Autobiographies of the Present Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

frederick_douglass2(Boulevard Spring 1993)

If ever there was an autobiography whose focus is almost entirely given to the author’s past, it is Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of An American Slave. So irrevocable is the physical and psychological abuse he received as a slave that Douglass, writing as a free man, must continually describe that abuse as if his past were a nightmare from which he can never completely awaken. For example, in Chapter V, he writes of being kept, in summer and winter, "almost naked—no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees." On the coldest nights, he used a corn sack, stolen from the mill, to cover himself while he slept. He would crawl inside the sack and sleep, "with my head in and my feet out." But then, unexpectedly, his description seems to rouse another level of awareness: "My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes."

Immersed in recollection, Douglass seldom connects the present to the past, the time now in which he is writing to the time then in which he was a captive. Indeed it is enough to remember the treatment he endured on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, enough to narrate a compelling tale that will inspire others to escape and help end the institution of slavery. But, on occasion, an image like laying the pen in the gashes intrudes forcefully in the story, and something comes alive that is absent elsewhere in the work. What happened to him then, though past, physically remains with him now, like a still-open wound. That wound connects two times, two selves. For a moment, time is arrested, and the narrative stops being a history of a past life and becomes a present story, too. We feel the whole man, his past in his present, a richer, more inclusive panorama.

All writing about the self is a tale of two selves told by one who lives now about one who lived then. The autobiographer emphasizes the self then, which, when we read Douglass' story, we see clearly in its dramatic finish the degree to which he has physically survived and convincingly rendered his past. In fact, the narrative appears to finish that life—although the scars of prejudice may remain, the events themselves are over. Most 19th century slave narratives graphically describe the abuse, dramatically narrate the intent to escape (revealing none of the actual escape itself, obviously to protect those who helped), and soberly bring us to the next battleground in the north. These three purposes almost always reveal to the author (which during composition becomes the source of the book’s religious tone) that his or her individual survival was pre-ordained, blessed. How else can Harriet Jacobs in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl understand her self-imposed imprisonment, seven years in the attic crawl space of a backyard shed, but as misery befitting one of God’s chosen. How apparent is grace in the most horrific life-stories!

Given the examples of Douglass and Jacobs as well as other audacious self-making stories that abound in American literature, our autobiographical tradition professes that true self-writing must break with or close the past. The tradition teaches that an autobiography is about a self who is finished with the past, and thus, in its plot and tone, the autobiographer must emphasize what is over. Indeed, this is still the predominant view of autobiography—the historicized, hierarchical, eschatological view. Roger Rosenblatt defines it well: "One writes autobiography not because one seeks art or safety but out of a desire to see both a shape and an end to one’s life, to seek the end of everything that has been in flux and process, and at the same time to understand it all." The past is past or, as Rockwell Gray has said, the story is written "to create the illusion that all is settled, that it is merely a matter of recounting what one already knows." This "illusion of stability" that has decreed our autobiographical convention (and continues to inspire many life-writers) dictates one of three compositional approaches, each almost entirely focused on the past.

The first and oldest form is the confession. Confession focuses on a person’s individual feelings, secrets, and anxieties, or the private life. Confessional writers occasionally judge their pasts severely, claiming in effect that what they knew then was either wrong or uninformed, a product of fantasy, projection or ignorance. Examples of confession in American literature include the early Puritan conversion and captivity narratives and such diverse life-writers as Thomas Merton, Richard Selzer, and Alice Koller. The second form, the memoir, centers on a person’s historical impact, or the public life. Memoir is written mostly by statesmen, intellectuals, business people, movie stars and, occasionally, professional writers themselves, who recall the people, places, and events that have most influenced their personal lives. Classic examples include the slave narratives and works by Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Adams, and Helen Keller along with recent memoirs by Cesar Chavez, Susan Allen Toth, and Lee Iacocca. Autobiography, especially in the 20th century, is the term used to describe a historical narrative about an individual self, in which the autobiographical `I’ is a character whose story dramatically links private and public worlds. An autobiography is widely seen as a hybrid of confession and memoir and, with its modern focus on a believably evolving central character, it is inevitably linked to fiction. Contemporary autobiographers include Frank Conroy, Malcolm X/Alex Haley, Russell Baker, Maya Angelou, and many others. Lest we forget, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the great secular confession, is actually a memoir in which Franklin writes, without any desire to confess or revise the past, about a joyously abundant, self-made life, (of course, with many facts left out).

