Debra Monroe Educates Us Unsentimentally

The allure of memoir is that it’s part voyeurism and part cheerleader. The reader is fascinated with the writer’s journey through the seemingly un-navigable; trusting, of course, that the events of the memoir are related fairly and accurately along the way. Memoir is a dicey genre for that reason: it treads the treacherous territory of memory in an attempt to overcome the “you can’t make this stuff up” factor without coming off as navel-gazing, wallowing in victimhood, or narcissistic. The really good ones do it with humor, directness, vulnerability, and self-accountability. Debra Monroe’s latest, My Unsentimental Education, strikes the balance.

In fewer than 200 pages, Monroe recounts the intersection of career—in her case, an academic one—and relationships with a string of working class men. She was groomed for marriage after a childhood in rural Wisconsin that valued, as much as anything else, being married and homemaking. Monroe, it seems, wanted to do just that, but also had a propensity for scholarship and writing—and sewing. The truly interesting morsel of her memoir is the time period her memoir navigates. The women’s movement and immediate aftermath is the backdrop for her navigation of relationship and career, along with all its attendant tensions; whether or not she chose partners from the working class, she’d have difficulties striking a balance with both in the times that she came of age.

“Place” plays as much of a role in her navigations as the times. Moving from Wisconsin to Utah to North Carolina and finally Texas, Monroe finds that each “place” has its own set of working class values. Locals and various friends she makes are, at times, perplexed by her educational and career goals—that almost seem accidental—as much as her willingness to care take the various men she commits to in an effort to have a relationship or marriage. Finally settling in Texas and eventually abandoning marriage as requisite to having a child, Monroe adopts a little girl, the subject of her last memoir, On The Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain, Southern Methodist University Press (2010).

The strength of a great memoir is the writer’s voice, and Monroe’s is one of the best in the genre. With directness, at times a clipped and rapid ride of prose, Monroe drops one-liners the leave the reader alternately reeling with what they’ve just read or laughing out loud, and often both. Her witty, brutal, directness is best in moments of reflection, the sense-making so crucial to memoir. In the prologue while talking to a female undergrad, she muses:

I couldn’t imagine myself without my job—my “vocation.” … I understood that having pursued it meant I’d bypassed turn-offs to other lives. Scraps of antiquated prose were free-floating around my brain. The angel in the house. Facilitating the family dialectic. I said this out loud. “I wanted to be the angel in the house.”

Miranda frowned. “Angel? Is that a New Age idea?” (5)

Clearly, the young lady in question had no idea what women just a generation before had navigated, which becomes the subject of the memoir. Monroe, it seems, wrote this book for their benefit as much as for all those women of a certain age who lived it alongside her.

Self-accountability is the hallmark of notable memoir, and Monroe excels at taking herself to task. Late in the memoir Monroe reflects on how her “nomadic” academic career led her to make the romantic choices she had, with their unfortunate and certainly disappointing ends:

Had I lived in one spot forever, I’d have had the verbal equivalent of courtship letter of reference, people who’d have known my lover since he was a child. But I’d lived all over, and I’d lived by my wits, making choices by myself. If I turned out to be wrong, having based my decision on who was locally available, on who suited my past if not my present or future, I alone was responsible, alone (166).

These are the gems for which the memoir reader reads memoir. The moment is succinct, completely honest, and takes to task the self that is telling the story. In passages like that, the memoirist becomes a hero, assisting the reader to forgive herself for all the crazy choices she’s made, too.

Monroe’s memoir lands in the present day: married, raising a daughter, and negotiating a health issue. Supported by family and friends she’s cultivated along the way, she states, “I break with tradition then, using weddings as a means to my end, not The End, ending instead with two funerals and a complicated hysterectomy. But I’m not morbid. I don’t think about my body…as something to monitor for signs of decline, not yet,” (192) which for this reader is great news, because I can’t wait to read Monroe’s next installment of unsentimental lessons in life.

Cat is a second-year MFA and Blue Mesa Reviews Nonfiction Editor. She writes memoir and poetry.

Cat Hubka