Bushels #1 - Unpacking the success of celebrity memoir and its "talking cure"
Memoir, intergenerational trauma, and why we can’t resist a good overshare on our journeys to heal.
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In 1895, a woman under the alias of Anna O. was treated with the “talking cure” by Josef Breuer in a case study that would later be cited by Freud, creating the underpinnings of what we now know as psychoan…okay, I swear this was supposed to be a joke. Then my former grad school brain turned on. It’s okay. It’ll glitch on a few more times in this newsletter—we’re diving into some heavy stuff.)
99% of what Freud said was bullshit. Anna O. wasn’t even his case study. Regardless, we have known for over a century that talking about our problems seems to remedy them.
And this tracks, right? We find comfort in talking to a dear friend or trusted person in our times of hurt and need. We love a good subtweet or Twitter rant. Talking about what hurts and bothers us helps alleviate the emotional pressure so we don’t bottle it up.
The talking cure was initially discussed in a more formal, psychiatric context to address trauma. Trauma is more than just problems, although social media has given us the tools to discuss our trauma as problems for a broad audience. I use trauma throughout this newsletter to refer to any event or series of events that inflicts a fracturing of the self and cause ongoing, disruptive damage in emotional processing.
In order to begin to heal trauma via talking or expressing one’s own telling of the event, the account needs to be specific, narratological and deeply emotionally attuned. It’s something that takes a great deal of work, effort, and guidance. I see today’s “talking cure” most urgently in memoir, which models a reassertion of control over one’s own story. Memoir has an internal emotional arc leaning towards self-discovery and reflective revelations. I find memoir that works to untangle intergenerational trauma to be the most potent by working to assert a coherent self apart from inherited emotional dysfunction, and memoir that tackles this will be the focus of this newsletter.
Questions of trauma have been on my mind for years. Partly because I experienced it firsthand, but largely because I find its representation fascinating. The earliest I can trace it back is the uneasiness I felt in writing about repression of feelings, especially in female characters, in my senior year English AP class when I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” for the first time. What might it have looked like if that woman didn’t have to escape into her mind due to the overwhelming nature of her postpartum depression and possible PTSD? What if she could instead process and rewrite her own story? Is that ultimately what Gilman intended? What would it have looked like for Gilman herself to do so more directly?
Deeper questions around how we tell the stories of our personal trauma, especially to the ends of resolving intergenerational trauma, have especially been on my mind with the runaway success of two celebrity memoirs that have come out in the past year: I’m Glad My Mom Died by child actress and former Nickelodeon star of iCarly Jennette McCurdy, and Spare by veteran and former member of the British Royal Family Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex.
How does using a version of the “talking cure” or perhaps a “writing cure” factor into someone’s ability to begin to heal trauma by taking back control over their own narrative? What does it mean to take back your own story? And is storytelling a way for us to not only understand others’ traumas, but begin to better understand our own? McCurdy and Prince Harry’s work helped me begin to scratch the surface of these dissertation-worthy questions.
McCurdy’s memoir is split into a before and an after in relation to her mother’s death. Instead of being the main impetus for trauma, her mother’s death is ultimately what allows her to begin healing. Her writing is incredibly raw, unflinchingly honest to a point. She uses the form of memoir to reflect on the arc of her life from someone who was controlled by her mother and the entertainment industry to someone with more agency. What we learn from her memoir is what it’s like to live under the abusive grip of, if not a full-out narcissist, at the bare minimum a demanding, toxic and manipulative person. We learn what it’s like to be a child in the spotlight and how that, coupled with her mother’s abuse, erodes a person’s confidence and self-esteem, especially around food and body image. We learn about the physically and sexually abusive nature of the entertainment industry from the inside. We learn that, against all odds, McCurdy has made it through and is able to tell the tale in a structured way that transcends the inherent psychological fracturing in trauma. She doesn’t repeat the cycle and has been able to make strides in growing, healing, and moving forward.