Regardless of the form they choose—confession, memoir, autobiography—these writers seek to break or finish with the past and get on with their lives. For them life-writing is a rite of passage, an initiation into self-created grace. But what of the individual whose grace is less revealed, whose past cannot be gotten over? What if this person is compelled to write about his or her past because the past is unfinished? What if the writer discovers by writing about it that his or her past is incapable of being finished? What happens then to that hoped-for understanding? When an author, as we see increasingly in our era, searches for whom the person is the writer wishes to present, we often have a less past-focused, past-obsessed autobiography. Indeed, this appears to be the state of contemporary autobiography, where the writer no longer feels the past is in the past, believing instead that any selection of events for a memoir is a distortion of what was. Rockwell Gray underscores this point when he notes that most life stories of this century were written in part to discover the author’s present feeling about what happened: "Autobiography, which obviously seeks to revive and come to terms with the past, dramatizes our ambivalent attitude toward it, for there is no doubt that even as self-narration culls over one’s past life for meaning, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon which contributes to the erosion of any hallowed or immemorial past." It is in the present where we practice this drama of ambivalence: Our agitation now with what happened then makes the present, the writing time itself, potentially a partner in the creation of autobiography.

By the very act of having a place, a locus, in the present to write from, I am guided as an autobiographer by my present situation far more than I realize. I am guided as much by the act of writing as by the act of memory, both of which exist in the present. This sense that I am both in the remembrance then and actively remembering it now also suggests that the act of writing and memory might reveal how much different I am now from the person I thought I was because I am constantly re-configuring myself from my vantage now. Moreover, the story of my life or any significant part of my life is perpetually incomplete because at any point in the future I can write about my seemingly immutable past from a new, mutable present. Many life-writers are now aware of this unfinished sense of self in the present, and they long to craft a text in which the self’s displaced and evanescent quality can be captured.

This essay then is about the unfinished present self—its integrity, its complexity, its mystery, its fullness. I write about the cracks in Frederick Douglass’ feet, the ghosts who haunt the windows of Maxine Hong Kingston’s study, the younger, guilt-obsessed soldier who still lives in Ron Kovic and who the older Kovic must reveal and redeem. My focus is autobiographical uncertainty, or the writing of autobiography as a present act.

2.

In his article "The Past in Autobiography," Barrett J. Mandel analyzes the shell-game quality of memory, its tendency to be, like electrons, fixed and moving simultaneously. He says that "memory is experienced now but is not perceived as present . . . memory is a summarized, artificially induced 'now' within the 'now.'" Mandel likens memory to a play within a play; he calls the action of retrieving it "presentification," and he stresses that memory cannot exist without a present stage on which it unfolds: "This presentification is not a distortion of any so-called real past; this is the only way 'my life' comes to me."

I believe Mandel, in a philosophic way, describes a principle that some recent autobiographers have used, in a practical way, to organize and unify their work. What this principle says is that the writer’s perspective has shifted away from thinking about the past as that which exerts authority over our stories and shifted to reflecting on the present as that which compels us to remember and renew our lives. Frederick Douglass may have composed the story of his past partly by contemplating its "presentification" in the gashes of his feet—the way his life came to him. But he could not have given his past its particular shape without the freedom, literally the freedom to write, which he found in the present. Douglass chose not to focus on the role of the present in his life. But today writers are focusing on the present, intrigued with the drama of their story as well as with how they will narrate that drama. In some examples I will highlight, emphasizing how the story is told has itself become the drama.

