A few months before my third book, Truth Serum, was published, I lived in an emotional state familiar to many writers who are about to see their words in print: a phase of intense but not unbearable anticipation, a sense that one’s work is teetering over the arena of public judgment — and is about to drop, unstoppable. Friends bolstered me with the analogy that one’s book was like an offspring embarking on adulthood; all I could do now, they said, was watch from a doorway and wave goodbye. For a while, I was able to relinquish control of the book with some semblance of dignity and calm, but more often I found myself lapsing into an anxiety so extreme, I had to resist the temptation to phone my editor and offer to return my advance, with interest. The closer the publication date, the more vulnerable I felt. I began to suspect that my fraying courage, my growing dread of exposure, was in large part due to the fact that Truth Serum, unlike my first two books, was a collection of memoirs about my lifelong reckoning with homosexuality.
It may seem absurdly naive of me not to have understood, until so late, that a public probing of my personal life would be inevitable; after all, I had written in a genre which, rightly or wrongly, carries the promise of gossip and revelation. Interviewers would feel compelled, even invited, to ask impertinent questions, and reviews would of necessity touch upon the book’s core subjects: my romantic relationship with a woman who became a lesbian; the psychotherapist who injected me with heady but ineffectual doses of sodium pentothol; my being the HIV-negative partner in a "sero-different" couple. Scant attention for the book, a prospect I’d earlier viewed as the ultimate bad luck, now seemed like a potential blessing, and when other writers trotted out the old adage about negative criticism being better than none, I nursed a secret, self-defeating hope that, once out in the world, my book would be as innocuous as a polar bear in a snowstorm.
Of course, in the three years it took to write the book, I had deliberately explored personal subject matter. But a good memoir does more than dredge up secrets from the writer’s past. A good memoir filters a life through resonant narrative, and in doing so must achieve a balance between language and candor. It was not the subject matter of my memoirs that I hoped would be startling, but rather language’s capacity to name what was once nameless, to define what had once been vague and chaotic. The chief privilege of writing a memoir, it seems to me, is the opportunity to go back and make sense of events that left you dumbstruck, mired in confusion, unarmed with the luminous power of words. I’d purposely chosen intimate subjects, not in order to make them public, but because they drove me to probe more deeply the hidden meaning, imagery and metaphors embedded in memory. Only when the book was on the verge of publication, however, did I realize that this gambit might be treated not as an aesthetic strategy but, rather, as a matter of exhibitionism.
The first intrusion into my prepublication vacuum came in the form of a phone call, and it bore out my worst fears. A journalist wanted to ask me a few questions for an article he was writing on the preponderance of memoirs about to flood the bookstores. My publicist had warned me that the man felt a great deal of ambivalence about the current popularity of memoirs, and was intent on challenging their legitimacy as a literary form. Still, she thought a mention in Vogue magazine was worth what she predicted would be a brief conversation. Two hours after he had called, the receiver was still pressed to my ear, and the journalist, a former book reviewer for the Washington Post, was practically pleading with me to confirm his anti-memoir stance. It seemed he had set out long ago to make some important point by taking memoirs to task, but once he’d read a few books and had spoken to their authors, he could find little about them that was categorically reprehensible. His conviction was fading, and he needed someone’s approval in order to sustain his journalistic pluck.
"Don’t you think there’s a connection," he asked me, "between the popularity of talk shows and the popularity of memoirs?"
"Only if the author’s motive in writing a memoir is to shock or lay blame or heal himself by airing psychic damage. But there are different kinds of memoirs, just as there are different kinds of novels, and I don’t think it’s fair to lump a tell-all in the same category with other, more literary works of autobiography."
"But don’t you see the rise of the memoir as part of our culture’s narcissism?"
"People have been writing about themselves since the dawn of literature. Why can’t a writer of prose bear witness to the particulars of his or her life, as poets so often do?"