I remember a professor in a comparative literature class (I got an A-) lecturing that reading Faulkner is removing screen after screen to reveal reality layer by layer.
Cris Beam claims to be coat-tail relation to the Southern novelist - he was maternal great-uncle several generations removed - and reading her neo-gothic memoir is a like reading a Faulkner story. It takes a lot of work to get close to what even begins to feel like reality.
Beam's memory of childhood is a recollection of growing up in a single-parent family broken by physical and emotional abuse, occasional episodes violent and psychotic. Her mother, doting at times was more often a screaming banshee throwing dishes and dishing out guilt as daily fare.
Beam left home at 14, running away from the chaos and her mother's rage to move in with her father. Mother and daughter never saw one another again. For Bream leaving home was the ultimate guilt trip, an act of willful abandonment. "I had chosen to amputate my mom and without my lifeblood she would be too sick to love me again."
Three years ago Beam was 36 when she got a call from a lawyer telling her that her mother had died. The lawyer said it had taken nearly three months to locate her. The call triggered in Beam a need to unlayer the past in order to move forward. "I had never known how to talk to my mother but I wanted to say good-bye."
How reliable is memory when recall is wrapped in so much emotion and pain? Beam struggled with demons of her own, often suicidal and depressed, she has what she calls her own "psychic breaks."
Reading, I wondered throughout what reality would look life if both mother and daughter had written their own memoirs. How alike, how different would each version of the truth be? How reliable?
Beam clearly wrote "Mother, Stranger" seeking catharsis. It feels as if she is writing with herself as the audience. The weight of her pain makes this a difficult read. Although Bream is still struggling, the uplift is that she is edging closer to reconciliation with the past and to the light of the future.
[Beam's memoir is Issue No. 11 of "The Atavist," published January 2012]