Prince Harry’s memoir is a little different, but throughout the nearly sixteen-hour audiobook I listened to at a clip on 1.3x, there were echoes with the emotional arc of McCurdy’s memoir. Prince Harry feels similar isolation and distrust in his environment growing up. He is rendered powerless over decades by people and forces much larger than he is whether it’s Daddy Charles, Granny’s evil henchmen/advisors, the British Army or the slimy press. And his recovery is different, because his mom dying was the start of many of his problems and not the keystone to recovery as in McCurdy’s narrative. It is a lot harder to recover from abuse and trauma when you can’t fully escape your main triggers. But as we know from his life with Meghan, their children, and their dogs in the US now as they continue their work in media and philanthropy, it is possible. The final moments of the book show that Harry is intent on not repeating the abusive cycle of the men in his family, unlike his brother. He will not be the heir of the crown or his family’s toxic bullshit.
Now, I’m not comparing an American child TV star who suffered from bulimia at the hands of an abusive mother with unresolved issues and a member of the British monarchy whose trauma was broadcast globally when he walked behind his mother’s coffin twenty-five years before leaving the same Institution that killed her. But what I am saying is that both books are incredibly compelling and incredibly well-selling books. McCurdy’s memoir is still often backordered. Prince Harry’s memoir is one of the bestselling nonfiction books ever, selling 1.4 million copies on the first day of its publication. People are looking for good gossip and to see if the books are worth the hype. But I also think people are looking for answers in the pages of someone else’s story.
I know people are looking for answers because Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.’s The Body Keeps the Score has been on the The New York Times bestseller list for 220 weeks, as of this newsletter. I see this book every time I step into a bookstore. It has been an omnipresent bestselling cultural hallmark of our desire to heal for over four years.
Yes, it’s a great book. But, it’s very intimidating, dense, and academic. What I hope people get out of it if they do read it is an understanding of how sustained and persistent trauma (often in the form of cPTSD, a term formulated by renowned trauma researcher Judith Hermann) alters the brain in a way that affects which therapies are most effective, and which modalities those are (i.e. meditation, EMDR, Internal Family Systems, etc.). But if you can’t afford or access those, or don’t know how, what else can you really do?
I think McCurdy’s and Prince Harry’s memoirs are so popular not just because they’re written by beloved, recognizable people that we grew up with. Yes, Spare broke records in part because of people’s love or hate of the Royal Family and Prince Harry in particular. But I don’t think that accounts for all of their success. I think they’re uber-popular in part because people read Van Der Kolk’s book (or at least, bought it and if not, are at least thinking about similar ideas in their lives) and are still looking for more answers or affirmation that they’re not alone. I think they want to know someone else has experienced what they did and made it through. Somehow. Someway. That’s partly what brings me back to these types of memoirs again and again.
We live in a traumatic culture, the byproduct of white supremacist capitalist ideology and an era of immediate and chronic global polycrisis. I don’t have to list them out. Just go to CNN or Twitter to get a taste. But we also live in a time of increased awareness, where more people, especially Millennials and Generation Z, are finding the language to understand how many of us were handed a burden we didn’t ask for in the form of emotional damage from our families, indirectly through some kind of neglect or directly through outright abuse. We want to be the cycle breakers, but breaking a cycle that’s been passed down socially and epigenetically is hard freaking work.
People need help, and they can’t afford it. Both McCurdy and Prince Harry mention the role of therapy in their healing, but that’s not an accessible reality for many people around the globe (and especially in America’s case, because of out-of-control healthcare costs. A $30 book is still a big expense to many, but a bargain compared to a $200+ psych consult).
People can’t afford therapy or don’t have the time to navigate the complicated healthcare system with barriers like racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia on top of the financial costs. They don’t know where else to seek help, and so books are the front lines. They always have been. That’s why people are trying so damn hard to take them away from kids right now.
