There was once a cultural moment — though not one that is easy to remember — when only a select few writers got the privilege of publishing a memoir with a big house. Those writers had to either a) be famous, b) have such a compelling story that it screamed to be told, or c) be a fantastic enough stylist to gloss over the lulls and ebbs of a sometimes banal life.
These days, memoirs are being snatched up by the dozens for publication, and many of their authors have none of these qualifications. Sure, celebrities are still confessing their sins on the page (see the current best-seller lists) and the genre has produced blockbusters (some later found to be based on lies), but for the most part memoir has become a literary punch line.
And yet, even now, there are the memoirs that break through. Writing out one's experiences is still a powerful form of catharsis, and when the author has been through enough to have learned some big lessons and has the chops to express them well, the result can be exhilarating. Such is the case with acclaimed poet Kelle Groom's new memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of A Girl.
Groom has crammed so much pain into one lifetime that it is almost hard to believe: An alcoholic at 15 and pregnant at 19, she, on her family's urging, gave up her infant to an aunt and uncle to raise. That child, Tommy, surrendered to leukemia before the age of 2, and Groom's family kept the details of his illness from her, choosing to let her grow up with a hazy vision of how her baby lived and ultimately died. In the years that follow, Groom was abducted and raped after a night of heavy drinking, the second time in her life she had come under assault (she was attacked at knifepoint as a teen). She fell in and out of rehab for drinking and self-mutilation, got engaged and then broke it off, preferring several short love affairs and random sexual encounters. She moved from place to place in search of sobriety, safety and solace. And she was saved, at least in part, by writing poetry — and by digging deep into medical archives to understand her son's prognosis.
The bare bones of the plot are certainly gripping — the loss of a son she never knew, the lifelong grieving process and investigation of that loss — but it is Groom's writing that stakes out the book's place in the genre and, in ways, seeks to elevate it. After reading I Wore the Ocean, you'll wish that more poets would write their lives in prose — Groom's voice feels vital and awake, uncompromising and refreshingly spare.
Groom beautifully summons the smallest moments from her memory. When a boyfriend once hugged her after learning about her son, she writes, "that holding on stays with me, like the painted works of mercy." Remembering the last time she embraced Tommy, she writes, "His head is barely resting on my white cardigan, almost as if he's levitating. But he's at ease with me, nearly asleep in the red flowers."
I Wore the Ocean details an emotional turf we know well. Groom understands that slipping and sliding around in our hurt is far easier to do than stepping up to the hard work of healing, but it is only through healing that we redeem ourselves. Groom's story of unrelieved pain can read at times as too intense, a piling on of unbearable circumstance. But her attempts to makes sense of this hurt and move beyond it soften the blows, and because her storytelling is non-linear, the reader knows, early on, that relief is on the way. Groom eventually blossoms into a successful poet, publishes in The New Yorker and makes peace with missing Tommy's short life.
The writing of this memoir is yet another step in Groom's return to health, but it has the depth to serve a larger purpose, too. I Wore the Ocean would be a comforting resource for any parent who has lost a child, either to illness or to alcoholism. Groom's story might even encourage others to mine their histories to reconnect — if only spiritually — with an estranged loved one. Groom herself, now 48, was struck by the restorative power of such a pursuit: "I hoped that by writing about Tommy, I could find him; that the writing would take me to him. [Even] still, I'm surprised that that is what it's doing."