Memoir As Confession, Reader As Humble Priest
by Pierrette Rouleau Stukes
“Are you a believer?” the veterinarian asked.
My one hundred and two pound Labrador, Jack, strained and wiggled against his prong collar. The stainless steel nubbins mimic the mother’s nips on puppy flesh, a dog’s first lessons in domestication. Jack smiled. His doctor had scolded me about pet obesity. We’d discussed preventive flea medicines. I’d fed Jack biscuits as needles slid through muscle.
“In what?” I asked, my mind sorting arcane canine health treatments. “Oh, oh, in God.” Caged animals howled and whimpered through the walls. I inhaled a shallow breath, and The Conversation I’d been dreading began.
My husband calls me “the confessor.”
Raised Catholic, in the South, I revealed my sins in musty, walnut cubicles, worn red velveteen-covered benches cushioning my girl’s slender knees. But the lattice which separated me from the priest’s naked gaze also filtered the transgressions I claimed and those I held in my secret heart. I admitted being a tattletale, but not stealing Boone’s Farm from the A & P.
Twelve-step meetings taught me to place my faith in unsparing self-scrutiny. Sober old timers assured me that a humble vivisection of my drunken life would save me. It did. I anatomized my petty crimes and misdemeanors in a cloistered cell of anonymity and confidentiality.
I feel compelled to write memoir. But I must ask: Has this drive replaced my conviction that confession will “create in me a pure heart”? Is memoir private anatomy made public spectacle? At a writer’s salon, a woman-not-old-enough-to-be-my-mother thought so. Her southern drawl declared my essay about my mother and me “cathartic.” She missed the artistry. Perhaps, my piece echoed a parent-child bond closer to the bone, and she squirmed, unconsciously shifting her shame to me.
Memoir exposes the deep fascia of tissue which connects the muscle, bone and nerve of a single body. It’s too bloody, too visceral, they say. We don’t want to hear your soiled stories. Your words remind us of our own feelings, fears, truths, skepticism.
The vet’s question didn’t materialize from profane air. I’d published an essay in an anthology which focused on Ashe County, North Carolina, a predominantly and proudly conservative Christian community. The first dozen drafts were about the dream-come-true of my husband and me to live in the mountains. Another theme emerged—about reconciling with the path my faith had taken. I wrote that story, and I’d been waiting for someone to nip at my courage to stray from the fold.
“I believe in God,” I assured him. “Every human being contains the Christ within.”
He examined me like I was a sickly chameleon that could no longer adapt to her environment.
I believe with Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, that “God is everything or else God is nothing.”
I believe God is the impulse to know the totality of ourselves, frail and glorious.
I believe Jesus, the man, knew himself.
I believe the Christ is a symbol for that wholeness.
I believe writing is prayer.
I believe memoir is art.
Memoir is both the whole truth I withheld as a child and that truth made meaningful. Words beget sentences, story, symbol. I dissect the deep fascia of my one life and discover in its cells the soul’s universal narrative. I confess to the cosmos, praying that the reader may be ordained a humble priest who recognizes his own Christ within.
Pierrette Rouleau Stukes loved words as a child, but forgot. Relishing others’ words, she earned degrees in English literature. She remembered her first love and has published creative nonfiction in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Mountain Memoirs: An Ashe County Anthology, and The Rose. Her essay “Swimming” was awarded first place in a regional creative nonfiction contest. “Tilted Toward Life” was nominated for the 2011 Best of the Net for nonfiction. A short-short fiction story, “Between the Lines,” earned an Honorable Mention in New Millennium Writings.