Centering the autobiographical impulse in the present, contemporary writers work purposely to equivocate over our temporality, attempting a more accurate reckoning of how we remember the past and consequently how we present that past to a reader. Marilyn Young quotes a letter to her parents in her essay "Looking Back at College" that reveals herself working, studying, organizing her time down to the minute. "Look at it," she writes, after reproducing the entire letter. "I want them [her parents] to understand—no, admit—that I too am working, not playing. Only then could I bear the guilt. Here I was, really, doing nothing but pleasuring myself in the library. I knew they didn’t think it was work; I didn’t think so myself. So I had to transform it into work." In the sixties Young was trying to rationalize to her working-class parents that study was real work; in the eighties (at the time of her writing) she continues to rationalize the "work" of a college professor, remaining troubled that teaching students to write is too easy (or too fulfilling) to be real labor.

I find repeatedly in autobiographical writing of the last twenty years, neatly encapsulated in the example from Marilyn Young, the need for present self-disclosure, where the author’s struggle to uncover the story is the story, for no reason other than that is what the writing itself has revealed and thus guided the writer to discover. Self-disclosure is self-reflexive in method, but it is unlike John Barth’s technique, for example, where the author creates a dramatic relationship between himself as author and his text as the subject of the work. These newer time-obsessed autobiographies are reflexive of selves, where the author connects the present remembering self to other "selves" in his or her past, producing in the process a radically new, mixed-up 'I'. The contemporary autobiographical 'I' has become a complex narrative self who no longer focuses on retrieving the "hallowed and immemorial" past but on conjoining the past, present, and present-passing selves into one text. In recent years, a few brave autobiographers actually have chosen to discover their past selves by dramatizing their stories almost entirely in the present, thus exploring the most potentially hazardous narrative structure in any self-writing—the conflict between past and present realizations.

To begin a short list of these "mixed-up" autobiographies, we start with the memoirs of Lillian Hellman: An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), a present-centered book about the unreliability of its narrator and her memory, and Scoundrel Time (1976), a book about the 1950s and the Cold War, which Hellman opens with this confession: "I have tried twice before to write about what has come to be known as the McCarthy period but I didn’t much like what I wrote. . . . I had strange hangups and they are always hard to explain. Now I tell myself that if I face them, maybe I can manage." (Such indecision is characteristic of many current life-writers. Manage what? Her past? Her future? Her life? This book?) Other examples include Flying (1974) by Kate Millett; The Woman Warrior (1976) by Maxine Hong Kingston; Born on the Fourth of July (1976) by Ron Kovic; The Sacred Journey (1982) and Now and Then (1983) by Frederick Buechner, the latter book a re-appraisal in part of the earlier one; In My Mother’s House (1983) by Kim Chernin; and Loyalties (1989) by Carl Bernstein, whose decision to tell the story of his left-wing family is as troubling to the author as living a radical life in America was for his parents.

Many 20th century essayists have played with the dis-locality of recollected personal experience. Readers will recall E. B. White’s magical tale, "Once More to the Lake," in which his visits to a lake in Maine with his son, summer after summer, become less and less distinguishable from his visits to the same lake as a boy with his own dad. Virginia Woolf’s "Sketch of the Past" uses her earliest childhood reminiscences to reflect on why certain memories persist and others do not, to understand how the most important memories appear only in the most elusive moments, in which our beings enlarge with great consciousness, resonate with meaning, and then float away. I know of no other personal essayist, however, who intermixes past and present to purposely disorient the reader as skillfully as Joan Didion.

