These Storms Will Change You
Updated: Jan 30, 2019
A Review of Heather Harpham's Happiness
I’ve been thinking a lot about this Facebook post by my friend and colleague John Gallaher:
Poetry all goes in one big basket, and the prose gets parceled out into sometimes maddening gradations. And the parceling, of course, is driven by marketing more than aesthetic considerations (and, well, sheer numbers). But at least that carving signals diversity. We're finding new ways all the time to use language to do a variety of things—for ourselves, for our readers.
Still, John's point's a good one. There’s as much—or, wait, likely there’s more—diversity of approach and intention and effect in poetry, but you wouldn’t know it by the way it gets sold. You wouldn’t know it by the signage in the bookstore.
But I'm also thinking that the baskets aren’t always purely helpful. I’m thinking of the many young writers I've met over the years who were more constrained by the baskets than inspired by them. The student who couldn’t shake free of some internalized list of dos and don’ts in YA lit (or sci-fi or historical fiction). The student who couldn’t transition from writing a novel in her head to writing it on the page because the weighty demands of generic conventions and cultural pressure had joined forces with her internal censor.
So I believe both to be true:
There’s an inherent disrespect (to poetry, in this case) in the way we broadly or narrowly label literary art in the bookstore or on Amazon.
Efforts at more specific labeling may contribute to an environment that limits and overdetermines, if only in the writer’s own crabbed mind, what a literary art object is or wants to be.
So, basically, there are pitfalls in classifying. (Pretty obvious, right?)
The safest thing to say is that really good books tend to be categories of one.
Now, I’m going to say some shakier, not-quite-as-safe things.
If you couldn't tell, I’m talking myself into doing something I feel fairly ambivalent about. I’m going to classify. In good faith, if I can manage it.
I’m going to rough up some classifications as a way to talk about why a particular kind of memoir is especially appealing to me lately.
When I think about the memoirs I’ve read and loved in the past few years, most fit into one of these three capacious baskets:
A Sliver of My Story and How I Think About It. Memoirs, such as Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which seem almost unclassifiable. These books tend to bridge two or more approaches or genres in such a way that it makes sense to start using words like “hybridity.” These books tells stories, certainly, but, because the narrative is often interrupted or spliced with features of other kinds of nonfiction, these books seem dedicated to giving a glimpse of the author as thinker. The memoirist’s way of seeing is on the page as much as that writer’s lived experience. The memoirist is a storyteller but also a cultural critic.
A Sliver of My Story, With Special Attention to Weathering the Storms of Childhood. Memoirs, such as Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, where a storyteller reflects as an adult on an eccentric, troubled, or otherwise eventful childhood. These books tend to rely more exclusively on narrative. They often explore directly how early life experience, and the behavior of others who also happen to be family, nudge the author-narrator into being, you know, who they are. The memoirist is first and foremost a storyteller, a writer of scenes; interpretation is mostly effaced. You can infer it from the choice of scenes.
A Sliver of My Story, With Special Attention to Weathering a Storm in Adulthood. Memoirs, such as William Styron’s Darkness Visible or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, where the memoirist, perhaps a little ways down the road from having been put through a sieve, tells us that story. These aren’t coming-of-age narratives exactly because the author-narrator-protagonist is well into adulthood. But they do what good coming-of-age stories do: explore the contours and the paradoxes of transformation. They're books about what it is to live through.
This last basket is especially appealing to me lately. The memoirist is a storyteller and critic, if not of the culture at large, perhaps of the self that endured. Life continues to surprise. The storms aren't yet done.
And it’s in this last basket that I’d place Heather Harpham’s Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After.
There are two stories in Happiness, both of them love stories. These stories intertwine and overlap: Harpham’s romantic relationship with Brian Morton, a writer and writing teacher, and the story of the birth and early life of Harpham’s daughter who suffers from a blood disorder.
A memoir about a sick child, written by a parent, inevitably explores the paradoxes of love: the creeping, eventual knowledge that part of the basic deal of loving and doing what’s best for your child is witnessing that child's suffering.
And it’s a memoir about, as Harpham said in a recent conversation with me, “hard-won partnership.” Another kind of love—and its attendant trials and doubts.
The book begins with the story of Harpham’s pregnancy, her separation from Brian, and the birth of daughter Gracie who is quickly discovered to be seriously ill. Amelia-Grace’s red blood cells are falling apart. What seems at first like it could be a disease of infancy reveals itself to be a permanent condition. The baby (and then toddler) is blood transfusion-dependent. Eventually, with the parents of the little girl reunited—a slow, meandering, and sometimes maddening process which Harpham details with humor and admirable candor—Gracie’s parents come to believe that the best medical option, their daughter’s best chance to live to age thirty and beyond, is a bone marrow transplant.
My synopsis might make the decisions seem easy. Or obvious.
Baby has a life-shortening illness? Go for the cure!
Seriously ill child? Team up! Get back together with the father of the child!
But Happiness presents the puzzle as it usually is in life, with jagged edges, and with most of the pieces half destroyed and still wet; they’ve been chewed by the dog.
Harpham directs our attention, time and again, toward both the decisions and the luck. The work of the universe and the work of humans. Some matters are up to us. Some matters are out of our hands. We don’t always know perfectly which is which.
And, along the way, Harpham offers us a deep dive into the emotional tolls of weighing conflicting medical opinions, the various prices to be paid in a romantic relationship when two people who happen to be in love and happen to be parents together don’t see the same path forward.
Memoirs in the “Weathering a Storm in Adulthood” basket borrow elements from the other two.
Because the storm we’re learning about happened to an adult with an adult’s critical capacities, my readerly expectations are that the memoirist will provide some interpretation along with the straight-up storytelling.
