Uncovering Truth in Memoirs

  • Alexandra Risen
    Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden. Viking Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Pauline Dakin
    Run, Hide, Repeat: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood. Viking Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nanette Norris

I wish Pauline Dakin’s story were not true but am achingly sure it is. My own parents were going through the throes of a 1960s divorce when my mother donned a dark wig and glasses in order to walk the few short blocks to her lawyer’s office, convinced that her every move was being shadowed. My mother, like Dakin’s, was ordered to live a “chaste” life or lose custody of her children. Like Dakin, my brother and I lived with constant tension. My mother, like hers, would have given anything—anything—to have been able to tell her story, to have found a sympathetic, adult ear. Dakin’s mother found solace in a man of the cloth, a man with “delusional disorder,” who was so convincing that her entire wounded family was swayed, if only for a time. Hardest of all, for me, was to read how this delusional behaviour affected the children; they understood so little of why their lives were marked by menace, tension, vigilance, and isolation. Pauline, like me, suffered from depression when she was only twelve years old. Being hunted by the Mafia, government protection, secluded prisons, Morse code messages . . . who would believe such things? But then, nine hundred followers of Jim Jones died in 1978 by drinking a powdered drink mix. In 1997, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their own lives in order to release their spirits to meet up with the passing Hale-Bopp comet. Dakin’s book shows how willingly we believe the unbelievable. The reconciliation in Run, Hide, Repeat is poignant and much needed, as the adult Pauline pieces together her life’s narrative with the benefit of knowledge and perspective. If she’s anything like me, she’s shaking her head at the success of this unburdening creative non-fiction, whose balanced, thoughtful ending masks some still-open wounds.

Run, Hide, Repeat and Unearthed have in common the search for unknown personal history, that unveiling feeling of memoirs that act a little like whodunits—or a lot like, in the case of the former. But that’s where the similarities end. Whereas Run, Hide, Repeat is a page-turning gallop of revelations, Unearthed requires savouring. Whereas Run, Hide, Repeat grips you with the sheer necessity of getting at the truth in the horrid web of falsehoods and delusions that, in our present era of fake news, reverberate well after the pages of the book are closed, Unearthed never quite gets there. It is self-indulgent as it focuses on the author’s sense of somehow having been abandoned, like her garden. The revelations about those who never parented her as she would have wished are dwarfed by her attempts to heal while uncovering her garden. Whereas Dakin had no stability, no friends, and no past, and presents a fragile present, Risen has a loving husband, a great son, a best friend of twenty-one years, an involved sister, and a living mother, who is, however, in serious decline. I get it—that’s a difficult stage of life—but at least, for most of the book, she is alive. If Unearthed suffers in comparison with the urgency and vitality of Run, Hide, Repeat, it is nonetheless a delicious read for those who enjoy the art of discovery and the Zen of gardens, which are interwoven as the author discovers the truth of her parents’ war-torn past and the events that resulted in their difficult marriage and emotionally absent parenting. Both books are true to the art of the memoir, peeling back layers of the faithfully and the poorly remembered to create a new whole.

This review “Uncovering Truth in Memoirs” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 146-147.

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