Monday, November 18, 2013

Memoirs and the influence of genetics and identity

Book Review

By Amy Boesky (Edited by)

September 25, 2013. The Johns Hopkins University Press

9781421410968, 280 pages

People considering writing their memoirs would do well to read this compilation of stories about the impact of our genetic make-up on our identities and our stories.

The writers in Amy Boesky’s book have provided heartrending and scientifically analytic manner essays around how genetics inherited without permission from previous generations map out a person’s life – and death.

Memoirs, being about what people are and what they become, are riddled with the stuff of where we come from and how we are made up. 

The book as a whole makes the point about how memoirs drawing on ‘genetic susceptibility’ differ from memoirs as we commonly know them. 

‘Memoir – the narrative exploration of self – is often organized around a central change or transformation. Yet genetic memoir – and I use this term deliberately…treats change in distinctive ways,’ Boesky writes.

Stories around a person’s genetic susceptibility do not conform to the existing models for memoir writing. This is highlighted in the essay by Arthur Frank, who objects to the simplified power of the ‘restitution’ narrative, which he sees as the preferred way of writing and reading about disease.

‘In such narratives,’ he writes, ‘the protagonist gets sick, gets treated, and gets well again, often ending up “better” than before.’

However, such heroic scenarios are not available for those living with a genetic mutation without ‘access to the banal heroics of restitution narratives, for the mutation story is not that narrative’.

The essayists provide – separately – illustrations of how the journeys they and their families have travelled, often over generations, have boundaries not limiting the traditional memoirist.

Disclosure is problematic for writers of genetic memoir, for example, as they must struggle with the reality of the likely impact their disclosures will have on wider family members.

While all memoirists worry about disclosing family secrets, genetic memoirists have a particular concern, because what gets disclosed about their own DNA also affects family members directly and not only the subject.

Several writers highlight this difficult and how their research throws light on an unnerving future for coming generations. This can be such conditions around, for example, breast cancer or cystic fibrosis.
DNA gives such writers a wider scope of reference than those using a more ‘linear’ setting, ‘the “now” of the present is shadowed by earlier loss or looming tragedy.’ 

The grief being dealt with cannot be overcome or put away, as future loss casts a shadow. Being trapped within the past of their DNA is, it is suggested, not unlike trauma in the feeling of being caught inside an experience that re-injures.

One of the writers, Patrick Tracey, followed a news item pointing to schizophrenia inherited from the hardships of the potato famines in Ireland. Researchers found that decades of hardship had seen a population’s DNA grow to include the mental illness – so much so it has been passed down through the generations, no matter where in the world the Irish diaspora ends up.

It would be too simple to say all memoirists could or should adopt a similar approach.  However, this book raises well-research issues which make it essential for those teaching memoir writing and for anybody with an interest in this area.

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