How do you write a memoir if you don't trust your memory?
That's the question at the heart of Mark Slouka's new memoir, Nobody's Son. It covers his childhood in Pennsylvania, and the lives of his Czech parents — through World War II, the Soviet regime that followed, and their emigration to America.
And as Slouka jumps back-and-forth across the last 60 years, he circles back on himself — he'll tell a story, and then a chapter or two later it emerges that events weren't quite as he described.
Live long enough, Slouka writes, and "the past caramelizes into fiction."
He tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly that the book is mostly about his mother, and his relationship with her. "We were like two halves of the same cell, or something. We were just really close," he says of his childhood. "The thing is that she was carrying with her too much."
On his mother's burdens
My parents had sort of witnessed the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1930s, they barely survived the Communist coups in the late 1940s, they cleaned toilets and shoveled coal in Sydney, Australia, cut sugar cane in Queensland, and eventually made their way to the United States, dragging with them this history, all these ghosts. And at some point it was time to look at them and say, okay, what is it I'm looking at here? Who am I, if these are my memories?
On realizing that his mother was not well
My mother was abused as a child, which is something that I didn't even really get until I started to write this book. Her father was a Nazi sympathizer — that's not easy — her father also sexually abused her — that's horrendous at any time, but particularly so at a time when you didn't feel that you could tell anyone about this. So she carried that particular nightmare with her. And then you throw in a 30-year addiction to pills. It all eventually, it sort of degenerated into, you know, not a good place ... But one of the things I had to do was reconcile the memories I had of this really beautiful childhood ... and eventually, I had to pull away. I mean, she would have drowned me along with herself.
On encouraging his mother to leave his father to marry her lifelong lover
It would have been a kindness to my father, it would have been a kindness to her, it would have been — maybe it would have been an answer. It didn't happen. It came close.
I still loved her — we were fighting for survival, each in our own way, and for me survival necessitated moving away from her, abandoning her, frankly. But I could still see what made her happy, what made her whole.
On his image of his mother now
It's not a happy picture, it's a complete picture. It feels legitimate to me now ... when you've been hurt, it's easier to remember the bad stuff. And it was bad, it was really bad. But what those defensive memories do is that they block out all the good. And I needed to find that balance — this was a coming to terms with the life I've known, the people I've known, and try to come to a place from which I can then move forward.