STARRED REVIEW
November 2021

Publicly excavating the soul

Behind the Book by
Bestselling memoirist Katherine May opens up about the risks and rewards of writing about her late-in-life autism diagnosis.
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In my memoir, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, I write not just about my late autism diagnosis but also about the experience of unearthing a hidden self. This autistic version of me was smothered and buried in childhood, when I saw very clearly and painfully that she was unacceptable to the outside world. I determined to make a bright, shiny new person in her place, one who fit in. I then spent the next 30 years ineffectually covering my tracks.

And yet, once I had a name for what I was, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it, and to externalize all those parts of my experience that I found so shameful for so long. I wanted to capture the feeling of being profoundly different from most of the people around me, the struggles to cope with everyday life, the canvas of self-loathing and exhaustion onto which I painted my identity. Most of all, I wanted to write about the process of concealing all this, even from myself. I wanted to show what it was like to undergo this unpeeling.

Read our review of ‘The Electricity of Every Living Thing.’

The question I often get asked is: Why? Why would I expose such a raw nerve? Why would I so willingly express my otherness and undermine my chance to be “one of us”? I could, after all, make my own private adaptations and carry on pretending to the outside world that I am perfectly fine. 

This archaeology of the soul is common currency in memoir. Like therapy, life writing encourages us to dig through the strata of our experiences to uncover something that glints with fascination. Except that we memoirists undertake this work in public. It is, I’ll admit, an unusual instinct. Memoirists don’t simply manifest their pain. We dig deeper into it, picking at the healed parts until they bleed again.

But this is the offering that memoirists make to our readers. In return for their attention, we offer them contact with our humanity. Good memoir is transgressive because it exposes the secrets we hold in common. It offers both reader and writer the catharsis of shedding shame. Quite often, readers find a mirror of the aspects of themselves that they thought were their own unique burdens. This is an exchange of gifts: By writing, I affirm the experiences of others; by being read, I am affirmed. 

“Memoirists don’t simply manifest their pain. We dig deeper into it, picking at the healed parts until they bleed again.”

But I think we defang memoir when we only see it as a therapeutic tool, a simple airing of private experience. It’s also a craft, a creative form within which I practice. I wrote The Electricity of Every Living Thing because I wanted to explore how to tell a story that took the reader on the same journey that I took, the gradual uncovering of the true nature of my mind. I wanted readers to experience coming to love the differences you’ve always despised in yourself, and to finally integrate your sense of outsidership.

This is, of course, political. Memoir usually is. When I started to imagine this book, I knew that it would have to subvert a number of common ideas. For example, it would need to make readers painfully aware that they have probably misunderstood autism, just as I did. To achieve that, I had to show myself being wrong.

As I wrote about walking 630 miles along the South West Coast Path in England, I also sought to undermine the heroic narrative of journeys into the wilderness, to resist the idea that I had to effect some kind of physical triumph to assert my value in this world. This was intended as a sly critique of the male adventurer whose feats of exploration are underwritten by the work of an invisible woman. In my book, I show how difficult it was to get time alone to walk as the mother of a young child, and I make the compromises and conflicts part of the story. 

“Not all readers understand that memoir is a literary form rather than an affidavit. I tell what I choose to tell, and the hidden side of that is what I choose to withhold.”

Because memoir tells a true story, the contract with the reader is different: Their attention is drawn by fascination with the real rather than by the promise of a good yarn, in which everything turns out all right in the end. This is absolutely why I write memoir. It functions more like gossip than the hero’s journey, and so it buys me a license to stretch the boundaries of conventional storytelling. I can teach without being didactic. I can show you life in a different mind in a way that feels elemental rather than told. 

Of course, when you transform details from your real life into story, the sense of exposure can bite—but that comes most of all when the contract between reader and writer is broken. Not all readers understand that memoir is a literary form rather than an affidavit. I tell what I choose to tell, and the hidden side of that is what I choose to withhold. I grow uncomfortable when people pry further. Memoirists can be fiercely protective of the privacies they choose to keep. 

But ultimately the exposure doesn’t trouble me because I already processed my feelings of shame during the act of writing, and now I’m ready to share the product of that time. It’s a particular kind of story, both lived and made, a crafted truth. It was made to change both reader and writer. It was made to share.

The Electricity of Every Living Thing
By Katherine May
Melville House

ISBN 9781612199603

Katherine May

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