Didion’s essay "On Going Home" concerns a weekend trip, one she often makes, to her parents’ home in California’s unhip Central Valley and the displaced feelings she experiences whenever she is there. Once she arrives she loses contact with her present life, her "remote life in Los Angeles"; her husband, too, "is uneasy in their house, because once there I fall into their ways, which are difficult, oblique, deliberately inarticulate, not my husband’s ways." In a sense she becomes the past not because the past has resisted change, but because she cannot, at home, "get out of the past," despite her education, cosmopolitan life, L.A. identity. Didion labels her life now her "particular irrelevancy," something she is barely aware of as she yields to the seduction of memory when she goes home.

Didion writes her essay in present tense, and the effect is jarring. Even though the essay is about a recent trip, it engages the distant past of childhood and adolescence so strongly, returning to her oddly preserved room and parents’ isolation, that her current life seems to dissolve. Didion’s use of the present tense does not, as it usually does in fiction, reduce distance and increase immediacy. Here it has the opposite effect—we feel that her going home has made her numb to the present time even though she seems to experience the present fully. Peculiarly, the longer she describes the heaviness of her past’s hold on her, the more frighteningly enlarged time becomes, as if to say time at our parents’ home (or at any memorably difficult site of the past) is thickened with a past-present awareness which we cannot alter but only suffer through like a heat spell. In the end Didion leaves us—characteristically—exhausted, confused, unmoored. Her essay is a brooding example of how the past nearly suffocates us in the present, where our best reaction, especially at home, is often no more than bewilderment.

3.

I see two types of contemporary autobiography that are expanding the traditional view of how our lives are written. The first is an autobiography of the immediate present, in which the author tells of a just-completed experience, usually a crisis, in effect refusing to let the story become buried in memory. The second is an autobiography which also from a present perspective retrieves the distant past so as to force a reconciliation between different selves in different times. I will discuss each type in the final two sections of this essay.

Writing an autobiography of the immediate present is one way to insure that the writer will not forget the past. The goal of such a work, for amateur and professional, is to capture the heat and exactness of the story, giving greater meaning to the narrative than to any old-age commentary or reflection about what happened. It is a story for which immediate self-disclosure has become certain therapy. Our bookstore shelves are filled with these sudden remembrances, tales of victims and survivors (the contemporary equivalent of slave narratives)—surviving cancer, tending a dying loved one, recording one’s own suffering: all personal narratives of the most recent past.

One of the best is Philip Roth’s Patrimony (1991), subtitled a "true story," which pays homage to the importance of a father to all men via the importance of his father, Herbert Roth. Roth narrates his father’s 1988-1989 losing battle to a brain tumor. The book is also studded with Roth's most endearing reminiscences of his dad, a man of his own passions and eccentricities. True, the book is about his father’s eventual death, which now is past; but Roth admits to tending his growing book and his dying father simultaneously. In the end he has a dream that his dead father returns to haunt him about his wrong choice of a burial dress. "In the morning I realized that he had been alluding to this book, which, in keeping with the unseemliness of my profession, I had been writing all the while he was ill and dying. The dream was telling me that, if not in my books or in my life, at least in my dreams I would live perennially as his little son . . . ."

Unlike traditional memoir, here the anxious, fearful self is the recording self. Early in the book, Roth hesitates for some time before he tells his father about the tumor. On a visit to his mother’s grave, he dramatizes his ambivalence, imagining several ways to speak with the dead, hoping to get close, get "down and place your hands directly above their remains—touching the ground, their ground . . . shut your eyes and remember what they were like when they were still with you." But Roth's attempts prove to him that "even if you succeed and get yourself worked up enough to feel their presence, you still walk away without them." Roth discovers that he first must purge himself of the imagined comforts of bringing back the past, so he will not fail as messenger and nurse to his terminally ill father.

