To reach middle age is usually to have endured a time of crisis. Make it as far as your late 30s, your early 40s, and you will almost certainly have been subjected to at least one of life’s great excruciations: poverty, illness, bereavement, parental malfeasance, divorce. These are the lineaments of the thing called experience.
When faced with experience, with the disorder and bewilderment of event, we are often visited by a concomitant urge to shape and understand it. How did I get here? Where am I going? It is with such questions that the authors of each of these memoirs are, in their different ways, concerned.
In Love and Trouble (Knopf), Claire Dederer examines why at the age of 44 she was overcome by a violently disruptive nostalgia for her sexually promiscuous former self. In Through the Shadowlands (Rodale), Julie Rehmeyer describes her 12-year struggle to overcome the mysterious and remorselessly debilitating condition of chronic fatigue syndrome, an affliction that arrived when Rehmeyer was in her early 30s and propelled her to the edge of financial ruin and the brink of suicide. And in Priestdaddy (Riverhead), Patricia Lockwood recalls how a moment of financial and medical calamity drove her to seek refuge at her parents’ house in Kansas. The return prompts her to assess her relationship with her dismayingly eccentric father: a married Catholic priest who became a Christian following repeated viewings of “The Exorcist,” and who sometimes ambles around the house dressed in transparent underwear or weird uniforms.
All three books are affecting and all, at times, darkly amusing about the various forms of trauma their authors have endured. Yet they differ markedly in tone and structure. Dederer’s account is the most formally experimental: There is a magnificently frank and angry letter to Roman Polanski concerning his child-rape case; she devotes a chapter to analyzing herself as if she were the subject of a scientific case study. These sections are vivid and bracing, and free from the occasionally rebarbative colloquialism and knowing sarcasm that appear in her more conventionally confessional (and otherwise moving) pages.
Rehmeyer’s means of remembrance are, by contrast, fairly straightforward. The book opens with a scene of her alone in a desert in the winter of 2012, hoping that a period of isolation will bring an end to her experience with chronic fatigue syndrome. Her tale then spools back to the year 2000 and the onset of the condition, before chronicling the vicissitudes of her quest for a cure. The resulting volume is harrowing, raw and frequently inspiring. Although the force of Rehmeyer’s prose can sometimes be diminished by overstatement, for the most part she writes as she has been forced to live: with great inner strength and determination, and with admirable candor about how it feels to be in the midst of an existence in which aspirations are everywhere giving way to uncertainties and fears.
This is the situation in which Lockwood finds herself at the opening of her remarkable work. Lockwood — perhaps best known for her 2013 prose poem “Rape Joke” — proceeds with a nearly unflagging sense of ironic exuberance and verbal inventiveness. Her consideration of the complexity of her feelings about her father — which includes reflections on the church’s history of sexual abuse and encounters with enthusiastic pro-lifers — features on almost every page instances of memorable and original expression, and moments of witty observation. The sun appears as “a malignant pearl”; her father’s eyes resemble “unblinking black roses”; Lutherans “have a passion for banners that approaches the erotic.”
This superabundance of comic energy and literary vigor is a measure of Lockwood’s seriousness and makes hers feel the most resonant of the three memoirs. She might not nudge us any closer to understanding, but perhaps this is because she has absorbed the importance of a lesson bequeathed to her by her father: to learn to “live in the mystery” of life — and perhaps “even to love it.”
Matthew Adams is a British writer who contributes to the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and the Irish Times.