On the cover of Cindy House’s new memoir, MOTHER NOISE (Marysue Rucci Books/Scribner, 266 pp., $26.99)a neon-tinged spoon next to spilled milk and colorful cereal artfully hints at the author’s twin themes: drug abuse and motherhood.
House spent years struggling with heroin addiction, and “Mother Noise” is her attempt to examine that phase of her life. But the memoir, which is written as a love letter to her son, whose buoyant presence in House’s life undergirds the entire book, is not structured with the narrative impulse to follow a single story through time. Instead, House handily fractures her own life into small tales — about stints in rehab, about custody battles, about neighborhood forums, about writing mentors — that are often flanked by photos or spare hand-drawn sketches, as if House were intent on breaking any generic mold that would encase her thorny life story.
In the final chapter, House confesses it’s taken her years to tell most people about what she’s been through as a former addict. Such anxiety emerges as one of the strengths of House’s raw and tender prose — “Mother Noise” feels lovingly labored over, expertly whittled and chipped into its current frank form. “When people ask me why I was an addict, my best answer is that I was afraid to feel,” she writes. Later she says, “The things that haunt us can be left behind in what we make, held safe where they won’t continue to torture us.”
At the edges of House’s stories — or, perhaps, at the center of them — lies a powerful meditation about the palliative value of storytelling. It’s why writers, mentors and inspirations are all over her book. Not just David Sedaris, who gets a lovingly sketched portrait in a very funny piece on their friendship through the years, but also Tim O’Brien, whose line “But this too is true: Stories can save us” serves as an apt précis of House’s daring and welcoming memoir. Here’s a book not about how you rebuild yourself through writing but about how writing itself can be a kind of rebuilding, a reassembling of your past mistakes.
Will Jawando’s book, MY SEVEN BLACK FATHERS: A Young Activist’s Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 231 pp., $28), is explicit about both its structure and its content. Jawando, who worked as an associate director in the Office of Public Engagement in President Obama’s White House, has created a manifesto on the importance of intergenerational mentorship in the Black community.
Each of the seven sections that make up Jawando’s memoir concerns a pivotal figure in his life: the first Black male teacher he had, the high school coach who pushed him, the 44th president of the United States.
The book closes with Jawando’s Nigerian father, whose absence originally challenged Jawando, then a young Black boy growing up in Maryland with a single white mother, to seek out other parental figures. Their reconciliation is painful but necessary, and writing about it offers Jawando a chance to emphasize the need for more compassion for, and among, Black men.
In keeping with his political background, Jawando wants his memoir to serve a public purpose. In this case, he hopes the book can recast the conversation about Black fatherhood: “For Black men, having access to father figures can be the difference between a fulfilling life, or poverty, incarceration and early death,” he writes. This framing makes his personal remembrances function at times, for better and for worse, as data points.
As a writer, Jawando can seem removed from the scenes he describes. His voice retreats into analytical abstraction at moments when he’s at his most vulnerable, producing insight yet detached lines like this one about his father: “What sealed his perpetual unhappiness was that he considered a wife and child accessories to material success rather than their own reward.”
Throughout “My Seven Black Fathers,” Jawando uses his current vantage to offer trenchant assessments of his past that branch out into urgent cultural conversations about present-day subjects like respectability politics and the dominant narratives of fatherless households, among others. As Jawando notes, “The power of these Black male mentors is that they make America a more just place for Black boys and a better place for all Americans.”
THIS BODY I WORE (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 316 pp., $28), by the renowned poet Diana Goetsch, doesn’t start where one would expect. Rather than opening with Goetsch as a child, the first half of this memoir chronicles how the author wrestled with gender confusion and a self-described “addiction to cross-dressing” early in adulthood. Only once she’s established her plight as an adult does Goetsch reach back into her memories to color in her transition.
This structural conceit helps Goetsch reframe her youth: We don’t first meet a boy and then a trans woman. By belatedly meeting the aloof 5-year-old who felt estranged from family, we’re armed with the necessary knowledge to better understand the author’s struggle.
As its title suggests, this achingly beautiful memoir is about a trans woman’s often fixed relationship with her own body. It’s a relationship that was made all the more complicated by timing — Goetsch grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was a lack of resources, role models and even language to help Goetsch understand her nagging queries about her sense of self.
But that’s not a challenge in her prose. Goetsch has a poetic sensibility that illuminates without simplifying. “I can’t seem to get over the fact that girls can dress in clothes that make me breathless,” she writes, putting herself in her shoes as a child, “and do so with impunity, any time they want. What would it be like to be a girl?” That question may have felt immense when she was younger, but here and now, Goetsch presents it with such clarity it bowls one over.
Even as the memoir remains firmly focused on Goetsch, “This Body I Wore” also tenderly sketches out a history of the budding trans communities that developed in the late 20th century. The groups who met at diners and at the Gay and Lesbian Center in New York City. The folks who frequented Club Edelweiss or the Fabric Factory. The anonymous contributors to GeoCities personal pages. Here is an excavated history that endures in the only way it could: in the fleeting memories of those who survived, who endured and who now, like Goetsch, thrive.
Manuel Betancourt is the author of “Judy at Carnegie Hall” and the forthcoming “The Male Gazed,” as well as a contributing writer for the graphic novel series “The Cardboard Kingdom.”