Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Bearing Witness

I just read four memoirs by accident.  

I read the books intentionally, they had all been on my list for months, but I didn't really realize that they were all memoirs until the middle of the last one, when I was hanging out in Sonia and Kevin's apartment in New Haven, and I realized I was exhausted. It really was a lot for one girl to take in! Over the last few weeks, I have lived in a sweltering shotgun house in Mississippi, driving along the Gulf Coast at night with the windows down and the music up, gotten into all kinds of adolescent boy trouble in Orlando, selling sneakers and eating dumplings in Taipei, I've been homeless, high, and hungry, carrying the heavy book bag all day long until coming to rest at the top of the stairs, I've worked 19 hours a day as a corporate attorney, trying to remember my insulin, my niece, and my dreams.  Like I said, that's a lot for one girl.

A well-written memoir, as all four of these are, offers you more than a story, it offers you a friend, an opportunity to bear witness to the intimate details of another person's life. When my plane to San Antonio was delayed on the tarmac for two hours last week, it didn't matter to me at all. I wasn't on the plane anyway.  I was in Abuelita's apartment with Mami and Nelson, listening to the subway rumble by.

Perhaps the familiarity, the ease with which we all became friends, comes from our random intersections. I was just a few miles from the Ward family home when I visited Mississippi with my father.  Was Jesmyn in one of the cars that flew by as we drove from Bay St. Louis to Long Beach?  When Eddie was raging around Central Florida, I was there, with my baby girl, visiting Mickey.  I was in NYC during the years that Sonia and Liz describe.  I wasn't in their New Yorks, but I may have been on a late night train with Liz or read newspaper articles about Sonia's cases. Reading about their lives brings me back to those shared spaces and my own memories.

All of these books are tremendous, but if I had to pick one, one that really touched me, or should I say, reached in and ripped my heart out and then messed with my brain, that would be Liz Murray's 

Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.

  I had originally bought this book for my daughter, dismissed it as an after-school special type book for teens, didn't bother to read it myself.  Funny what we think we already know.  When Edith didn't pick it up, the book somehow came creeping back to me. What an amazing surprise. Talk about bearing witness. The depth and complexity of this memoir comes from the way in which the first half of this book serves to chronicle not just the author's own life, but the life of her heroin-addicted parents. Her story bears witness to their drug use, their addiction, their friendships, and their family. If you have ever wondered what drug addiction looks like, this honest and loving book is for you. Given her parent's persistent injection drug use in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, I might have anticipated their diagnoses with HIV, but I did not. Perhaps in part because it hit me by surprise, these chapters were gripping. Murray's narration of her mother's diagnosis and life living with HIV and dying of AIDS in the early 90s rings so clear and true that if you have ever borne witness to such a passing, you will be there again, in that place, that hospital, exactly as you remember it.  Reading this book, you will actually smell the room. It was as if she had somehow entered my own memory and transcribed it onto the page. It made me cry, and I don't cry when I read.

So that's my endorsement.  Read a memoir. Bear witness. You will be surprised to learn that the person you thought you knew has a lot up her sleeve.

Sotomayor, S. (2013).  

My Beloved World

. New York: Knopf.

Murray, L. (2010). 

Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.

 New York: Hyperion.

Huang, E. (2013). 

Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir

. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Ward, J. (2013). 

Men We Reaped: A Memoir

. New York: Bloomsbury.

Now I am going to read

Townie: A Memoir

, because Shawn told me to.