Untamed and Unbound: Memoir as an Offering
“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” -Brené Brown
The memoirs Untamed by Glennon Doyle and Unbound by Tarana Burke both resonate with the sentiment, “I went through these experiences, and if I can save you from some of my pain, please let me".
This is not true of all memoirs. Recently, a friend mentioned to me that she felt the memoir we were reading at the time was a bit self-indulgent. I remember thinking, “What is memoir if not self-indulgent? Aren’t all creative pursuits by nature a little bit self-indulgent?”
Upon further reflection, I realized that it is not the memoirist's job to write for us much in the same way that it is not the artist's job to create for an audience's pleasure. Art is a means of expression for the artist, and memoir is a means of self-expression and catharsis for the writer.
This insight led me to the discovery that while some memoirists seek to tell their story and leave it to the reader to find points of connection or shared humanity, Doyle and Burke are much more generous in their writing. Although the truth is, whether generous or self-indulgent, most people’s stories if told well, will resonate with someone.
In Untamed, Glennon Doyle shares her experiences and then extends her insights beyond her personal story so readers can discover how these same truths may apply to their lives. In the chapter, “Eyes”, Doyle contemplates the myth that a “good mother” is someone who is willing to sacrifice her own happiness for her children. She writes about a moment in which she looks deeply into her own eyes in the mirror and asks herself, “Is the decision to continue abandoning yourself really what your children need from you?”
She shares with readers her epiphany that what we most owe our children is to respect ourselves enough to pursue what is true for us. She writes, “What a terrible burden for our children to bear - to know that they are the reason their mother stopped living…. What if a responsible mother is not one who shows her children how to slowly die but how to stay wildly alive until the day she dies? What if the call of motherhood is not be be a martyr, but a model?” (p. 128).
Although Shel Silverstein illustrated this lesson for us many years ago in The Giving Tree -that if we give all of ourselves away, we ultimately have nothing left to give, still it seems we need to be reminded again and again. Doyle’s truth feels like a salve for us tired mothers, because her revelation gives us permission to be ourselves.
Another line that particularly resonates with me in this chapter is when Doyle writes, “I’m not going to use my children as an excuse to not be brave and start seeing them as my reason to be brave.” (p. 129) (I’m keeping this one in mind as I sit here writing this blog post rather than making myself perpetually available for the endless queries and needs of my nearly adult children.)
Tarana Burke similarly shares her life experiences in Unbound, and even though her experiences may be very different than your own, she will break your heart in a thousand pieces if you’ve ever felt that you weren’t good enough or worthy of love and belonging. Fortunately, Burke will also gently put it back together as she tells you about how as a little girl she believed she was ugly, until the moment when she finds the courage to finally say “Me too”.
In the chapter entitled, “Breathe Again”, Burke refers to a line repeated in the choreopoem , For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange in which the lady in red repeats the line, “There was no air.” Burke writes, I was captivated by that line. I would say it over and over again…. For me, a dark-skinned black girl who had been damaged and used. There was no air for me to be anything but what they said I was . Girls like me didn’t get the air to cry, the air to release our shame, the air to say, “I don’t want to fight you. I don’t know why I’m so mad at you except that you look like me and who the fuck am I.’ We didn’t get the air to be reborn and handled warmly.”
I couldn’t breathe myself when I read these lines, and I think every reader who has ever felt suffocated by their own shame will be moved by Tarana Burke’s raw honesty and willingness to be vulnerable.
Doyle and Burke not only bravely share their stories, but show themselves grace and compassion in the telling which can hopefully inspire us to be braver in owning, and maybe even telling our own stories.
Perhaps, the reason their memoirs serve as an offering to readers is because they reflect how Doyle and Burke live their lives - - as role models and activists who tirelessly seek to elevate the truth towards collective healing and repair.