Under Our Masks: Honesty in Memoir Writing

Did you ever wish you’d spent more time talking to your parents or grandparents about their earlier life? I sure do. My mother, for example, was one of those women who stepped into a man’s shoes during WWII to fill needed jobs, including as an air traffic controller. If only she’d written a memoir. Gretchen Maclachlan, our guest blogger today, is doing just that.

After a life of research, writing, and activism, Gretchen has settled down to do what has been on her mind for sixty years.  She  began her memoir writing in the “Memoir: Reading and Writing It” course at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Decatur/Atlanta with June Akers Seese.

Gretchen Ehrmann Maclachlan:

 Excerpt from A Family to Love [in progress]

When I was a child, books attracted and transported me beyond the present, especially those in our family’s living room.  Around the fireplace, bookcases of Florida pine painted white reached nearly to the ceiling.  On top sat four life-sized paper mache’ masks from India—one with horns and another with a face Gretchen 006like a tiger.  In some cultures they protect homes from spooks, but not here.  These curiosities reflected the artistic and bohemian spirits of our family—my sociologist father, political activist mother, me, and little sister Sally. 

In a lyrical mood, I’d pull down and peruse an art book with shiny reproductions of a hundred of the world’s most famous paintings.  When I encountered one of these pictures—Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in Washington, DC—it was as familiar as my worn slippers. 

Often my posture for reading the big volumes, and the local newspaper, was kneeling with my forearms on the living room’s rush mat.  Mother pronounced my arched butt as unseemly.  In yoga I’ve since learned it is a pose named for the graceful Dolphin! 

Other times on my side, I flipped the pages of a heavy volume called Women looking at photos from around the world.  My father prized his three-volume set of this anthropological work, identified as Ploss and Bartels, the compilers.  I was drawn to images of pubescent naked girls covered in ash, crones whose teats sagged to their navels, women scarred with designs and others with bones, jewelry, or stones embedded in their flesh.  The exposed foot of a formerly bound-footed woman horrified me for it looked like a trussed chicken with the toes plastered to the arch.  In fun, I scrutinized breasts of every size and shape, wondering about my future look. 

With a father learned in sociology and anthropology I could ask him serious questions my mother knew nothing about.  I wondered about menstruation and what women used before Kotex.  He told me “little pieces of cloth that were washed and reused.”  He also referred me back to “Ploss and Bartels,” where I learned a lot more on my own.  I found out about the outdated pessary, a contraceptive ring for women.  Mine was not a typical introduction to sex education!   


I have been an insatiable reader with wide ranging interests, especially of first-person stories of girls growing into adulthood while facing adversity and barriers.  Agnes de Mille, Dance to the Piper, survived parental opposition and establishment barriers to become a ballet dancer and choreographer.  Jill Ker Conway, The Road from Coorain, grew up in the Aussie outback where her family suffered prolonged drought and deaths; later she jumped continents and gender boundaries to become the first woman president of Smith College, an institution for the education of women.

A child of the segregated South, I am drawn to stories of children in race-stratified societies.  The tangled skeins of race and ethnicity, authority and subjection, terror and love pull most people into thickets they cannot escape.  But Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and James McBride’s The Color of Water, A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother illustrate the strength of children to pull themselves away from the privilege and hatreds of their forebearers and the culture they inhabited.

I’ve come to understand myself partly by examining the appeal of these astute memoirs—the protagonists who broke barriers and/or societal mores.   After I retired from Clark Atlanta University, my thoughts ran back to my distant past and my deceased parents.  Their interracial activities, my father’s sociological research into college student dating behavior, and my mother’s political career were trailblazing in their time.

Gretchen 011

Click to enlarge.


The photograph of my mother Peggy that best captures her charm was taken by the Fort Lauderdale Times at the pinnacle of her Democratic Party career.  She was on the select committee that planned the 1960 National Democratic Convention to nominate our candidate.  Here she is advocating for women in elective office, when they were only tokens.  She foresaw a political future for young women and worked to promote it.

Mother’s political ephemera and photographs have had company in my attic.  Everyone in the family has been a letter writer.  When my father was posted in India during the World War II, he instructed my mother and my grandmother to keep his letters, and he kept theirs.  He saved my letters from college and afterwards when I lived on my own.  Similarly, I saved letters from the family.

With much raw material and my vivid memories, I needed direction on how to create a compelling narrative.  It has come through the writing program at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta with instructor June Akers Seese, who teaches the memoir series including two levels of “The Memoir: Reading It and Writing It” and the Advanced Memoir Seminar.

Memoir Class at Callanwolde

Memoir Class at Callanwolde, led by June Seese (Photo: Lori K. Muscat)

The memoir genre, in contrast to autobiography, which covers an entire life without omissions, is selective, concentrating on what the author cannot release but must rehash, re-image, and re-think as she writes.  Seese explains that once you shine light onto a past episode or preoccupation you must dig down without any hesitation even as you indict yourself.  Philip Lopate in To Show and To Tell advises the memoirist to create herself as a character—see yourself from the ceiling as you look down, not just on your charming self, but on a self that may be pushy, mousy, or ridiculous (18).   We need to see ourselves as an adversary might while reconciling such views with our interior vision of who we have been. Gretchen 004

I am writing my actual story in a self-interrogating way and striving for literary expression.  Without the Memoir classes this would be impossible.  Each November the Advanced Memoir Seminar participants read their work at a Literary Performance on Callanwolde’s campus.  Several years ago my first reading had the crowd laughing, but also grim faced by incidents in my selection “The Facts of Life.”  Those of us who have been on this journey are putting together an anthology of our best pieces to be published later this year.

Gretchen welcomes comments and questions.

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