Are Glennon Doyle Melton and Elizabeth Gilbert Hurting the Memoir Genre?
About a year ago, a friend of mine that I deeply trust recommended I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir, Carry On, Warrior. As I read, it became clear that Melton has a good voice on the page, a refreshing sense of humor, and a tender eye for story. I was especially drawn to the passage that seemingly led to the book’s title. These are my words, not hers, but Melton seemed to be suggesting that in this life we are compelled to live as warriors while at the same time needing to let go of our various forms of artificial armor. I think Melton’s right: life is fuller at that paradox. It was no surprise to me that her work had caught on with a significant audience.
Before I offer any criticisms, let me say this: I don’t know Melton. Anything I observe or think is as a peripheral member of her audience and the literary community as a whole. I am not someone who is in Melton’s life or who knows the depths of her soul. I do read critically, though, and in her first book, Melton seemed a lot more comfortable as the self-deprecating, “aww, shucks,” narrator than one who excavates herself in the kind of deep way that is necessary in a really earth-shattering memoir. I noticed how often Melton resorted to rationalizing rather than simply telling the story and letting us make the judgments for ourselves. The cliche workshop way to say this is that she did a lot of “telling” when I wanted her to be showing me whatever it was. When it came to reflection, Melton may very well know the darkest parts of herself, but she certainly didn’t share them with us in her first book. Instead, she hinted at her husband’s unfaithfulness without doing much work to give him a face or other sense of aliveness in the book. Without Melton guiding me toward this conclusion, I felt bad for the husband as he continued to follow her desires to move (geographically) about every time the wind blew. That particular trait wouldn’t have been as big of an issue if I had had the sense that she was as aware as I was that it this was a potential flaw in her character. Flaws in memoir aren’t a problem; in fact, they’re often golden. Lack of awareness, on the other hand, (or even worse, dishonesty) betrays our trust in the narrator.
The memoir genre as a whole has been tested by a particularly twenty-first century way of gaining an audience as a consistent blogger and then turning posts into a book. But traditionally the genre had depended on a pretty fundamental contention: this thing happened, and it changed me. Somewhere in there is the implicit assumption that there is some public interest in whatever “the thing” is. When I finished Melton’s first book, I wasn’t sure if I really trusted any sense of deep change, but I had at least enjoyed reading it, so I didn’t think much more of it. I followed her on Twitter, I browsed a few of her blog posts, and I noticed she had another book coming out.
That’s when the bombshells started hitting. First, just as Melton’s second book – which from what I understand is about sticking out her marriage through difficulty – was about to hit the shelves, Melton announced (from her blog) that she and her husband were divorcing. Then, more recently, we were privy – via an Instagram post – to the announcement that Melton is in a new relationship with former U.S. women’s soccer star, Abby Wambach. Melton and her husband appear to have been married for about fifteen years; there were about three-and-a-half months in-between the divorce announcement and the new-relationship announcement. I also couldn’t help but think as far back as the summer of 2015 World Cup moment in which Wambach had embraced her then-wife, Sarah Huffman, after the U.S. women won the whole thing. Melton’s announcement about dating Wambach came about two months after Wambach’s divorce announcement. To make matters even weirder, Melton’s announcement came a couple months after Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and other books, made a similar announcement: that she was divorcing her second husband and was now with a female partner. The only thing that could make this saga more complete is if Melton and Gilbert – who, based on Twitter, appear to be quite chummy – would announce that they’re in a relationship with each other.
Now if you’re looking for someone to criticize these women’s divorces or same-sex relationships, you should probably look elsewhere. That isn’t my place or point. My stake here is as one who cares deeply for the credibility of the genre in which Melton writes. But if my post is starting to read like a gossip column instead of an analysis of literature, that’s precisely the point. Memoir already gets its fair share of criticism for being too confessional, too much like therapy, too much “naval-gazing.” Sadly, Melton and Gilbert only seem to be confirming the criticism. For me, it comes back to the conceit. As Melton and Gilbert readers, I’m learning not to trust them as narrators. I’m learning to not buy what they’re selling me. Instead, I’m starting to wonder: Oh, maybe when you go off to learn meditation and the pleasure of food in India and Italy, you didn’t really heal or grow or change as much as you portrayed in the book. Maybe you just went out and grabbed someone again, and then you called it wisdom until things got really hard and then the whole cycle repeated again, you sold some books, and hoped we wouldn’t notice. But this is the problem with tweeting your life in real time: we notice. And we feel betrayed when your epiphanies keep getting undone by your life.
In the announcement about Wambach, Melton told us that her husband (is he an “ex” yet?) was also dating someone else. She also used the word “love” to describe her relationship to Wambach. Melton doesn’t, of course, define what she means by the word, and thus it is used as a kind of rhetorical fend-off. Who could possibly criticize “love”? Well, maybe my definition of love is different than hers is because I’m not convinced. When I think of the word love, I don’t think of divorced-for-ten-minutes-and-now-you-found-someone-else. I think of depth. I think of time. I think of pain. I think of common experiences. I think of working out a life together. I think of lasting power, not “this makes me feel good right now.” Maybe Melton and Wambach will prove me wrong by spending the rest of their lives together, but I’d say it’s just as possible that five or ten or twenty years from now even they will look back and think, oh shit, when I let go of my marriage, there was so much pain and confusion that the only thing I could do was start grasping.
One of the characteristics of memoir that sticks out from years of studying the genre is that effective works are usually written with some emotional distance. You go through the thing and you give it some time before you can write about it and actually have something to offer your reader. Brene Brown – who I think also has some connections to Melton? – isn’t a memoir writer, but she is someone I trust, and I’ve heard her say (or maybe I read it) that she only puts her vulnerability forward publicly after she’s shared and worked it through with the most important people in her life (which aren’t her readers!). Some intimacy is worth guarding. Maybe, then, the best thing for Melton’s and Gilbert’s writing (and personal lives!) would be a break from the spotlight for a while. To be clear, I’m not trying to silence either woman, and I’m not suggesting that they should hide their lives from the public. But maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they embraced the breakdown for a while without offering up any life lessons for the rest of us.
As a less-established memoir writer than Melton or Gilbert, I can (and have!) admittedly fallen into any of the above pitfalls in my own life and work. Right now I’m even working on a book that is deeply personal, that has family members and ex-girlfriends in it. It’s a really tricky tightrope to walk. Who knows if my book will go anywhere, but watching the Melton-Gilbert saga reminds me that there’s no rush, that the more time to work through my life and shape the manuscript, the better off it, and I, will be.