By Marina DelVecchio
While memoir is defined as “an account of one’s personal life and experiences,” immersion memoir is writing about the self in the context of an external element. According to Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “the immersion memoirist takes on some outward task or journey in order to put his/her life in perspective…The immersion memoirist is interested in self-revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his/her vehicle.” In this case, the particular vehicle or external element is literature. By embedding literary analysis and storylines from our favorite books into our own memoir, we can win favor with publishers, add flavor and depth to our own unique stories, and show how literature and life quite often reflect one another in terms of the universal experiences we share.
I became acquainted with immersion memoir and its ability to let the light seep onto the page while writing of my own story of growing up in Greece, overwhelmed with homelessness, abuse, and my mother’s prostitution; many editors have noted its dark subject matter. She Writes Press Editor Brooke Warner might categorize mine a “misery memoir.” In revisiting my work, I noticed a recurring theme—which also happens to be my teaching philosophy—interwoven throughout narrative: how to lean on books for survival. The earlier drafts of my memoir included snippets of books and poems I’ve read and felt connected to, and I began to become aware of memoirs that did the same. Before I knew it, I had a collection of memoirs centered on literature, and I knew this was the way to go with mine. I thought back to the first book that ever gripped me, the one that stood out to me as a reflection of my own childhood and coming of age narrative, and that’s when Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre became part of my own memoir. In revising, I focused on the analogous experiences in women’s lives when dealing with poverty and isolation as presented in Jane Eyre. I drew on parallels between Jane and me and also between the two of us and her creator, Charlotte Brontë, and was able to approach my experiences from a more detached authorial place.
Immersion memoir requires writing about the self within a wider landscape, a literary one that allows memoirist to control the discussion of self. Debra Anne Davis’ “Betrayed by the Angel” from the 2004 Harvard Review is an excellent example. In this essay, Davis recounts how being brought up to be a nice, quiet girl led to her inability to fight back when she was sexually accosted in her own apartment. She begins her narrative with a third grade bully jabbing her left arm with his sharp pencil. When she told her teacher, Davis recalls that her voice wasn’t loud enough because she didn’t really want to get Hank, the boy, into trouble. She was a nice girl, taught not to be rude. At the age of 25, when a man pushes his way into her apartment, this politeness prevents her from fighting back. Just as she hadn’t been loud enough when accusing Hank of stabbing her with his pencil every day during third grade, Davis doesn’t push the door against her rapist hard enough. She doesn’t shove him off her with enough force, and when her rapist is insulted by her rudeness, the “angel” comes out. She flatters him, even flirts with him for her survival, hoping that he won’t hurt her more. And when he gets 35 years in jail for raping her, the angel inside her thinks that’s too much. While describing the rape scene in graphic and harrowing detail, Davis also embeds excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s famous 1931 essay “Professions for Women,” which introduces the reader to the dangers of the angel that lives inside women and teaches them to be polite, charming, sympathetic, and self-sacrificing. Davis acknowledges she was all these things while being assaulted in her own home. Killing the angel, according to Woolf, is an act of self-defense.
Although by title the two essays appear different in context, they argue the same: the necessary suppression of the expectation of behavior that encourages silence and self-sacrifice of women. Woolf argues she needed to kill her angel in order to critique books written by men, while Davis reflects on the friendly, helpful behavior of her angel toward the rapist that accosted her. The quotes from Woolf threaded throughout Davis’s rape narrative allow readers a reprieve from the disturbing details, enables Davis to act as moderator between her narrative and Woolf’s, and elucidates the text’s power to inspire and convey lessons not easily taught.
From a distance, the memoirist can explore her subjectivity without seeming egotistical or self-indulgent, and thereby placing herself in danger of losing the audience’s attention and respect. Plunging one’s own anxieties and misfortunes within the scope of a larger landscape allows the audience to remain engaged in the story and empathize with the writer. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, Julia Powell’s Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them accomplish this task with skill and humor. Rebecca Mead also emphasizes this in her own bibliomemoir, which is a memoir centered on one’s love of books or a particular book that has influenced the life and writing of the memoirist.
Mead says, “when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them.”
In My Life in Middlemarch, Mead examines themes of love, marriage, independence, and female aspirations and failures in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. A woman in mid-life, she reflects on the novel as a means of thinking about the choices she has made. Part biography, part memoir, and part literary criticism, Mead demonstrates literature as mirror that reflects ourselves back to us. A major theme in Middlemarch, “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life,” revolves around questions of identity, yearnings, and female potential, and was obvious, according to Mead, in Eliot’s personal choice to turn down marriage proposals in lieu of writing and working. “What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?” Mead asks as it relates to both George Eliot and herself.
Absorbed in literature and self-evaluation, these memoirs represent a growing niche in the publishing industry. In many ways, this genre’s success is largely due to writers’ tendency to distance the narrative from their ego as they explore and engross themselves in the books they love. From this perspective, writers are freed to merge their own experiences with those of the characters depicted in literature, creating a balance between the two.
In other words, while the stories told in memoirs are usually one-sided, immersing a childhood yoked with trauma in a discussion of literature becomes multidimensional, a different kind of story altogether, a more palatable one, perhaps.
Marina DelVecchio currently teaches writing, literature, and Women’s Studies as a full-time professor at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina. Her essays appear on the Huffington Post, Her Circle Ezine, The New Agenda, and BlogHer. She has also been published in print by Cengage Learning’s anthology on Media and Violence against Women (2013) and She Writes’ collection of essays on miscarriages titled Three Minus One (2014). Marina has worked as a contributing women’s literature reviewer for Her Circle Ezine and the San Francisco Book Review, and assistant editor of poetry and non-fiction for the QU Literary Magazine.
Davis, Debra Anne. “Betrayed by the Angel.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions. Ed. Susan Shaw and Janet Lee. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014. Print.
Hemley, Robin. A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel. London: Georgia UP, 2012. Print.
Mead. Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014. Print.