Why couldn’t I have been gay?
Why couldn’t a priest rape me?
Why couldn’t I have been a heroin addict?
I am in the memoir section of a Manhattan bookstore, and I’m snowballing. Bookstores have suddenly become like pot to me, which sounds like an endorsement but is not. I approach them both hoping for insight and inspiration, but these days all I’m left with afterwards is a lingering depression and a funky taste in my mouth. At least with pot I’ve had some Pringles.
It’s been well over a year now that I have been at work on this memoir. I do my best to avoid bookstores when I’m writing, but, like pot, I fall back on them when I’m feeling insecure. Lately, I’ve been feeling insecure. Since around ’74. It’s been worse in the past few weeks, ever since New Year’s, and I’m not sure why. I’ve been short with my wife. I’ve been sharp with my son. Here’s how it tends to affect my writing: I’m not.
“Maybe you should try writing about it?” says my shrink.
Maybe you should try shutting the hell up, I think.
The memoir section in this store is enormous. Can this many lives be interesting? Did they even have a memoir section ten years ago? I suddenly feel like the guy getting a tattoo now, five years after the trend has died out. “Check it out, Dude—an eagle!”
One book is more sensational than the next. I Was a Teenage Lesbian Crackwhore Rabbi. Daddy Touched Me. My Mother Ate Nun Pussy. My mother never ate anything that wasn’t kosher. Thank God my father was an abusive alcoholic, I mean, that’s something, isn’t it?
“Alcoholic father?” the memoirs sneer. “Bush league! Come back when you have sex with the Pope.”
Exacerbating my current bout of doubt is the fact that within the loose collection of stories I have already completed, I have noticed a certain structure beginning to reveal itself, a structure that has me concerned—it’s bad enough I wasn’t a gay, heroin-addicted, Pope-buggering sexual abuse victim, but the structure I am uncovering seems to be, well…redemptive. It has all the markings: the Dark Father/Mother, the Hero’s Journey, the Finding a Partner, the Having a Child of Our Own.
Christ, I’m a goddamn love story.
Why couldn’t my parents die when I was young, leaving me to raise my siblings?
Why couldn’t 30 pigs beat me down after a DUI stop?
How does Oprah decide?
I sigh and bury my hands deep in my coat pockets. Oh well—all I can do now is hope. Hope for a tragic disease, a crippling disfigurement, a stroke I can work through, an aneurysm I can overcome. Hope, and leave this godforsaken bookstore. It’s like synagogue in here—I come in looking for answers, and leave feeling like crap. I throw my bag over my shoulder, stop at the cashier, pay for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Angela’s Ashes, Naked, Tuesdays With Morrie, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (1 and 2), Big Russ and Me, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Oh The Glory Of It All, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, The Glass Castle: A Memoir, ‘Tis: A Memoir, This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, The Liar’s Club: A Memoir, Permanent Midnight: A Memoir, and The Complete Guide To Writing a Memoir, and man, I get the hell out of there.
* * *
Beware of God is coming out in the UK, and my publisher emailed me some early reviews. The Guardian called the book “light and amusing.” I interpreted this as disparaging.
“Why do you care all of a sudden?” asked my wife.
“God, in these stories,” their reviewer wrote, “is made in man’s own image—in particular, that of a New York Jewish man.” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Don’t they use the word “kike” over there? I’ll be traveling to London for the launch of the book, and I made a mental note to pack my Groucho glasses and my Star of David armband.
But it was the word “amusing” that really got to me.
“Misery’s where it’s at,” I said to my wife. “If you want respect, trust me: suffering, woe, agony. Told with as little relief as possible, in as many words as possible, covering as many decades as possible.” As if to prove my point, the one story the Guardian reviewer had singled out for praise was the one about the Holocaust. No shit, I thought. The Holocaust. It’s the Ace of Misery Spades.
“Respect from who?” asked my wife. “I just don’t get why you care all of a sudden.”
I did a book signing last year with a fairly well-known writer who erupted in anger when the moderator accused him of being funny. “I’m not here to make you laugh,” he said. “I’m a Writer.” The audience nodded in reverential acquiescence.
I replied to my publisher’s email, telling her not to worry. I promised her that my next book, “A Brief History of Pre-Adolescent Genitorture: A Novel,” would deal graphically with genital mutilation of Rwandan children during that country’s recent genocide. No, wait—during that country’s recent holocaust. Better.