And it’s not only books — Encanto, Turning Red, and Everything Everywhere All at Once are all movies that use imaginative storytelling to explore themes of healing intergenerational trauma. To see these depictions is healing in a deeply cathartic way. Not to go all affect theory in what was initially going to be a shorter, more light-hearted newsletter, but these pieces of media have become active sites of affective circulation, becoming a part of people’s frameworks to understand or recognize their own experiences. McCurdy and Prince Harry went through the unimaginable and show us their maps to recovery. Maybe we can use them to light our own way through the dark.
This is part of it. The other part is a mix of human’s love for gossip and schadenfreude. These books have us a glimpse of how slimy the inside of Nickelodeon was and how absolutely bonkers and toxic the inside of the Royal Family is. We all wanted to see if Harry would call out Camilla, Charles and William, and he does. A story has to be compelling. Everyone who’s Extremely Online lost it last week over the reveal of Harry’s incident with penis frost-nip and using the same lip cream his mother used to try and heal it. And yes, out of context it was very Freudian. Hell, in context it was Freudian. But to go too far down that rabbit hole would be a red herring.
As people pointed out on Twitter, Harry is taking control of his narrative from the Royal Family and British press by telling everything. In order to have control over his own narrative, he needs to tell the whole damn thing and leave no stone untouched a palace insider or journalist could use against him. He wanted it to come from himself. I respect that. Everyone deserves agency over their own humiliation.
But that’s ultimately why I found McCurdy’s memoir more introspective, reflective, and whole. To recover from a trauma is to recreate a sense of wholeness, to have full ownership over your narrative. Because McCurdy’s mom’s death gave her the space to finally properly heal, she had more wiggle room to begin to move past just a talking cure and into a more digested and well-rounded narrative. Prince Harry, like many of us, is still in it, still telling his truth. There was some reflection, especially in the last bit of the book, and it’s clear he is healing, but overall it was a very straightforward account. This is also due in part to it being ghostwritten. I would be interested to see if in the next book he releases, there’s a bit more introspection. I hope next time, he actually writes it. Only time can tell.
Now, what frustrates me, while not being at all surprising, is this: Jennette McCurdy and Prince Harry are both very cis straight white people with a lot of economic privilege compared to the average person. The success of these books is in part due to that privilege and the well-funded marketing campaigns of their respective publishers.
My favorite memoirs tend to be highly reflective essay collections written by people who aren’t white and/or who are queer and/or trans or nonbinary. If you’re ready to take the next step in your journey of trauma through narrative or are just looking for some recs, here are some of my favorites (a note—I almost exclusively listen to memoirs as audiobooks, as many of them are read by the author and I find it empowering to hear them tell their stories in their own voices):
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott - This collection of essays by an Indigenous woman who explores connections between mental illness, race, class and culture over a series of deeply incisive and insightful essays was my favorite read of 2020, and I have not shut up about it since. The final interactive essay about abuse is still something I think about often.
How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler - One of my favorite reads of 2022, this essay collection looks at the biracial, queer identity of the author and their relationships with community and family against the backdrop of ten sea creatures. Incredibly detailed and emotional, this book deserves so much hype and a chance from you.
A History of Scars by Laura Lee - This memoir is rich and diverse and beautiful, but it is also a rough read that does not hold any punches. Immersive, reflective and gritty, this memoir about a Korean-American woman’s battle with mental illness and generational trauma is a must-red.
The Family Outing by Jessi Hempel - This book about an entire family who is queer (well, except for the mom who was almost targeted by a serial killer as a teen) is a wild ride. But, to leave this newsletter off on a hopeful note, it’s a read that shows that things can get better and work out, even when it seems impossible that they ever will.
Wandering in Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins - Looking at intergenerational trauma on a more macro level, I love this book that’s about the historical and geographical pathways of the authors background. A personal and historical ethnography, it examines her family and takes the reader from the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina and Georgia to the Creole people of Louisiana to Oklahoma to explore the connections between Black and Indigenous folks.
What did you think of I’m Glad My Mom Died or Spare? What are some of your favorite memoirs that explore intergenerational trauma?
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