This weekend I finished reading a memoir called Blackbird, by Jennifer Lauck. It was an engaging page turner that I couldn’t put down, but I had mixed feelings about the story.
What I liked about it was the voice. She chose to write it in first person from the perspective of herself as a child. I found this haunting and unsettling, because just as she didn’t understand what was happening around her, neither do you. She never stepped outside of the child’s voice to interpret the scene or explain what she learned years later. She simply left a million little cliff hangers, unanswered questions, and mysteries unexplored.
It was maddening and brilliant.
As a parent, it reminded me that children don’t have a mental database of reference experiences to draw from like an adult. They watch and listen, but without explanation a child is left with nothing to help them interpret what they’re experiencing. Lauck captures this childlike perspective beautifully with vivid descriptions of body language, facial expressions, and physical sensations.
In reading her story, I became sensitive to how often I respond to my son’s questions in an exasperated tone because OF COURSE the answer should be obvious. But to a seven year old, hardly anything is obvious.
The downside to writing in this childlike perspective is there is no accountability. While it served as a beautiful and chilling way to tell the story, we’re left with no resolution re Lauck’s personal journey. We’re expected to believe everyone around Lauck is filled with wickedness and maliciousness except for her.
While this is a common and expected perspective of most children, I would expect an adult to move beyond this emotion and begin to explore how she might be blind to her own blindness, how things may not have unfolded how she remembered, how the people in her life may be more than one dimensional Disney step-mothers. Lauck gives no indication that she’s matured beyond her childhood anger and feelings of victimhood.
And to my point, I did a little googling after finishing the book and learned that Lauck’s step brother is raising a stink about certain accuracies in her story. He’s gone so far as to write emails to every reviewer, and is pressing the publisher to change the genre of the book from memoir to historical fiction.
On the one hand, I believe she wrote an account of what she remembers seeing and feeling as a child. Though it may not be factually accurate, it’s what she remembers, which is kinda the point of a memoir. But on the other hand, Lauck offers no nuance, no third dimension to her characters, no disclaimer to the memory-based nature of her account. Almost every memoir I’ve read begins with a disclaimer, but not Blackbird.
I don’t doubt that terrible things happened to Lauck, that she was neglected, mistreated, and abandoned. But her story is very one dimensional and filled with unforgiving blame. Though beautifully told, we don’t learn whether she overcame her anger, if she was able to forgive, or in other ways recover from the tragic experiences.
This leaves me wondering if she’s still holding on to that childhood pain.
[UPDATE]: After sitting on this overnight, I feel like I should mention I didn’t experience a tragic childhood. I may have suffered ongoing consequences due to choices the adults made around me, but I would in no way classify those consequences as tragic. I’m not sure this disqualifies my opinion above, but some might argue that I just have no idea. Which is fine.
I don’t know why this matters to me so much. Maybe it’s because I personally know children who suffered, and I personally know adults who suffered as children. When I read this book I saw those friends in my mind’s eye, and maybe I’m trying to connect and compare Lauck’s experiences with what I know of theirs to make sense of how these tragedies play out and how I can be a good friend.
Anyway, if you read the book, I’m curious about what you think.