Memoir and the Moon
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
I used to pay a lot of attention to the first lines in books. I had a notebook where I wrote them down and classified them according to type.
But now I pay more attention to the point in a book when I fall in love with the character or subject. This usually happens, especially in memoirs and biographies, about halfway through the book.
In Reading Lolita in Tehran, it’s when Azar Nafisi is sitting up at night near her children during the bombing attacks on Tehran:
“... with my pillows up against the wall, two lit candles and my book. I heard a sudden explosion. My heart heaved up and down and my hand went involuntarily to my stomach, just as it had during similar raids when I was pregnant. My eyes pretended nothing had happened, and rested on a page of Daisy Miller…And in a scene I will always remember - not only because of that night - Daisy tells Winterbourne: “‘You needn’t be afraid. I am not afraid!’ And she gave a little laugh.”... there is so much courage in that sentence… For a moment I believe I really was diverted from the explosions, and I did manage to draw a line around the words You needn’t be afraid.”
I can relate to the powerfully calming affect of books. After 9/11, feeling stunned and horrified and afraid like every other American, I would take refuge on my couch at night with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It was like entering Narnia, a complete change of worlds that offered escape, but also inspiration because of the heroine’s courage in protecting herself and her son.
According to the introduction in my edition, shortly after Anne Brontë learned that she had tuberculosis, she wrote to a friend, “I long to do some good in the world before I leave it.” I remember wishing she could know that she had done some good - 150 years after her book was published, it had the power to help someone in another country and another time.
This is when I loved Anne Brontë. But I'm not sure I ever fell in love with her heroine, Helen.
I also read recently (where did I read this? Why am I not tracking this information?) that among the Brontë sisters, Anne was the primary caregiver for their brother when he was sick and dying. And she, alone among her sisters, doesn’t glorify the duties of the sick room, instead painting a picture of the horror and the grim courage required to stand by the ill and dying.
Diana Athill speaks to this as well in Instead of a Book: “I’d had to call a doctor to my old ma and he and I were alone with her in the still of the night - and as she vomited, and also had to be supported onto a commode and then cleaned up, he moved across the room and gazed absently out the window while I did the holding and supporting and mopping up…”
That’s when I fell in love with Diana Athill and that passage was only a snippet shared in Letters of Note.
Thinking astrologically, I'm wondering if the loveliness of good biographies and memoirs rests in the fact that we get beneath the public persona to someone's Moon. We see who they are when they're at home and their defenses are down. We get at their heart—their love, fear, vulnerability and deepest desires. That's the Moon's domain. Inviting people into that domain requires vulnerability, but vulnerability can lead to connection.
When Steven Forrest talks about the Moon he describes it as the moment two new lovers skip the passionate sex and simply fall asleep together. Forrest writes, "Revealing the Moon can therefore be understood as the primordial act of human trust." There's no posing, just restful comfort. Forrest writes, "For any couple, this is a classic Moon initiation. The ones who pass the test might very well remain together for a lifetime." That's the soul-bonding quality that the moon brings to relationship.
And that soul quality is what's revealed in memoir. As Mary Karr writes, "... the best [memoirs] come from the soul of a human unit oddly compelled to root out the past's truth for his own deeply felt reasons."