Review: “Mother Noise”, by Cindy House; “My Seven Black Fathers”, by Will Jawando; and “This Body I Was Carrying”, by Diana Goetsch
On the cover of Cindy House’s new memoir, MOTHER NOISE (Marysue Rucci Books/Scribner, 266 pages, $26.99)a neon-tinted spoon next to spilled milk and colorful cereal cleverly evokes the author’s twin themes: addiction and motherhood.
House spent years battling heroin addiction, and “Mother Noise” is his attempt to examine this phase of his life. But the memoirs, which are written like a love letter to his son, whose dynamic presence in House’s life underpins the entire book, aren’t structured with the narrative impulse to follow a single story through the time. Instead, House easily divides his own life into little stories — about stints in rehab, about custody battles, about neighborhood forums, about writing mentors — that are often flanked by photos or of hand-drawn sketches, as if House intended to break any generic mold that enveloped his thorny life story.
In the final chapter, House confesses that it took her years to tell most people what she went through as a recovering drug addict. Such anxiety emerges as one of the strengths of House’s raw, tender prose – “Mother Noise” feels lovingly crafted, expertly cut and chiseled into its current outspoken form. “When people ask me why I was a drug addict, my best response is that I was afraid to feel,” she wrote. Later, she said, “Things that haunt us can be left in what we make, kept safe where they won’t continue to torture us.
At the margins of House’s stories – or, perhaps, at the center of them – is a powerful meditation on the palliative value of storytelling. That’s why writers, mentors, and inspirations are all over his book. Not just David Sedaris, who gets a lovingly sketched portrait in a very amusing piece about their friendship over the years, but also Tim O’Brien, whose line “But that too is true: stories can save us” serves as a precise precise from House’s bold and welcoming memoir. This is a book not about how you rebuild yourself through writing, but about how writing itself can be a kind of reconstruction, a reassembly of your past mistakes.
Will Jawando’s book, MY SEVEN BLACK FATHERS: A Young Activist’s Memoirs of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 231 pp., $28), is explicit in both structure and content. Jawando, who worked as an associate director in President Obama’s White House Office of Public Engagement, created a manifesto about the importance of intergenerational mentorship in the black community.
Each of the seven sections that make up Jawando’s memoir concerns a pivotal figure in his life: the first black teacher he had, the high school coach who pushed him, the 44th President of the United States.
The book ends with Jawando’s Nigerian father, whose absence initially prompted Jawando, then a young black boy growing up in Maryland with a single white mother, to seek out other parental figures. Their reconciliation is painful but necessary, and writing about it offers Jawando a chance to highlight the need for more compassion for and among black men.
In keeping with his political background, Jawando wants his memoirs to serve a public purpose. If so, he hopes the book can reignite the conversation about black fatherhood: “For black men, having access to father figures can mean the difference between a fulfilling life, or poverty, incarceration and untimely death. “, he writes. This framing causes his personal memories to sometimes function, for better and for worse, as data points.
As a writer, Jawando may seem remote from the scenes he describes. His voice retreats into analytical abstraction at times when he is most vulnerable, producing insightful yet detached lines like this about his father: Own Reward. »
Throughout “My Seven Black Fathers,” Jawando uses his current position to offer incisive assessments of his past that branch out into pressing cultural conversations about current topics like the politics of respectability and the dominant narratives of fatherless households, between others. As Jawando notes, “The power of these black male mentors is that they make America a fairer place for black boys and a better place for everything Americans.”
THIS BODY I WEARED (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 316 pp., $28), by the famous poet Diana Goetsch, does not start where one would expect. Rather than opening with Goetsch as a child, the first half of this memoir recounts how the author struggled with gender confusion and a self-proclaimed “cross-dressing addiction” in early adulthood. It is only after she establishes her fate as an adult that Goetsch returns to her memories to color her transition.
This structural conceit helps Goetsch reframe his youth: We don’t first meet a boy and then a trans woman. By belatedly meeting the distant 5-year-old who felt estranged from his family, we are armed with the knowledge to better understand the author’s struggle.
As its title suggests, this painfully beautiful memoir is about a trans woman’s often thwarted relationship with her own body. It’s a relationship that’s been made even more complicated by the timing – Goetsch grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a lack of resources, models, and even language to help Goetsch understand his nagging questions about his sense of self.
But this is not a challenge in his prose. Goetsch has a poetic sensibility that enlightens without simplifying. “I can’t get over the fact that girls can dress in clothes that take my breath away,” she wrote, stepping into her shoes as a child, “and do it with impunity , whenever they want. What would it be like to be a girl? This question may have seemed overwhelming when she was younger, but here and now, Goetsch presents it with such clarity that it topples.
Although the memoirs remain firmly centered on Goetsch, “This Body I Wore” also tenderly sketches a history of the nascent trans communities that developed in the late 20th century. The groups that met at dinner parties and at the Gay and Lesbian Center in New York. People who frequented the Edelweiss Club or the Fabric Factory. Anonymous contributors to GeoCities personal pages. Here is a detailed story that lives on in the only way possible: in the fleeting memories of those who survived, who endured and who now, like Goetsch, thrive.
Manuel Betancourt is the author of “Judy at Carnegie Hall” and the upcoming “The Male Gazed,” as well as a contributing writer for “The Cardboard Kingdom” graphic novel series.