My WOW! Women on Writing blog tour guest today is Myrna J. Smith, author of God and Other Men: Religion, Romance, and the Search for Self-Love – her first book. A huge welcome, Myrna.
Since Myrna’s book is a memoir, I asked her to write a post about other memoirs that resonate with her. Here is what she has to say.
Memoirs that Spoke to Me
By Myrna J. Smith
Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes has all the qualities of a good novel: sex, violence, thievery, suffering, death, and, most importantly redemption. Amazingly it is a memoir, not a piece of fiction. We wonder, how so many terrible things could happen to one family? And how could young Frank come out of that suffering to live such a rich life in America? McCourt lives in Catholic Ireland and suffers from Catholic guilt. He really believes the consumptive Theresa would go to hell because of their sexual transgressions on the green sofa. He thinks he deserves punishment for a hundred other sins, including masturbation.
But the Church did not condemn him; in fact it saves him. In a marvelous scene at the end of the book, we see McCourt on his 16th birthday before a statue of St. Francis. Frank believes the saint for whom he is named has deserted him. A priest comes when he is in the depths of his suffering and asks if he would like to confess. He believes his sins are too great, but the priest prevails and persuades him to tell all of his sins to St. Francis; his own ears would just be a substitute for those of St. Francis and God. So McCourt confesses everything.
The priest’s assurances to him that he is loved and forgiven by God and that Theresa would have been able to confess her sins before her death lift the burden of guilt from him. As a writer of a spiritual memoir in which I describe my own evolution through the experience of many religions—and one dramatic awakening—I am inspired by Angela’s Ashes, especially the confession.
Being relieved of guilt is not so easy for the mother and son in James McBride’s moving memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. The mother, Ruth McBride Jordan (or is it Ruchel Shilsky McBride Jordan?) keeps her Jewish youth secret from her twelve black children, reminding me of my own tendency to keep secrets when I was a teenager. In my need for acceptance by my peers, I did not want people to know my father worked as a janitor, or that he, and all of us, believed in reincarnation—long before that belief became popular.
McBride recognizes that he must uncover his mother’s past so that he can know who he is. In her finally telling her story and their visit to the Virginia town, and even the synagogue, where she grew up, both become freer and both go on to live remarkable lives. Truth telling loosens the power of the past both for these characters—as it did for me.
One of the most successful memoir writers is Mary Karr. Truth telling rarely happens in her wonderfully readable The Liar’s Club. She matches McCourt in her use of language as well as her description of the outrageous behavior of the adults. Her parents both can keep secrets as well as McBride’s mother. In fact, her father never comes clean. The mother’s confessions at the end of the book about her traumatic life and early marriage help resolve the difficulties between Karr and her mother, bringing this entertaining memoir, like the other two, to a satisfying ending.
I’ve read both Angela’s Ashes and The Liar’s Club. Both are excellent memoirs. Now I must put The Color of Water on my to be read list. Thanks so much for the suggestions, Myrna.
About God and Other Men: Religion, Romance, and the Search for Self-Love:
Myrna J. Smith opens her story one Sunday night when she returns home from a ski weekend with her three children. While she was on the slopes, her husband had moved out. That had been the plan. Yet her story, though it encompasses her divorce, is much larger. Ultimately, Smith sets out to love herself, to find an inner place where she can rest and grow.
In this search-for-the-holy-grail memoir, Smith traces her travels toward enlightenment as a middle-aged American woman with a wry humor and heartfelt longing. On the journey she discovers spiritual fulfillment doesn’t come easily, or all at once. For her, it is quite elusive.
The quest really started, she realizes, in her childhood on an Oregon farm where she and her older sister were once “converted” in their father’s pea patch by two young Bible summer school teachers barely out of their teens. The school was part of the tiny church their mother attended while their father stayed home, read Edgar Cayce books, and mused on reincarnation.
Later, drawn by the mysticism of the Hindus, Smith’s journey leads to Bangalore where she touches the robes of Sai Baba, the Indian saint. Back home in New Jersey, she finds herself in a country farmhouse getting prescriptions channeled through a medium for everything from her back woes and diarrhea to an obsession with money.
She also writes of the demons that surface during a years-long love affair with her beloved Charlie and what A Course in Miracles stirred within her.
Smith’s story is one of adventure and effort that, in the end, reveals three simple yet essential truths that are both the journey and the destination.
Myrna J. Smith held a faculty position in the English Department at Raritan Valley Community College, Somerville, N.J., from 1970-2004, where she took leave for two and a half years to serve as Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning housed at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. She received a Ed.D. from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick, N.J. Smith also had two Mid-Career Fellowships to attend Princeton University, one in English and one in religion. Smith, who was 74 years old when she published her memoir, now resides in Frenchtown, N.J, a small town on the Delaware River.
She recently returned from a five-week trip to Asia: two weeks with a small group to Myanmar and a few days in Hong Kong, where she has friends, and Vietnam for 10 days. The year before Smith traveled to Thailand and Cambodia and the year before that to Indonesia, both with small groups. She also travels in Canada and the northeast U.S. with her sister, brother, and their spouses most years.
Please learn more about Myrna over at the WOW! Women On Writing Muffin blog.
Thanks so much for being at Choices today, Myrna. I hope you’ve encouraged our readers to think about the memoirs that speak to them. Please, readers, let us know.
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