As Saint Joan (Didion) once said, "That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out." But what if the person selling you out is your mother? There are two news stories today — one regarding self-proclaimed "Bad Mother" Ayelet Waldman, and the other aboutAugusten Burroughs's mother, Marion — about the autobiography they either plan to, or have, written about their children. Their insistence on maternal honesty has us wondering: is this a legal form of child abuse, or a beautiful form of self-expression?
For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Ayelet Waldman is the wife of Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, and was famously excoriated by the blogosphere and Oprah when she wrote a Modern Love about how she loves her husband more than she loves her children. Today, she is ostensibly writing about Abraham Briggs, the bipolar teen who broadcast his suicide online, but actually she's writing about her own experience with admitting suicidal thoughts on the net.
Like Mr. Briggs, I suffer from bipolar disorder, but while his online "community" failed to act to save his life, my own stepped in to save mine. A few years ago, I kept a blog called "Bad Mother," on which I pontificated about issues as diverse as the inequities in the federal sentencing guidelines and the pink catastrophe of my 4-year-old daughter's bedroom. One night, alone in the house with my children, and in the throes of the worst depression of my life, I wrote on my blog, "It does not help to know that one's mood is a mystery of neurochemistry when one is tallying the contents of the medicine cabinet and evaluating the neurotoxic effects of a Tylenol, Topomax, SRRI and Ambien cocktail." Within hours of my scary blog post, a woman whom I'd met and become friends with online read it, called me and refused to hang up until I telephoned my psychiatrist. I have no way of knowing whether, without that phone call and without the dozens of supportive comments that soon afterward began to pop up on the blog, I would have followed through on my implied threat, but when my cyberfriend called, I was holding enough pills to kill myself.
It's wonderful that Waldman got the help she needed, and of course, destigmatizing mental illness is incredibly important. But I can't imagine what it would feel like to be her child and read, in real time, about how my mother was trying to kill herself. Which brings me to Margaret Robison, the mother of Augusten Burroughs, who has written extensively of Robinson's many suicide attempts. And whaddya know? According to the Observer, she's shopping a memoir. Robison says that she doesn't hold Burroughs's book against him, but that she has quibbles with some of his accounts of his harrowing childhood.
Mary Karr's account of her mentally ill mother and dysfunctional Texas childhood, The Liar's Club, is one of the best memoirs of the past quarter century, and it would be a literary tragedy if she had not written it for fear of hurting her family. But when does airing familial dirty laundry cross the line between art and mass destruction?