Monday, December 12, 2016

This is Not My Life & Red Star Tattoo: Two Midlife Memoirs

This is Not My Life: a memoir of Love, Prison, and other Complications / Diane Schoemperlen
Toronto: Harper, c2016.
354 p.

Diane Schoemperlen is a beautiful, deliberate writer, whose novels I've read and enjoyed in the past. Some of her books are in my all-time favourites categories -- Forms of Devotion, Our Lady of the Lost & Found, for example -- and her recent By the Book is also a delight. 

This memoir is written in an equally skilled fashion; Schoemperlen knows just how to conceal and reveal information to keep the pace up and the reader engaged. The insights she gains and shares are both measured out and cumulative, giving a larger sense of meaning to her experience. And a 6 year relationship with a convicted murderer who she met through her volunteer work at a soup kitchen is quite an experience. 

She details their meeting, their romance and the eventual downfall of their relationship. While she tried her best to provide support and empathy throughout, it just wasn't enough, and learning this was part of her journey. It's a very candid story, with lots of personal detail and exploration (sometimes I felt it was a bit TMI for my own taste; like this book was an assignment from her therapist rather than a straight-up memoir). But it delves into Canada's prison system and reveals an inside look into how and why it both supports and fails inmates and their families. 

Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary / Sonja Larsen
Toronto: RandomHouse, c2016.
272 p.
A small, skinny 8-year-old girl holding a teddy bear stands by the side of a country road with a young man she barely knows. They're hitchhiking from a commune in Quebec to one in California. It is 1973 and somehow the girl's parents think this is a good idea.
This is how the publisher's blurb begins for this book, and it sets the tone for sure. Sonja was a young girl who was incorporated early on into her mother's commune/cult, inspired by their grand leader, The Old Man. She had a childhood ruled both by benign neglect and by random, arbitrary rules. She was being raised as a good communist, and didn't lose faith despite being molested by her mother's boyfriend at a young age, and experiencing the murder of her best friend. 

As a teenager she moves to Brooklyn to live at the Old Man's commune, an organization known publicly as the National Labor Federation and privately as the Communist Party USA Provisional Wing. She becomes one of his true believers & revolutionaries. But things go as you might expect with a cult: the Old Man controls their coming and going, their friendships (stoking competitive behaviours) and choosing some of the younger women as his "special girls" -- setting up his own harem. 

It takes her 3 years of this kind of psychological control before she breaks and leaves the commune, mostly because it's broken up by a raid. Everyone has pretty much lost heart by then, anyhow, as the date of The Revolution that was promised has come and gone with nothing to show for it. This is a story of a dark, troubled life which Larsen was eventually able to escape. But it doesn't seem to have a conclusion or a turning point in it; it just ends because the commune does. We're not sure what Larsen's thoughts about it are, or what her new direction is.  I feel like there's another book about the "afterward" waiting to be written, as the conclusion just wasn't complete enough for me. But if you like books about messed-up families and bizarre childhoods, you will find this one a great read. 

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