“It’s coming in at around nine hundred pages,” I wrote. “Save me a Booker.”
I haven’t heard back from her yet.
I closed my email, got back to work, decided I hated everything I’d ever written, and spent the rest of the day Googling myself, hoping to find some previously unread words of praise for my writing.
Why did I care all of a sudden?
Why didn’t I do heroin?
Why couldn’t I be gay?
* * *
I’ve been having that old naked-in-public nightmare again.
Christ, even my dreams are hackneyed.
* * *
I awoke the morning after New Year’s with a crushing hangover, a stomach virus, and no electricity. The bedroom was freezing, my son was crying, and my wife was burying the contents of our refrigerator in the snow.
I couldn’t even stand up. I felt as though someone was running me through with a red-hot poker. No power meant no water pump, no water pump meant no flushing, and no flushing meant that by the end of the day, my bathroom looked like something out of Scared Straight!. The power would stay out for another 36 hours.
A few months ago, the police questioned a friend of mine in connection with the murder of his brother. He hadn’t spoken with his brother in years, and at the time of the murder, he had been hours away, having dinner with friends, all of whom confirmed his alibi. He asked the investigators why they still insisted on questioning him. “The nature of the murder,” they told him. They spared him the gory details, but his brother’s murder had been brutal. Unusually so. “And in cases of unusually brutal murders,” the police said, “we suspect the family first.”
I feel that way about God.
I lay in bed for the next day and a half, wondering what I could have done to deserve all this—the power outage, the virus, this rash of insecurity. Why, God? Did I miss a holiday somewhere? Did I eat on a fast day? I’d lit Hanukkah candles, hadn’t I? Okay, so I started a couple of days late, but I lit them for eight days, damn it. I even ate that awful chocolate money.
When I could finally go more than 30 minutes without dashing for the bathroom, I ventured into Manhattan and visited my shrink.
“I’m having those naked-in-public dreams,” I told him. “I hate every word I write. God is trying to kill me. I’m giving up this memoir thing. Why couldn’t I have been gay? What did they mean by ‘New York Jewish Man,’ anyway? Does this penis look small to you?”
In cases of unusually brutal sessions, my shrink questions family first.
“When did all this start?” he asked.
“Around the holidays,” I told him.
Three years ago, I sent my mother a letter asking her not to contact me again. “You know those children’s cartoons,” I wrote, “where the bad guy gets shot by fifty guys with automatic machine guns? Rat-tat-tat-tat? You know how they dance around as the bullets hit them, all contorted in cartoon pain, blood spurting out of their wounds like water from a garden hose? Well, that’s pretty much what I feel like whenever I speak to you. Take the cartoon Tommy guns, add in a few cartoon meat cleavers and falling anvils, and you’ve got me after Rosh Hashanah with the family. Rat-tat-tat-tat.”
I mailed the letter with tears in my eyes, but I knew that I had no choice. “It’s either you,” I’d ended the letter, “or my wife and child.”
Two things quickly became apparent: 1) I was immediately happier—a more attentive husband, a more loving father, more productive in my writing, less angry at work—and 2) my mother didn’t care. My happiness was simply not as important as hers, and if her happiness necessitated my unhappiness, then that was my problem. Time after time, she intruded into my life, causing anxiety and stress and sadness, and time after time, I asked her to leave us alone.
She didn’t. She phoned. She emailed. “He’s my grandson, too,” she wrote, and FedExed him oversized gifts.
Naturally, the approach of Hanukkah had us all on Maternal DefCon 5. This time, it seemed, she was obeying my request. Day One passed, then Day Two. No calls. No emails. No gifts. I held my breath. Day Five, still nothing. Finally, Day Eight came and went, and not a word from her.
“That fucking bitch,” I thought.
And grabbed my one-hit and headed for the bookstore.
* * *
What a bunch of suckers the children within us are. As much as the story of my life has been revealed, both in my recent writing about it and in my moving through it, the tale of someone breaking free, of moving on, of that Hero journey from Dark to Light that has me so concerned, that stupid kid in me still wants his Mommy, no matter how many times she burns him.
“Fire hot,” I warn my son one evening when he toddles a little too close to the crackling woodstove. “Ouch.”
He stops and shakes his head “no.”
“That’s right,” I say. “No. Fire hot.”
Fire Hot. A title?
Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.
Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life. His new novel, Mother for Dinner, will be published by Riverhead this September.