by Jerry Waxler
Sue William Silverman’s three memoirs offer inspiring examples of a writer’s willingness to overcome shame in order to share her story. Her first, I Remember Terror Father dealt with the shame of childhood sexual abuse. The second, Love Sick, takes us on the journey of sexual addiction. Her latest memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, tackles the strange and often hidden world of trying to fit into the dominant culture.
Shame is a crucial emotion. As John Bradshaw, the “shaman of shame” points out in his books and lectures, shame has a good side and a bad side. On the good side it keeps us behaving in a socially acceptable manner. A “shameless” person has no concept of social responsibility. On the dark side, shame makes us feel bad about ourselves, and as a result we stay silent about the things that cause it. Memoir writers must fearlessly face these aspects of ourselves, as emphasized in Silverman’s excellent book about memoir writing, whose title”Fearless Confessions” highlights the fact that courage is one of the prerequisites for writing a memoir.
As a Jew, Sue William Silverman grew up feeling like an outsider who wanted to fit in. The shame of being an outsider is familiar to anyone who feels like they don’t belong, whether because of skin color, religion, acne, birth mark, frizzy hair, stutter, poverty, or any of a thousand other causes for self-consciousness.Those of use who are the recipients of prejudice, whether real or imagined, must figure out how to overcome our sense of being different. Sue William Silverman’s book Pat Boone Fan Club takes advantage of the author’s willingness to share her shame and tell a story about her own journey to come to terms with her difference.
In the next few posts, I invite her to answer questions about her memoir, writing about assimilation, and how she developed the particular style of this book.
How does a “dreamy style” work in nonfiction
Jerry: Hi Sue William Silverman. I just reviewed my notes and see our first interview took place in 2009. So nice to speak to you again! And thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about Pat Boone Fan Club.
In your latest memoir, Pat Boone Fan Club, you take us on your journey through your obsessive, desperate, and for the most part, not-logical side of yourself, trying to see yourself reflected in the mirror of our cultural icons – you select Pat Boone as the representative of the most vanilla, most iconic “all-American” pop culture figure. You seem to be saying, “If only I could connect with Pat Boone, I would finally and completely become an American.”
Because this is a memoir, I would ordinarily assume it was all “factual” but because your account of the interview with Pat Boone is so dreamy, I can’t tell if it takes place as a sort of imaginary sequence in your own mind. Could you help me understand your stylistic choice.
Sue William Silverman: The meetings with Pat Boone absolutely take place! The three encounters with him are at the heart of the book. I interweave the actual meetings, our dialogue and interactions, with my thoughts – what you’re calling “dreamy.” Generally speaking, much of memoir is discovering the story behind the story, a movement toward what the facts mean. A simple rendering of “this happened, then this happened, and then this next thing happened,” is only part of a memoir. The other part is to be brought inside the narrator’s reflection of these events – what the author/narrator thinks about these events now, as she’s writing.
Let me show you an example from the book, which should clarify this. First, though, a quick summary: Pat Boone is a 1960s pop-music idol, now better known as a Christian conservative and wholesome, squeaky-clean family man with four daughters. In the book, I write about how, growing up, I had a crush on him. The crush went deeper than the fact that I liked his music. I wanted him to adopt me. Since my own father, my Jewish father, misloved me, Pat Boone seemed the safest man on the planet. In this memoir, I explore my ambiguity toward Judaism and my desire to pass as Christian, be part of the dominant culture and religion.
Anyway, okay, back to your question. In this short excerpt, the factual story is in blue ink, and I’ve inserted my thoughts and reflections in red ink. Just to set the scene, this takes place in Pat Boone’s green room after his Christmas concert. Marc is my partner who accompanies me. You also need to know that I am recovering from a rather serious illness. Pat Boone has just entered the room.
Marc and I stand up from the couch.
“Can I hug you?” Pat Boone asks, smiling.
When he enfolds my frail, ailing body, it feels like a laying on of hands.
Pat Boone will cure me.
“Would you like to sit here?” Marc nods toward the couch, beside me, where he’d been sitting.
Pat Boone shakes his head, pulling a chair directly in front of me. “This way I can see her better.” Meaning me. He settles onto the chair….
Pat Boone points to the velvet flower embroidered on my lavender jacket. “At home, hanging on my wall, I have a photograph of a flower growing up through concrete,” he says. “Like you. Your childhood. You are like a flower growing up through concrete.”
This is Pat Boone, too. Not just the religious conservative. But the April-love-love-letters-in-the-sand Pat Boone. The Pat Boone offering innocence. Redemption. Answers….
He is as I always envision: perfect hair, smile, teeth, wife, daughters, career, life. But I struggle to pay attention as he talks. I’m weak, dizzy. I’m just hoping not to pass out. Even as I lean toward him, smiling, an enormous sadness wells up inside me. I want to tell Pat Boone I’ve been ill. I want him to know I was worried I’d miss the concert. I’m equally sad that I look thin and frail. I’d wanted to be perfect for him, match his own seeming perfection. Instead, my skirt hangs loose. I notice a small rip in the flower on my jacket. My hair is limp, my face wan. My only hope is that he won’t notice how sick I appear. I don’t want to spoil this meeting after anticipating it for so long.
Hopefully, from reading the above, you can see how I move between the actual action unfolding – the “outer” story – and my own thoughts, or the “interior” story.
In the next part of the interview, I ask her about how she used pop culture as an entry point for her fantasy about becoming a “real” American.
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