» Book Review
Quest for Truth
Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir by Sharon Harrigan
Truman State University Press, 2017
Paperback and ebook, 239 pages, $16.95 and $9.99
It is a very democratic notion, I suppose, that everyone has a story to tell. The ascendancy of social media certainly capitalizes on the idea that anyone and everyone can have a soapbox, but, as tweets, blogs, and online posts proliferate, the difficulty is that much of what is said is not worth reading, even if it is valuable to the writer. The ongoing boom in memoir publishing also points to a kind of populism. Readers who go to memoir looking for stories of great accomplishment, intrigue, or proximity to world-historical events will not always find it in memoirs being published today: The genre is no longer reserved for lives of eminence. But if readers are lucky, they will find in a memoir, such as Sharon Harrigan’s Playing with Dynamite, a story that demonstrates that even an ordinary life proves interesting when assessed by an intelligent and skillful writer.
Harrigan’s book was inspired by her quest to discover the truth about her father, who died in a car accident when she was a young child. Following the accident, her family, sealed in the reticence of grief, was reluctant to speak of her father, creating an aura of mystery around him. The mystery was enhanced by the fact that her father had lost his right hand “playing with dynamite” years before his fatal accident. Vague rumblings about the FBI’s interest in her father added to the sense that there might be a dark family secret lurking. Harrigan was reluctant to break the seal of silence wrapped around her family, fearful of what she might discover or what feelings she might dislodge in others. Harrigan sees how curiosity is stifled by the dread of unsettling relationships as well as by the shame of ignorance. “[E]ven as a little girl,” she writes, “I sensed that others carried questions in their heads they wouldn’t dare ask, things they never said so no one would know they didn’t already know.”
In the eyes of a young child, the two prominent facts about her father (the two accidents) amplified the typical, childish notion that one’s father is a larger-than-life figure, a man whose significance must be plain to all. As an adult and a parent observing her son’s reckoning with his relationship with his own absentee father, Harrigan realized she must finally come to terms with the lifelong puzzle of her father—of who he was, how he died, and what he meant to the rest of the family. To undertake this emotional journey, she has to break the long-held silences of her mother, brother, sister, and uncle. She has to overcome her own queasy, anxious concern that she will not be quite the same person she thought she was once the family history is more clearly disclosed.
Although there are no startling revelations for the reader—if anything, the surprise for Harrigan is that the circumstances of her father’s two accidents turn out not to be especially important—Harrigan’s reflections on her past are rewarding because of the tenor with which they are told. Reading Dynamite is like listening to a good friend tell you about her life over a long coffee or a couple of drinks. Harrigan’s prose is inviting and familiar. And, though the ostensible focus of the book is on her father, the real story is to be found in the appropriately inconclusive self-searching Harrigan undertakes as she attempts to connect with her relations and to review her identity in light of her new understanding of her family.
Two features of Dynamite give added depth and interest to this memoir of life in urban Detroit and rural upstate Michigan (with layovers in Paris, New York, and Virginia). First, Harrigan is unusually sensitive to the ways in which stories of self are shaped by the stories of others. She understands that one’s sense of one’s place in the world is formed in relation to how others are positioned. At a very young age, we receive our parents’ stories of who they are and of who we are, and these ideas have powerful and lasting effects on our understanding of our lives. We are not usually aware of just how much these ideas have infiltrated our thinking. For example, Harrigan comes to realize that what she took to be her memories of her father may actually have been ideas of him that came from her uncle’s stories about him, not her own experience of him. Further, as she undertakes to interview her family members, she sees that there are many variations of the same central narrative. As she says, “Stories change, of course, when different people tell them.” Thus, Dynamite is presented as a kind of collage, with pieces taken from Harrigan’s memory as well as from the memories of others.
In fact, Harrigan may be too sensitive to the responsibility of creating a nonfiction narrative. She bends over backward to label the passages of her text according to their source: her imagination, her memory, the memory of a relative, a recorded conversation. The fear that loved ones will resent what one writes, claiming it is untrue, inaccurate, or radically incomplete, plagues many writers and would-be writers. Even in fiction writing, authors may be concerned lest their words be taken as transparently autobiographical, offending the real persons who have been turned into characters or caricatures. In a memoir that takes family history as its subject, this worry can, understandably, run deep. Yet, I can’t help but think that Harrigan’s concern with accurate representation has the paradoxical effect of making her narrative seem less reliable. The caveats about the precise source of each passage come to seem intrusive, like someone trustworthy whose repeated urging, “You can trust me,” functions to undercut rather than to bolster her listener’s confidence. At least for readers outside her family, the caveats may feel like unnecessary interruptions. After all, it is at the end of the day, her memoir, and she is entitled to tell it any way she likes.
Even so, Harrigan’s sensitivity to the ways in which her narrative is partial surely contributed to her ability to achieve interesting moments of personal growth, culminating in the claim that “[A]ll my life I had been telling myself the story of my father’s death all wrong.” A memoir writer who can admit that she’s gotten it all wrong is one whose writing has had a large transformative effect on her life. And it is the courage of this transformation that makes Harrigan’s book a friendly read—it is the kind of personal story we can learn from because we can translate Harrigan’s self-exploration into our own lives. I was all wrong is not the kind of thing you are likely to see on Facebook. But it is the kind of hard-won admission that can inspire readers to broach their own family secrets and unlock their own personal histories.
A second admirable feature of Harrigan’s book is the directness with which she thinks through the generational shift in attitudes about gender. Reflecting on her father’s sour moods, his cruel remarks, and the control he exerted over her mother, she wonders whether he was simply “a man of his time,” as her mother says with resignation, or whether his sexism was more grievous and culpable than that suggests. Harrigan works to put her family history into a larger social context, considering the prevalence of baldly sexist advertisements and other media in the 1970s. Her aim is not to pass judgment, not to decide ultimately whether he was or wasn’t a male chauvinist, or how to categorize his brutal and reckless personality, but simply to understand it better. She takes the lesson to heart, asking, “Will my children look back, decades from now, and try to forgive my anachronisms by telling themselves I came of age in another era? Will they explain away my insecurity and overeagerness to please by saying, ‘What do you expect? Hers was the first generation after women’s emancipation?’ There are always growing pains. Learning curves.” Such lines reveal Harrigan’s central strength: the ability to probe uncomfortable family issues, apply the scrutiny to herself, and treat all with compassion.
If social media’s popularity is partly a response to the need to be visible, to be remembered, memoirs are—as the name clearly indicates—dedicated to remembering and being remembered. Like social media posts, they are liable to the pitfalls of self-promotion, distortion, and an excess of self-concern or narcissism. However, simply in virtue of being longer and more complex, they offer their writers the potential for a more subtle and meaningful kind of self-representation. Such memoirs can provide something of an antidote to the present culture of click-bait headlines, mudslinging tweets, and drive-by Facebook posts that reduce public discourse too often to fear, anger, unearned righteousness, and rash judgment. The American appetite for memoir must reflect, then, a desire on the part of both writers and readers to engage in a deeper, more sustained form of self-reflection. Harrigan invites us to that kind of deeper reflection as we share in the experience of living with the complexity and uncertainty of family relationships. She invites us to risk finding the unspoken or hidden truths that have had a part in shaping who we are. In Harrigan’s hands, Dynamite may not be explosive, but it is a model for how everyday questions of identity, family, and the past may be addressed thoughtfully.