Danny Bonaduce, poster boy for former child-stars gone wild, stares straight into the camera. “My life is a train wreck,” he says. “You’re welcome to watch.”
This was the promo for “Breaking Bonaduce,” last year’s controversial reality series starring the steroid-pumped but still freckly Bonaduce; his sighing wife, Gretchen; and their VH1-appointed therapist, Dr. Garry.
Bonaduce has always made good television. Years ago, he was cute little Danny Partridge, the youngest member of the 1970s Partridge Family and the one who most resembled a Cabbage Patch doll. Now, all grown up and without Shirley Jones to turn to for motherly advice, Bonaduce’s a mess. His marriage is on the fritz. He’s tried to commit suicide. He has a multitude of addictions, including sex and drugs and porn. And he’s likely violent. Remember the incident years ago when he beat up a transvestite and it made the news? VH1 certainly did. Can anyone say Nielssen ratings?
And the show was, predictably, a hit for VH1, which has since become king of the celebrity-reality-TV circus. At the end of the first season of “Breaking Bonaduce,” viewers who’d tuned in to watch Danny rant into his cell phone, threaten Dr. Garry, threaten to slit his own wrists, actually slit his wrists and then explain his bandages to his young daughter, were rewarded with…what exactly?
The understanding that Danny Bonaduce’s life is, well, a mess.
The revelation that this often happens to former child stars.
The knowledge that this is, perhaps, sad.
End of story.
If you think Bonaduce and those like him are confined to television, that most maligned pop-culture medium, just check out the memoir/biography/self-help section of your local mega-bookstore. You might notice some similarities.
Here’s a title that, according to a certain publishing/marketing trend, would get powerful talk-show hosts’ panties in a twist:
“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Ex-Crackhead Cross-Dressing Male One-Legged Club-Footed Prostitute Whose Adulterous Midget Heroin-Addicted Mama Fed Him Rancid Dog Food Through a Straw Then Sold Him to the CIA for One Mottled Banana and a Pack of Kool Menthols: A True Story.”
Apologies to Dave Eggers, who is, as he notes in his own title, most likely a genius. But back to the point.
Memoirs and personal essay collections are everywhere these days, and, despite what some critics say, this is not a bad thing. There are so many wonderful, human, funny, powerful and true stories out there. (Try Ann Patchett’s “Truth and Beauty,” a sad and inspiring story of friendship; Greg Bottoms’“Angelhead,” a haunting story about what it’s like to grow up in a family where one of the members is mentally ill; Kathy Dobie’s incisive “The Only Girl in the Car,” a story about a girl coming of age in a brutal small town; the brilliant humorist/ essayist/memoirist David Sedaris’ most recent “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” a collection that is both hysterical and poignant; and the equally brilliant Augusten Burroughs’ “Possible Side Effects,” an essay collection that illuminates seemingly small moments in the writer’s life—getting a dog, getting locked out of an apartment, writing an ad for Junior Mints—and elevates them to art.)
But there is also a trend toward this other side of memoir, the Bonaduce side, the side that says, “My pain is greater than anyone else’s pain.” The side that says, “Look at me. I’m so crazy. No one has ever been this crazy, and no one will be this crazy ever again.” The side that says, “Look at me. Look at ME.”
Books should not be the equivalent of reality TV. Memoir writing—despite what William Grimes said in a critique for The New York Times, “We All Have a Life, Must We All Write About It?” —is not about navel-gazing. (The phrase, by the way, is a contemporary take on omphaloscopy. Omphaloscopy—the practice wherein contemplative folks like monks and mystics and Grateful Dead enthusiasts gaze for days at their own navels, hoping to find, tucked in the intricate maze of their own centers, the keys to divine enlightenment.) It is not about self-obsession, even though the subject is, invariably, the experience of one life.
Good memoirs should do what all good art aspires to do. They should show us ourselves. This is arguably the distinction between good and bad memoir writing. Bad memoirs often offer readers the book equivalent of reality TV. They provide voyeuristic pleasure— the chance to peek into the underwear drawer of a writer who’s done more crack, made more kissy-face with his/her father/mother, punched out more cops, drunk more booze and racked up more hours in rehab and on therapists’ couches than anyone else. Ever.
Sure, some of these memoirs are more titillating than others. Then again, some navels contain fluffier or dirtier belly lint than others. James Frey’s belly lint, for instance, is so intricately tangled, it’s almost fascinating. It’s as if the truth were something he’d get a Boy Scout badge for if only he could work it into a slipknot.
The point is that bad memoir writing, like bad television, involves navel-gazing and nothing more. The writer is so obsessed with him/ herself that there is no concern for how that self fits into the big picture. And no matter how sensational or how boring the life of the bad memoir writer may be, the reader comes away with the same thing.
Isn’t that something?
A good memoir does more than that. A good memoir offers readers a human connection. A good memoir writer uses life experience not to go more deeply into the self but to reach out to others. A good memoirist makes connections. A good memoirist’s primary goal is to show us something true about ourselves, about what it means to be human.
“I am vast,” Walt Whitman once wrote. “I contain multitudes.”
We all contain multitudes. We all contain universal truths.
“We are born. We live a while. We die.” E.B. White’s Charlotte the spider spelled it out for us.
We each come to this understanding through a life filled with individual experiences. Those individual experiences are what make up a memoirist’s subject. Some of those experiences are worth writing about. Others aren’t. Some people are born writers. Others aren’t. These aren’t things that can or should be chosen or invented simply to f it a marketing niche. In a line meant as advice for young writers who romanticize suffering as a means to a creative life, the poet Carolyn Forche wrote: “Twenty-year-old poet/Hikmet did not choose to be Hikmet.”
Nazim Hikmet. The great Turkish poet who wrote some of his most important poems on prison toilet paper. Hikmet. A man who spent over 26 of his 61 years either in solitary confinement or in exile. Hikmet, author of the great epic “Human Landscapes” as well as many intimate narrative poems that reflect on everything from his experiences in prison to, a month before his death, a meditation on what it means to be alive:
I mean you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you will plant olives—
and not so they’ll be left for your children either,
but because even though you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
Hikmet did not choose to be Hikmet.
Hikmet didn’t play to cameras or to a publishing market. He didn’t invent; he didn’t over-dramatize. He simply played the hand he was dealt. He wrote from his own experience, his own center. He didn’t do this so that he could become obsessed with the labyrinth of his own suffering or his own navel. He did not write inward, though he had every excuse to do so. Instead, he wrote outward. While in prison, he wrote poems addressed in the second person, though he may not have believed that anyone else would ever read them. He wrote poems to others who were imprisoned, either literally or figuratively. He offered advice on how to survive:
You must be so caught up
in the flurry of the world
that you shiver there inside
when, outside, at forty days’ distance, a leaf moves.
To survive, Hikmet said, we all must be connected to the world and not separate from it. Bonaduce is, for ratings’ sake, someone who is separate from the rest of us. As it’s presented by VH1, his life is a spectacle, something to watch, not something to mirror our own after. That’s what separates television and navel-gazing from real art. Individual human experience is valuable—in writing and elsewhere— only when it moves through then transcends the self and connects to what’s human in us all.