In essence Roth uses autobiography to resolve for himself the immediate loss of his father much in the way a journalist exposes a contemporary problem or the new social novel confronts current political issues. Many writers now recognize that these stories of immediate personal crisis belong more to their present lives and, therefore, cannot simmer beside their other "creative" work. These stories are their creative work; they must be told, perhaps not for the res publica but for the writer’s own need to grieve. Grief, sooner or later, as everyone knows, blows down every door. Had more writers grieved their losses—our losses—during the Vietnam War with such present-centered autobiographies as Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the collective road back from the war may have been somewhat shorter and the subsequent novelist’s assessment less imperative.

Another autobiography of the present, more politically focused than Roth’s book, is David Mura’s Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (1991). A capacious story, Mura, who is also a poet, writes about a year in the late eighties spent studying in Japan when he tried to reconcile his Japanese identity as a Sansei, or third generation Japanese-American, with his American self. He reflects before leaving the U.S. that "Much of my life I had insisted on my Americanness . . . yet I was going to Japan as a poet, and my Japanese ancestry was there in my poems—my grandfather, the relocation camps, the hibakusha (victims of the atomic bomb), a picnic of Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans), my uncle who fought in the 442nd." Mura says that his "imagination had been traveling there for years, unconsciously swimming the Pacific, against the tide of my family’s emigration, my parents’ desire, after the internment camps, to forget the past."

When Mura arrives he mixes in at once with "the sea of faces, the uncanny resemblances, the hints of foreign genes in the cheekbones or lips or kink of the hair, and yet the singular stamp of Japanese in each face." He feels inspired, exhilarated: "You are unnoticeable here, you have melded in, you can stand not uttering a word and be one of this crowd, and in each job in this country, there is someone who looks like you." But then, spoiling all this freshness, the masks of the Japanese quickly appear: the face many Japanese put on when they discover he is an American; the face of the geisha and its reflection in the society’s treatment of women; the face of Japanese political demonstrations, where people are used as battering rams and the ethical input of individuals—desirable in the west—is forcefully suppressed. These faces combine to instruct him that the Japanese censure of the individual holds true on both sides of the Pacific. Furthermore, the questions he asks about the Japanese in Japan resonate with those questions he has always had about their identity in America. Why did the Nisei go so "unwillingly" to the internment camps in 1942? Why did his parents kow-tow? Why did so few fight back and then still desire the American life after everything they owned was taken from them?

By being in Japan and discovering its heart and mind, Mura sees a curiously deeper double life to his identity than he could have imagined back home. He learns for himself the subtle difference between Sansei and Nisei: The Nisei had to fight to re-establish their identity whereas the Sansei had less demanding needs for self-knowledge. Theirs was inherited, not situational—few Sansei had to deal with loyalty oaths or relocation camps. Mura also discovers that though no single truth about the Nisei exists there are personal connections he can still develop with his father, in particular, once he stops seeing him as a failed man, a representative of his victimized generation. His parents are American and like other Americans, rightly or wrongly, they fight to separate themselves from the rest of the world. Marginalism, then, is Mura’s legacy. He remarks to Susan, his wife and companion on the trip, that "despite whatever they taught me, I always knew I was somehow different from the whites around me. . . . It’s as if I’ve discovered not only Japan, or even Asia this year, but a whole new way of looking at the world. Maybe the fact that I don’t fit in back home or even here is an advantage."

Mura moves in this memoir of the present from an outsider in America to an insider in Japan, and then from an outsider in Japan to an insider in America. Coming home, he knows he will again don the immigrant’s mask but he hopes he does so with a greater loyalty to himself and his family. Indeed his journey has forced him to resolve the dilemma of assimilation in America which, as some African-Americans have done by returning to Africa or the southern states to immerse themselves in their pasts, could only be achieved by going back to the garden.

4.

That which the writer wishes to disclose, that discovery she has made through the interweaving of now and then, should have the greatest influence on how the autobiographical narrative is plotted and paced. Disclosure resembles resolution, and the autobiographer can when planning the work plot backwards from the resolution if she knows what that disclosure will be. Typically, however, disclosure appears through the mixing process itself, in the give-and-take between time past and time present. One may disclose, tell and show all, at the climax. But in those well-mixed memoirs that, as John Gardner says, we read with "profluence," that is, "getting somewhere," we want the narratives of past and present to arrive at the disclosure with interdependence, like an escape tunnel dug from both sides—the prisoner’s and the rescuer’s.

