Memoirs of Trauma and Travel
- Janice Williamson (Author)
Crybaby!. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lesley Krueger (Author)
Foreign Correspondence: A Traveller's Tales. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Wendy Roy
Family secrets can shape lives for good or ill, as two very different memoirs by Lesley Krueger and Janice Williamson attest. Krueger’s narrative is a meditation on travel and on the way families influence the urge to travel and to return home, while Williamson’s narrative explores memories of childhood sexual abuse and its devastating effects. Both authors courageously break decades of silence, although the family secrets they reveal vary widely in nature and effect.
In Crybaby! Williamson writes about her powerful and disturbing memories of abuse at the hands of her father. Her exploration is initially tentative, since the only person who can confirm or deny the abuse—her father—committed suicide twenty-five years earlier. Through fragments of memory and discussions with friends and family, Williamson stacks up the evidence on one side, while keeping open the possibility for error or denial on the other. Her book is not only, or not primarily, about sexual abuse, but instead about its influence on a woman’s sense of self and ability to write about that self. Much of the book’s impact comes from the juxtaposition of Williamson’s own words with family photographs. Can photographs /ie?the memoir asks. The answer, of course, is yes, since the smiling face of the little girl with her hair cut straight across her forehead—standing in the open door of a car, sitting on a swing, leaning against her father’s knee—belies the pain of Williamson’s narrative. "The photograph is a visual sign of the unsayable," she writes, then shows the reader the back of each photograph, on which her father has written comments such as "Push me some more, Daddy" that serve to put words into her mouth and thus to silence her.
The difficulty of speaking about sexual abuse is graphically represented in Williamson’s memoir through the use, and avoidance, of the first-person pronoun. While Williamson’s narrator sometimes calls herself "I," at other times she invokes distance by writing of herself as "she/I," "she," or "the girl," or, even more disconcertingly, by using "I" as a third-person pronoun: "The first time I makes love, her body splits apart." As a further manifestation of the difficulty of representing such experience, Williamson writes her entire memoir in fragments, telling her story through what she calls "[g]aps and fissures." The book’s ten distinct sections are made up of quotations from other writers, snippets of Williamson’s own prose and poetry, and comments from friends and family members. This fragmentary approach is frustrating, since the lack of a straightforward narrative makes Williamson’s story difficult to follow. It is also effective, since it illustrates the fragmentary nature of memory and of women’s life stories, and leaves necessary space for doubt and confusion.
Williamson’s memoir begins with the definition of the word "crybaby," an opening that paradoxically makes it impossible for the reader to dismiss her as one who cries for no good reason. Ambiguity remains a large part of her narrative, however, as she poses questions such as "Does she lie?" when she describes a memory of a man touching a child’s genitals, and comments that "Whether my father molested me will not be established." While Williamson reports corroborating evidence from friends and family members who were sexually assaulted by her father, she also discusses false memory syndrome and the similarities between her own writing and the "spectacular exhibitionism" of talk shows.
I first heard part of Williamson’s narrative at The Body Conference at the University of Saskatchewan in 1997. Her honest and brutal exploration of family secrets was compelling and discomfiting then, and is compelling and discomfiting now. Readers and listeners are disturbed by her revelations, and feel uncomfortably like voyeurs into another’s life. Williamson’s many references to women’s writings about the self and to Sigmund Freud’s and others’ interpretations of sexual abuse, however, help to contextualize her experience. Readers are never allowed to view her story as only that of one unfortunate family, but instead are forced to acknowledge the resonances for other women’s lives in Williamson’s pain, confusion and recovery.
The family secrets revealed in Lesley Krueger’s Foreign Correspondences are far enough in the past that the author can explore their influence on her life in a more straightforward manner. Krueger’s book, subtitled A Traveler’s Tales, is in many respects a travel narrative. The author interrupts her descriptions of travel, however, to examine how her family has influenced her attitude toward travel and to explore what she learns about herself and her family through travel.
A discussion of travel as travail is central to Krueger’s narrative. She describes the unwilling travels of her father and uncle during the Second World War, and of her two grandmothers, both of whom came to Canada as reluctant emigrants but who then used emigration to rewrite their past lives. Krueger’s discovery that one grandmother was sent to Canada to hide a rape and resulting pregnancy, and that the other used emigration to revise her family origins, helps her to understand her grandparents, her parents and ultimately herself. She concludes that travel forces her, like her grandmothers, to learn what it means to be foreign.
Her interwoven narrative of travels to India, Thailand, Sweden, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, Japan, and Labrador is presented in a fragmented and non-chronological style. Travel leads Krueger to think about family, and she repeatedly digresses from descriptions of residence in other places to personal and family history. Connections between her travel experiences and her personal reflections are often tenuous, however, and the movement between the two types of narrative is often jarring, especially since the travel sections jump backward and forward in time, and the family reflections tease the reader with bits of information that are developed only later in the book. The margins of Foreign Correspondences are intriguingly but frus-tratingly sprinkled with unidentified and uncredited postage-stamp-sized photographs of what are, presumably, Krueger’s family and travels. Identification of these photographs, and their enlargement and incorporation into the text, would have helped to complement and complicate Krueger’s memoir. Despite these structural problems, however, Krueger does get much right about the way that families shape our lives, and is an astute observer of the sexual, cultural, and class differences that are part of the travel experience. For example, Krueger describes tourism as "traveling in class," since tourists live temporarily above their social levels. She also explores the differences between travel and tourism, concluding that most travellers are tourists because they "can leave any time they really want to."
I found the section on Krueger’s three-year stay in Brazil most compelling, in part because I kept comparing it to the Brazilian Journal of P.K. Page, who is a minor character in Krueger’s book. Another fascinating section relates to Krueger’s return home to Toronto, where she traces the ownership of the land on which her house is situated back to First Nations groups who lived there centuries earlier and then back even further to the beginnings of geological time.
Both Krueger and Williamson went against their mothers’ advice in revealing their families’ secrets. In telling secrets, including about her father’s war experiences and first unacknowledged marriage, Krueger represents the family as a place of silence and contradiction where one has to keep one’s wits about one to discover what is going on. Williamson represents family as a place of darker secrets, but a place where discovery and revelation ultimately lead to healing.
- Love and History by Jennifer Chambers
Books reviewed: A Canadian in Love by Isabel Overton Bader and Roseann Runte and Mrs. King: The Life and Times of Isabel MacKenzie by Charlotte Gray
- Internment Memoirs by Patricia E. Roy
Books reviewed: Wild Daisies in the Sand: Life in a Canadian Internment Camp by Tom Sando and A Curious Cage: Life in a Japanese Internment Camp, 1943-1945 by Peggy Abkhazi (nee Pemberton)
- Autobiography and Truth by Arthur W. Frank
Books reviewed: Light Writing & Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography by Timothy Dow Adams and The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America by Anne Fabian
- History and Writing in Indonesia by Tineke Hellwig
Books reviewed: Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future, History as Prophecy in Colonial Java by Nancy K. Florida and Telling Lives, Telling History. Autobiography and Historical Imagination in Modern Indonesia by Susan Rodgers
- A Fur Trade Narrative by Alan D. McMillan
Books reviewed: A Voyage to the North West Side of America: The Journals of James Colnett, 1786-89 by Robert M. Galois
MLA: Roy, Wendy. Memoirs of Trauma and Travel. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #174 (Autumn 2002), Travel. (pg. 189 - 191)
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