena and a lot of subjective feelings. It is possible for both sexes to feel connected to each other's experience through empathy and compassion—we are not foreign to each other, really. We are all human, and many factors define and help to foster emotional openness, warmth, and availability for empathy. Men and women contain similar chemical hormones in our bodies, just in different amounts. I do not believe that we must walk in the exact same shoes as another to understand that person at depth.

When women could not be heard
I think for a time, particularly in the feminist-oriented world and women’s experiences before the 1960s, there has been an urge to re-balance the off-balance experiences most women have had where their voices were lost. For centuries, most books were written by men, and women had to conceal their identity to be heard--the Brontes, George Eliot, for example.

In classes, women have experienced men raising their hands more and being louder and more opinionated at times in their style of communication and comments. But the tide has turned, and I can see how you would feel the way you do through your observations of how women speak about men, that women still feel they are a minority group. Actually, we are no longer a minority, and while things still need to be addressed, women physicians in medical school now outnumber men, for instance. Things have changed a lot for women over recent decades. Granted, in some ways they have not changed enough, but it is not all the fault of men as a group.

I created the National Association of Memoir Writers the way I did—open to all—because I wanted memoir writers of both sexes to be in conversation with each other. I was urged by several women entrepreneurs to make NAMW only for women because of the statistics regarding women readers and other factors tilted toward women. But that approach didn't make sense to me. Some of the kindest, most sensitive, compassionate people I have known—and read—were men, and as the mother of sons I wanted to invite both sexes to be part of the conversation about writing, literature, and human experience. I have been given a new perspective by men that I wouldn't have had otherwise through reading their memoirs. I have learned from men about how it feels to be at war, to be the sons of fathers who don't understand them, or how it feels to be the son of a mother and how it feels to live in a male body—and through that I'm helped to become a better person, or I try to be. My best mentors and teachers have been men, and they have changed my life for the better, even saved my life in many ways. I see no difference in teaching men or women—people have individual differences and needs of course, which are not based on gender, it seems to me.

Generalizations really don't work
I don't think that every woman reacts the same way in the presence of a male voice. For some women, a male presence invites a more complex and direct emotional response, and a different kind of intellectual challenge. Just as men can be unbalanced in some of their reactions, so can women. Again, generalizations about women and men really don't work. Each person has his or her own reaction due to their own complicated psychological make-up, no matter the sex.

Perhaps what you are seeing in the literary world has been a kind of re-balancing. With your comments and pithy questions about the “women’s club” in memoir writing, you are creating a new conversation that suits this century, this time on our planet. Your voice is being heard in the memoir world, along with Jerry Waxler who has been out there for a long time with his lovely, sensitive, and intellectually interesting responses to memoirs. I recommend heartily several men’s memoirs, including the classic This Boy’s Life and Frank McCourt’s books. One of my favorites is John Lanchester’s Family Romance: A Love Story.

Dr. James Pennebaker and several of his colleagues are the ones who began the research on the healing power of memoir, and only last month I had one of the most enlivening NAMW member teleseminars of my career with Mark Matousek, whose memoirs took me on a journey that moved me profoundly.

There is much more to know and learn from the community of human beings that we all are a part of. Let’s all keep talking and keep learning from each other!

Thank you for joining the conversation in this way!

Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., is the prize-winning author of The Power of Memoir--How to Write Your Healing Story, and Don't Call me Mother. She enjoys meeting people who are passionate about capturing the stories of their lives. She may be reached at National Association of Memoir Writers.

Photo courtesy Linda Joy Myers.

What are your reactions to Linda's take on gender and memoirs? Share your thoughts and experiences.

1 comment:

  1. Linda Joy as usual, has a gentle, inclusive way of putting things. The whole notion of which gender should be supported more sounds to me a little like marriage counseling. I'm seeing it that way because I'm reviewing a lovely memoir called "Japan Took the Jap out of me" by Lisa Fineberg Cook. It's about her trip to Japan, but the sub-title doesn't do justice to the fact that the book is also about her transition from single to married. During the transition, she relies on her girl friend to help her maintain her feminine aspect, and then through the book she strives to develop the insight and wisdom to relate to her husband as well.

    I think that's what's going on here with memoir writers. We look to some people who can support us for being who we are, and we also reach out to understand and be understood by people who are different. So when I read a memoir by someone different from myself, I learn about the world through their eyes. And when, in a critique group, I share myself with someone different from myself, I want to learn how my writing sounds to them.

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