Themes in Memoirs

Much of last week, due to a lousy cold, I was under a blanket and a dog on the sofa. This meant that I was able to get more reading done than usual. I read two short books. The first, Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, I had read before and loved, obviously. The second, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, I had attempted before but been unable to get through it. It’s sometimes like that with books, isn’t it. I don’t know why. I chose both these memoirs because they are short and I wanted to tick ‘read books’ off my to-do list. Sad, maybe. But true.

I’m currently thinking about teaching some memoir writing one-day workshops and possibly a weekly course. While pondering the course structure, I thought that one topic I would be sure to discuss with my students would be that of themes in memoirs.

Three Dog Life and Diving Bell deal with similar themes – loss, grief, extreme trauma, courage, coping, change (to put it mildly), illness, imprisonment of kinds, adapting and the nature of life. Nothing major then!

Abigail Thomas’s story tells of how her husband, Richard, got hit by a car while out walking their dog, Harry, and suffered permanent brain trauma which destroyed his short-term memory. I bought this book originally because it had dogs on the cover. I am always interested in people’s relationships with dogs. Of course this book is mainly about Abigail’s relationship with Richard and how that changes but the comfort she gets from her dogs is reassuring. It tells me, a dog lover, that I might be able to get through most things if I surround myself with dogs. I love this book and  am now going to buy Abigail’s book Thinking About Memoir. I can’t wait to read it and I’ll let you know how I get on.

The title Three Dog Life is a saying of the Australian Aborigines who sleep with their dogs on cold nights, the coldest being a ‘three dog night’. A beautiful expression of the relationship between dogs and humans.

Diving Bell is about Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was the editor-in-chief of French Elle. He suffered a stroke and was left with locked-in syndrome. He was totally paralysed apart from hs left eyelid – with which he was able to dictate his book. The title of this book refers to the diving bell, which he feels he is wearing, weighing him down, trapping him, locking him in. The butterfly is his mind, free to fly wherever it wishes. I don’t know why I didn’t get through this book the first time because I whizzed through it this time around. Bauby reassures me that as horrific as his condition was, I as a writer might, just might, be able to get through it, if only I could still write in some way.

I recommend both these books to the memoir lover. They are both sad but uplifting at times too. I don’t feel totally comfortable that someone else’s suffering was uplifting for me, but life is fragile and I am grateful to both of these writers for sharing their experiences.

What are the themes in the memoirs you’ve read?


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Dear Marnie