If sex is dangerous territory for memoir writing then it is surpassed only by motherhood. Mothering is so wrapped up in notions of sacrifice that it can scarcely sustain even the mildest critical eye without some controversy. Rachel Cusk, one of my favourites in this field, is completely vilified for her memoir writing. In fact, a scathing review of her latest memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation won Hatchet Job of the Year. Sometimes the criticism of her motherhood writing is about her taking domestic life too seriously; something that is notably considered “brave” when done by a male author.
But more often it is about Cusk being insufficiently cheerful about domestic life. In depicting herself as a mother in Aftermath, Cusk is devoted to her children but you are still invited to consider her selfish. Cusk describes an argument around shared parenting revealing her own monster. For Cusk to pursue her writing career, her ex-husband had given up his job and become a stay-at-home father. Now that they’re divorcing, Cusk is horrified to discover her rights as a mother aren’t enough to allow her primary care of the children. Cusk was roundly criticised for this moment in the book – oblivious, nasty and domineering.
But you only know this information because Cusk gave it to you. She realises her sense of injustice is perverse. She is exploring a wider point about how ill-equipped early attempts at feminist living are for the emotional bonds of motherhood. She is thinking not just about what the moment means for her but what it means for everyone else, too. If you think she’s selfish because of this anecdote I have to wonder how well you’ve received the gift of confession. Because personal writing, more than anything else is a favour of empathy.