Harpham, for the most part, hangs back and allows the scenes to unfold, the details to accumulate. But, here and there, the narrator-as-explainer swoops in, to our benefit. When a couple Harpham has come to know at a hospital in North Carolina loses their baby, I'd say we need her guidance:
If what you’ve been is a mother or a father and your child is now gone, there is no word for who you are. If you lose a spouse, you’re a widow or a widower. But if you lose a child, you go on being a mother or a father. There is no word because we refuse to cede that much authority to the possibility. It is literally the indescribable pain. If we can’t call its name, it can’t come. Only it can.
I love—and I love teaching—Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, and one imminently charming (and frustrating) feature of that book is that Jeannette Walls the writer doesn’t allow Jeannette Walls the eight-year-old girl to have thoughts that eight-year-old Jeannette didn’t have. This choice is essential to The Glass Castle’s artistic intentions, I’d argue. It gives over most, if not all, of the interpretive work to readers.
But “Weathering a Storm in Adulthood” memoirs are more likely to share those burdens. The memoirist has a little more work to do for us, with us.
While reading Heather Harpham’s Happiness, we may be questioning whether the narrator is saying or doing the right things—in reuniting with Brian, for instance, or in pursuing one medical treatment path for Gracie over another—and then the author-narrator will give us a peek at her own assessment.
And that changes the reading experience. That alters what I’m paying attention to and wondering about.
While reading Happiness, I of course found myself rooting for this couple—Harpham and Morton—and their sick daughter. I found myself torn by the decisions they faced: for instance, having another child for the express purpose of bettering the odds of a donor “match.” (This decision, as so many in life, is provisionally made, and then, as it goes, the universe reminds them that it gets its dictatorial say.) But at a certain point I realized I was turning the pages not only only to see how it all turns out for them.
What I found myself reading for, eventually, was how Heather Harpham was thinking about the experience while in it and how she thought about it down the road. How the experience was changing her, changing her mind, changing her wants and needs, who she thought she was. I was reading to discover how she was being shaped, if only at the edges, by the sieve she'd been put through.
Happiness truly lives in these moments, these tiny cartographic choices, the islets and inlets of Harpham's emotional map.
One night, with their pre-school-age daughter a few miles away at the hospital, and grandma at the bedside, Heather and Brian have been instructed to take care of themselves. They’re supposed to be going out to dinner. But Heather is having difficulty being "in the moment," doing what she’s been told she should be doing. Her daughter is about to go through something hellish, and she's having trouble marshaling much interest in a date.
And I didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even Brian . . . . I wanted an isolation tank. I wanted to bob in the blackness and silence of body-temperature water. Gravity suspended, I wanted to be a beautifully blank slate. To forget for an hour.
Part of witnessing your child in pain is not wanting to be a witness.
It's wanting to forget what's happening while simultaneously knowing that, as the parent, your primary obligation is, in some sense, to not forget. To be aware. To be vigilant. To stay on top of things.
Part of being a parent of a sick child while also being a partner to that child’s father is realizing that it’s mind-numbingly difficult to put your shoulder to both wheels.
The cliché is: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s true, sometimes. But maybe not always. More true, more often, to my mind: What doesn’t kill you changes you.
Happiness is a memoir about how difficult it is to live and love.
It’s a book about the choice to love in spite of fear and residual emotional pain. It’s about choosing the path toward a cure that’s risky and uncertain. It’s about doing what’s right for a sick child, even though the only certainty is more suffering, more scary days.
In memoirs in the first and second baskets, our attention can be directed more specifically away from the author-narrator, from time to time. We’re asked to interpret and judge the collective—the members of a family, perhaps the citizens of a nation. In a book like Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, the step-fathering of Dwight is the fire gobbling up so much of the oxygen. In a book like Coates’s Between the World and Me, the sociocultural ramifications loom large. So, the cruelty and pettiness of Dwight looms larger, in some sense, than Toby’s lies and youthful indiscretions. The persuasive righteousness of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument lingers in our consciousness longer than the memoirist’s efforts to reveal himself, warts and all.
“Warts and all” is the bread and butter of memoirs in the third basket. And the author-narrator is the one whose warts are first under the microscope. The adults in the room are literally the adults in the room. And so we come to expect we’ll get both hot and cold takes. We’ll be told a story, but we’ll also have access to whatever insight, if partial and provisional, the memoirist can reveal to us by having lived through.
Heather Harpham’s Happiness tells the story of smart, accomplished adults doing their best—and still falling down.
It's a book, as Harpham said to me in a recent conversation, about "looking inside a room that's filled with something awful" and then reporting out to the rest of us what she's seen.
It's about blowing up some of the cliches—about love, about parenting a sick child—that we perhaps didn't even know we'd been believing.
Not every nurse is a superhero who balances sweetness toward children with sagacity and tough-love toward parents (though some are).
Not every doctor has the right answer (though some, once in a while, do).
And not every child is going to be a paragon of resiliency and hope because not every child is going to live.
There’s much to admire in Heather Harpham’s memoir: its lyricism, its humor. But I’m convinced its Harpham’s balancing of those two modes, storytelling and interpretation—perhaps a defining feature of this basket, this sub-genre, of memoir—which allows the memoirist to hold in her hand, briefly, just long enough to give us a glimpse, the truth.
Which is what?
That the love we grow for our children tethers us to their joys and pains in a way that’s difficult to fully describe, without writing a book.
That sometimes the only choice that makes any sense is to beg off from dinner out with the love of your life and drive, silent and alone, back to the hospital.
Richard Sonnenmoser blogs about fatherhood, music, literature, culture, and politics. His fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have been published in Harvard Review, Crab Orchard Review, West Branch, Permafrost, and other magazines.