Here are two recent works that masterfully plot the interdependence between now and then.

Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments (1987) alternates two life tracks, episodes of her past life and episodes of her present life, with each period focused on her relationship with her mother. Her past track runs through childhood and girlhood, college, her professional writing life, romance, marriage, divorce. The common link is that her mother’s divisive opinion helps shape every phase. The other track of the book is her present life, also focused on her mother, covering a year in their lives together (Gornick is about 50, her mother 80, at the time of the writing). The present-time sections begin with the two of them walking through a different neighborhood in the Bronx where the past, inevitably, expectantly, intercedes. Once the past intrudes and an incident is recalled, the story returns to the present. The narrative moves back and forth, dislocating time and breaking continuity. But as we read, the shifts feel natural because Gornick sculpts her scenes of crisis and resolution with long, sure, emotional rhythms: Both periods possess the innocence of discovery and forgiveness, both give way to the knowledge of guilt and betrayal. It is curious how the inertia of life becomes slowed and settled when, like roommates, past and present time co-habit.

Through it all, Gornick lets us hear her mother’s crying need for respectability and her own answering rattle to be heard. Yet each time the two collide, her mother insists that Vivian, and not her, is the one who doesn’t understand.

"It's no use. Say what you will, children don’t love their parents as they did when I was young."

"Ma, do you really believe that?"

"I certainly do! My mother died in my sister’s arms, with all her children around her. How will I die, will you please tell me? They probably won’t find me for a week. Days pass. I don’t hear from you. Your brother I see three times a year. The neighbors? Who? Who’s there to check on me? Manhattan is not the Bronx, you know."

"Exactly. That’s what this is all about. Manhattan is not the Bronx. Your mother didn’t die in her daughter’s arms because your sister loved her more than we love you. Your sister hated your mother, and you know it. She was there because it was her duty to be there, and because she lived around the corner all her married life. It had nothing to do with love. It wasn’t a better life, it was an immigrant life, a working-class life, a life from another century."

"Call it what you want," she replies angrily, "it was a more human way to live."

These exchanges always inhabit the present which, because these women are older, ring with self-righteous anger and vindictive moralizing. The dialogue is often this quarrelsome. But it is dialogue that forces them into a greater awareness of their conflict, about which Gornick says, "both [of us have] been confused the whole of our lives about who we are, and how to get there." They do have moments of levity and compassion; but they cannot sustain those moments. They’d rather expose the other’s faults. Each clamors about being victimized—Vivian, by her mother’s bullheadedness, her mother, by the younger generation’s unwillingness to accept the way things should be. And so it goes.

By alternating then and now—the past is related in the present tense and present in the past tense—we see both times evolve, come together or resist union, depending upon the mother-daughter issue. The static past often moves forward quickly because the writer lives now in the context of memory—her mother’s neighborhood, home, and person. The more vibrant present often slows down and allows their memories to catch up with them today. The past accumulates its force through Gornick’s and her mother’s co-productive recollections, and this drama would, we understand, not be possible without both players. Their separate lives have much less identity by themselves; they create through relationship a single life together, perhaps a third person between them whom they are both raising, with scolding care. Indeed, without the writer including her narrative realizations about the past in the present time, the book would sound hopelessly unalterable, as many memoirs do. Gornick fights to revivify her life with her mother in both times and the resulting agitation creates, for the author, a problem which isn’t easily resolvable. With her goal to settle the score between them, Gornick inevitably focuses more of the story’s physical weight on reliving the past. Consequently, the action of moving beyond the past via reliving it is exhausting for reader and characters alike. However, as we saw with Didion’s essays, we learn that exhaustion is the point. Mother and daughter’s unrevisable attachment is everything. If the two were to forgive one another they would no longer appreciate the alienation that keeps them hungering for each other.

