In her 1993 memoir Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen tells the story of her eighteen-month stay in McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution. The book later became a movie starring Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder, Vanessa Redgrave, and Whoopi Goldberg. As always, there are several differences between the book and the movie, but one especially intriguing difference between the two is how the author’s anger is expressed.
In the book, Kaysen’s anger comes out about halfway through the story, in a whole chapter devoted to proving she was sent to a mental institution after only fifteen or twenty minutes with a psychiatrist she’d never met before. Her tone conveys her feelings. For instance, she doesn’t say she was sent to a mental hospital; she says she was “put away.” She takes a swipe at her family: “Lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside.” Then she details the faults of the mental institution. By contrast, the movie barely shows Kaysen’s anger. Most of the anger expressed comes from a fellow inmate named Lisa, played by Jolie. So the narrator’s angry voice is silenced.
The change makes a huge difference in the story. By shifting the anger to a supporting character, the film manages to make mental illness the common enemy of everyone—Kaysen, her family, her fellow patients, her doctors, and the staff of the mental institution. The anger becomes more palatable to the audience because it is pointed at a disease instead of at people.
Obviously, anger is part of the normal course of our lives; it can’t simply be ignored in memoir. Bad stuff happens in life. It happens to good people. And it happens to writers. Anyone can go on the Jerry Springer Show and rant about the horrible things another person did to them. But bitterness can ruin a good story, and too much anger can be off-putting to readers, who don’t like to feel they’re being pushed to take a side. They get uncomfortable if they sense the writer is rabidly seeking revenge. Many people won’t finish reading a vitriolic book because that kind of anger doesn’t feel good.
Vitriol also shows a lack of perspective and is a red flag that the author hasn’t sufficiently processed the pain. Kaysen told her social worker she wanted to be a writer when she got out of McLean. She wrote two novels after her release, but she waited twenty-five years to write that particular story. Girl, Interrupted, of course, became a best seller that was turned into an Oscar-winning film. It would be interesting to know what would have become of that same book if she’d written it immediately upon her release from the mental hospital.
Finally, too much anger robs a story of its power. It cheats the reader out of his or her emotions. A good writer will tell what happened and then step back and allow readers to feel how they feel about it. The power in any story comes in allowing the readers to come to their own conclusions.
But it takes an artist to turn a story about an abusive father into My Losing Season. It takes an artist to turn a childhood of homelessness and hunger into The Glass Castle or your mother trying to kill you into The Liars’ Club. Great writers can take an ugly story and turn it into something beautiful. One of the major brushstrokes they employ is anger management. As writers, we don’t have to squelch our anger completely. We can—in fact, we should—acknowledge it and even show a bit. But we can’t let it take over. Aristotle said, “Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not easy.” So how can writers find this balance?
One way to manage anger is with humor, which diffuses anger. It reveals a grander perspective. It throws off the bands of victimization, because it’s hard to be a victim when you’re laughing. There’s power in being able to poke fun at something. In Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher tells about how her father, Eddie Fisher, left her mother, Debbie Reynolds, for the recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor: “Well, naturally, my father flew to Elizabeth’s side, gradually making his way slowly to her front. He first dried her eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and he ultimately consoled her with his penis.”
Another way to keep anger in check is to write in second person. Using second person removes the writer (and, by extension, the reader) from the immediate emotion of the moment. It’s almost a cushion from trauma, forming a buffer between the writer and the event. Mary Karr uses second person this way in Cherry: “Meanwhile, you’re waiting for courage. You hope to marshal enough of it to go inside and say goodbye to your daddy, who has decided to deal with your final departure as he’s dealt with the past three years’ occasional departures. He ignores it…. Before you have to meet that gaze and turn from it so the weight of it is borne on your back for all the days you live away from this house, you try to get your hope-machine pumping.” Just for fun, go back and read that passage in first person. Can you tell a difference?
Understatement is another very simple way to manage an angry tone. It’s a subtle way of giving readers credit for being able to understand the gravity of the situation, of allowing them to feel their own anger. People chafe at being told how to feel. The power of memoir comes in allowing readers to bring their own emotions to the story.Elie Wiesel does this beautifully in Night: “Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes … children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?)” He doesn’t rant and rave; he simply says what he saw and then steps back and allows the reader to rage. He doesn’t need to tell us how to feel.
Similarly, readers will read between lines of dialogue to draw their own conclusions. You don’t need to tell readers a person is bad; all you have to do is use a person’s own words to show his or her character. J. R. Moehringer uses dialogue to show what a schmuck his dad is in The Tender Bar. He meets his dad only once or twice before he’s an adult, and the one time his dad takes him anywhere, it’s to a strip poker game. He describes it this way: “‘Wait!’ my father said. ‘The boy! I’ll bet the boy!’ He called to me and I stepped forward. ‘Look at this fine young specimen. Wouldn’t you rather have this nice little boy than a look at my manhood? Wouldn’t you rather have this fruit of my loins than my Fruit of the Looms! I’ll see your bet and raise you—Junior!’”
Throughout The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells stories that show what a poor excuse for a father her dad was. But in the end, he’s dying, and she uses dialogue to show how much she loves him: “He took another long pull on his magnum. ‘I got a lot to regret about my life,’ he said. ‘But I’m goddamn proud of you, Mountain Goat, the way you turned out. Whenever I think of you, I figure I must have done something right.’” There’s a joke in the South that you can say anything you want about a person as long as you follow it with “Bless her heart.” In memoir, you can get away with a lot of anger as long as you balance the good and bad. And after all, barring some extreme cases, no person is all good or all bad. Almost everyone has a redeeming quality or two. A one-dimensional character doesn’t work in fiction, and it doesn’t work in nonfiction. So balancing the good and bad makes your characters more interesting.
But sometimes it’s hard to see both sides in the heat of the moment. Sometimes you have to give an experience time to sink in. Nancy McCabe, author of After the Flashlight Man, says, “I think the best advice is to wait to write about things that make us angry until we have distance and perspective, which takes a few years.” And J. R. Moehringer advises, “If you’re still angry, I think, then it’s not yet time to tackle the story.”
With time, it might also be possible to forgive, or, at least, to figure out a way to empathize with the object of your anger. To be sure, forgiveness doesn’t seem like a writing technique; it’s psychological, more fit for the therapist’s office. Rick Bragg writes his way to forgiveness in The Prince of Frogtown, a book about his father:
He didn’t take nothin’ from me, really, that little man.
He had been worth three chapters to me, all he would ever be worth. Whole months went by, and I did not think of him at all.
Then, about three years ago, everything bounced, tumbled, rolled.
I got a boy of my own.
For the remainder of the book, Bragg seesaws back and forth between horrific stories about his father and funny, heartwarming stories about his own fumbling attempts to be a good father to his new stepson. In the end, he forgives his dad just a bit as he comes to understand how difficult it is to be a good parent.
Finally, every story, boiled down to its essence, is about either love or revenge. Perhaps what the great memoirists have in common is that they manage to muffle the angry voice by turning their tragedies into love stories. The book version of Girl, Interrupted ends as Kaysen begins to take tiny steps toward learning to love herself. The angry voice is now quiet, having been replaced with understanding and tenderness. In the last four pages, she explains that the book’s title comes from Girl Interrupted at Her Music, a painting by Vermeer. She writes:
Interrupted at her music: as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen. . . .
I had something to tell her now. “I see you,” I said.