I confess I pretty much enjoy everything Diane Schoemperlen writes. I’m fond of structure and she plays with it like nobody’s business but never in a way that sacrifices story. I can’t figure out if her approach is egg or chicken first but, either way, she manages to create the perfect stage for each book, each story, each telling, so that you cannot imagine each book or story being told another way. (Is she post modern in a way that isn’t post modern at all?
I haven’t a clue what post modern is so I wouldn’t know… but possibly.)
This is Not My Life, is told more or less chronologically about the years between 2006 and 2012 when she met and fell in love with a man serving a life sentence for second degree murder. So deeply personal is this story that very often I’d stop reading and actually think: good lord, how is she able to share this and this and this??
“How long did it take me to understand that he thought it was perfectly okay to come into my formerly peaceful home and turn it into a battleground? How much longer did it take me to understand that he was proud of himself for having won the contest, torn away my dignity and self-respect, reduced me to the lowest common denominator, and driven me into a violent rage?”
It’s a wild ride and the honesty of her self-analysis touches a lot of nerves.
The extraordinary thing is that all that sharing, that exposing of private ‘self’ isn’t in the least gratuitous. She tells us what we need to know in order to understand how and why she fell for a murderer. This is, after all, a big question, one she is asked repeatedly by friends, and continues to ask herself. I’m guessing the need to find an answer was a strong motivation in writing the book.
And this is precisely what the best kind of memoir does: it excavates rather than simply reveals.
Schoemperlen avoids the icky places so many memoirists go when they talk too much about themselves (I was born on a dark and stormy night…) which usually amounts to a lot of nothing, more interesting to the author than the reader. Who cares if you were born in the crawl space at the Taj Mahal and your mother was a unicorn if it has zip to do with the story you’re telling? For the record, Schoemperlen was born in Thunder Bay. She tells us this because it’s important we know the vulnerability she felt coming from a small town and a family where thinking too highly of yourself was not encouraged.
Remember: she’s trying to work out why she’s dating a murderer.
And so are we, the readers. We’re trying to understand it too; we’re working it out together because, really, the book speaks to anyone who has ever fallen for the ‘wrong person’. (So, yes, her guy was in for murder. A questionable choice of beau perhaps. But only one version of questionable.)
“Who would we be without the pain we so desperately cling to?”
In every scene, Schoemperlen shares the process of walking the road of this ‘choice’ while teasing out the why of it. Why has she chosen to spend ‘dates’ in penitentiary visiting rooms and conjugal visits in locked-from-the-outside trailers? (The insider’s view of how prisons work is, by the way, a whole other brilliant element of the book. Short story: it’s insane. For instance, she had to wash her drivers license every time she went because it was scanned and might set off the drug detector if she’d touched it after touching an Aspirin, or something. However, those conjugal visit trailers? They were equipped with kitchens and carving knives.) An irony to the whole thing is that these ‘prison days’ were the best days of their relationship. Once her chap is released on day passes, then weekends, then moves into her house, things become progressively unmanageable. This is, after all, a guy who’s been inside since he was twenty-something, and prisons aren’t big on teaching you how to function on the outside. The insight she shares in these chapters is heartbreaking.
“This was when I had to go into the bathroom several times a day and look at myself in the mirror, checking to see if I was still me, if the extent to which I felt diminished and demoralized showed in my face. It did.”
Though we know from the beginning the relationship ends, it’s still an edge of your seat ride trying to work out the how and the when, and what will be damaged in the process.
“He’d said often enough in the early days that we would fall in love and become one. By ‘one’, I knew now, he meant him.”
I kept expecting the mushy middle of the story to present itself but there isn’t one. It’s a solid read from start to finish. (I read it over a weekend, taking it everywhere, sometimes reading as I walked from one room to another.)
In a nutshell: This is Not My Life is Schoemperlen looking back, finally out of the forest, and seeing the madness in a way that was impossible at the time.
“That night I understood that for all those years, I’d been in love with the story—0not the reality—of my life joined to Shane’s. The story of myself as the one who could lead him out of the darkness, the one who could make him whole, healthy, happy. The story of myself as the one who could save him.”
The best memoirs are not a list of who, what, when and where, but are, instead, a study of human nature from the inside out. They tell us about the author while making us think about ourselves as we ask what would we do in this or that situation…
This is one of the best.