Finally, Sylvia Fraser’s My Father’s House (1987) is a dramatic revelation of childhood sexual abuse. Like Gornick’s alterations of time and tense, Fraser narrates the story of her abuse in present tense, yet prefaces each of her chapters with a disclosure in past tense, that is, in the writer’s present time. Such disorientation is necessary to reflect the explosive realizations she came to while writing the book over a three-year period. Fraser writes in an "Author’s Note" that "For clarity, I have used italics to indicate thoughts, feelings and experiences pieced together from recently recovered memories." As an example of Fraser’s method, the second chapter, "The Other," begins with a past tense account of her present knowledge about her father before she fully remembers his abuse and, eventually, shows it to us as well.

When the conflict caused by my sexual relationship with my father became too acute to bear, I created a secret accomplice for my daddy by splitting my personality in two. Thus, somewhere around the age of seven, I acquired another self with memories and experiences separate from mine, whose existence was unknown to me. My loss of memory was retroactive. I did not remember my daddy ever having touched me sexually. I did not remember ever seeing my daddy naked. I did not remember my daddy every seeing me naked. In future, whenever my daddy approached me sexually I turned into my other self, and afterwards I did not remember anything that had happened.

Even now, I don’t know the full truth of that other little girl I created to do the things I was too frightened, too ashamed, too repelled to do, the things my father made me do, the things I did to please him but which paid off with a precocious and dangerous power. She loved my father, freeing me to hate him. She became his guilty sex partner and my mother’s jealous rival, allowing me to lead a more normal life. She knew everything about me. I knew nothing about her, yet some connection always remained.

Then, as some of the memories come back, that "other self" from the past tussles with the author’s self now to tell the story. Fraser narrates that story in the present tense, as this excerpt, recollecting her father’s ritualistic sexual advances that began when she was four, makes clear.

Through the bathroom door I hear my father splashing in the tub. Holding my breath, I slide under his bed, grabbing for Smoky [her cat]. Now the bath plug is being pulled. With a gurgle, the scummy water sucks down the drain.

By the time daddy stomps out of the bathroom, saronged in a towel, my other self is curled on his feather pillow, sucking her thumb and wearing Smoky’s dirty pink ribbon. A breeze blows the curtains inward, just like the hair of a fairytale princess, giving her goose bumps. Whose little girl are you?

Fraser’s autobiography is the most powerfully dramatic meeting between then and now I have yet read. As Margaret Atwood noted in a review, the book reads like a detective novel because the two selves are slowly, via the author’s recollection of events that trigger or resonate with the incest, becoming aware of each other. Fraser does her best to prepare us for this mixture of awarenesses. But it is the recognition of their co-existence in her which comes to fascinate us most. These parallel selves, from interdependent times, eventually merge into a single woman’s self who begins to understand just how complex the multi-leveled narrative self can be. But it takes a courageous reliving of those events—presenting past time in the present tense—to bring the memory back, feel it again, then keep it at bay, I suspect, for the rest of her life.

I emphasize the fact that the complex play available between then and now is perhaps the autobiographer’s most emotionally revealing route toward self-discovery. Indeed, the dramatic force in Gornick’s and Fraser’s books is produced as much by their alternating past and present time as it is by their eventual discovery that both times have equal bearing on the whole. Every autobiographer need not, because it is new or fashionable, pit a present self (me as a father of two difficult sons) vs. a past self (me as one of two sons of a difficult father). But imagine what happens when the writer senses such a recurrence in his own life and explores both narratives simultaneously. As much as one dislocates the past with the present (and vice versa), one begins to accept a less horizontal view of the self and to see instead a more vertical perspective, where one looks down through the years of the individual life as one looks down through water, seeing all levels and currents at once.