In his book What Unites Us, former CBS news person Dan Rather refers several times to the “neighborhood where I grew up” in Texas.
This narrative meme should be abandoned by anyone who is serious about autobiography because the plural form of neighborhood is more accurate. In addition, growing up is not a linear process. We don’t “grow up” in a single way or in a single place and magically become a “grown-up.” The communities that surrounded our lives in the 20th Century were not homogeneous. They were diverse and less rooted in place. To root autobiography in place seems arbitrary. The narrative force of this meme casts aside our diversity of experience. We shouldn’t do that if we seek to be true to ourselves.
Our mind doesn’t stop growing as Rather points out. I had formative early experiences and it seems normal to emphasize them. I’ve written about getting injured when a swing set collapsed on me at age three and a half. That experience combined with my arrival at the hospital, taking ether through a funnel, and a lengthy stay had an effect on me that persists. There was a lot else going on at the time. I like to tell this story yet is it most representative of what makes me who I am? Probably not.
Writing autobiography means setting aside favored tales like my injury and hospital stay. It would be hard to write a memoir and leave it out. However, there were more significant influences by 1955. By then our family had moved to Madison Street where we lived only a short time until I finished kindergarten. Next we moved to a rental near Wonder Bakery for most of my first grade year. Then, in 1959, we moved to Marquette Street where I lived through high school. The house on Marquette represents a significant amount of time yet to characterize it as the “neighborhood where I grew up” is not accurate. I was well into personhood by 1959.
Part of autobiography is a timeline. It doesn’t have to be the main attraction. I’ve struggled with the single, time-based narrative and seek a way to articulate something different about how I “grew up.” Rather’s book raised awareness that one should really use the plural form of the word neighborhood. Or use something different like communities, or cohorts, or cultural nests, or something. Growing up meant experiencing many different kinds of social settings.
When Mother attempted a memoir she rendered it to a single narrative. It really didn’t work and she abandoned the project after a few pages. While there is always a timeline to autobiography, I don’t feel that’s the hook on which to hang a life story. Passing time moves a narrative along but complexity is sanded off in the woodshed.
I like Rather’s book well enough. It cost $2.10 on Kindle (cheap). It’s an easy read that touches on many areas of modern life that seemed important in the last century and are diminished in this. To the extent it inspired this post it was worth the purchase price.