When memoir is done well it has the capacity to invoke a far deeper connection than fiction. In memoir, you understand these characters are alive or at least once lived. It becomes not just a story, but a relation of memory, a communing of remarkable vulnerability. Liz Scott, in her memoir This Never Happened, does memoir remarkably well.
“I’ve come to believe that all of this—the facts about your ancestors, the truth about your family story, the reliable connections—are what create ballast in a life.” This ballast is not something Scott has at the outset. It is not something her parents provided for her. Thus Scott’s search for ballast among the wreckage of her lived familial experiences becomes the book’s central concern.
There is fire here, sometimes fury, always an unquenchable love for her parents, whatever disaster they might have caused in their mystery, avoidance of truth, and difficulty. Told in vibrant vignettes that leap forward and backward through time, what might become a jumbled mess instead serves as a rapturous metaphor for the meaning-making the human mind visits on past experience. Answers do not arrive in a linear fashion, breadcrumbs do not lead to a specific destination. The work of piecing together a broken upbringing requires pieces spread across the floor. It requires patience. Eventually, it blooms into something resonant and unforgettable.
To explain her investigation, her obsession with making sense of her parents, Scott notes, “How irresistible the need for parental approval. How enduring!” To explain the frustration she meets at many junctures: “We are all opaque to each other to some infuriating degree.” Her vulnerability in this exploration is perfectly poised, notable for how much she is willing to expose while never letting the exposure take away from her ultimate search for meaning. Her love for her parents is obvious. The love never devolves, however fire-tested we understand it to be by the end.
Her tale generally alternates vignettes (or a series of them) between ruminating on her mother, her father, or both of them at once. Further elevating the possibilities inherent to things that actually happened, Scott makes the deeply personal choice to include familial ephemera throughout. Sometimes photographs, other times letters she wrote to her father, once her mother’s resume (much of which we are told to doubt), the tale arching to emotional highs when she includes letters written between her parents that provide insight into the unworkability of their marriage while yet deepening the mystery of who her parents were, how they attempted to make sense of themselves and their commitments. I could read an entire book of just their letters, so engaging is their content. The ephemera is not window dressing here, it is glassed into the window, inseparable from Scott’s writing.
Beyond the vignette style, Scott employs other unconventional techniques for a memoir, some chapters using only one line to communicate their content, others formed into lists, another reading partially as a transcript of a phone call between her and an insurance officer following her mother’s death. I, as reader, am kept always on my toes, never certain of what she will share next nor how she will share it. She knows what she is doing, letting us in on the secret: “This is not an autobiography. It is not a coherent, reliable story of a life.” But I do see it as reliable. It is reliable because it is her story and there is no one else to tell it. She continues, “What I have instead is a chronicle of emotion and cathexis.” I would argue her “chronicle of emotion” is as important and reliable as any cold history through what it allows us to see and what it asks us to examine.
Somewhere near the middle she admits, “As an adult what I have craved is answers.” The reader craves answers too. But the craving and the finding often do not hold hands. Whatever answers Scott finds by the end, it’s obvious she will never find all that she might wish to know. It is too late for many things. The details and stories of This Never Happened nonetheless go to show how vital it is that humans look for answers. That we embark on such endeavors.
This is a love letter to the search, a celebration of family and trying to make sense of family, including the ways they cause pain and turmoil. This is the pinnacle of a genre. A book for which all future memoirs I will wonder, comparing in my mind, “yes, but does it come anywhere close to being as good as Liz Scott?”
This Never Happened is published by University of Hell Press.