Everyone We Know
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man & Dog. I can’t look at the title of Diana Joseph’s debut memoir without thinking of the hit song by singer Meredith Brooks, “Bitch.” In my formative teenage years, “Bitch” dominated the radio. “I’m a bitch, I'm a lover / I'm a child, I'm a mother / I'm a sinner, I'm a saint / I do not feel ashamed,” Brooks sings, brazenly. But although the title is strikingly similar, Joseph’s memoir is more of a character study of her own friends and family than an unabashed, in-your-face declaration like “Bitch.” In each chapter of I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, Joseph delves into the minute details of her close friends and family. Through the intricate life stories of ex-boyfriends, in-laws and colleagues, Joseph cobbles together an intimate portrayal of her own life while rarely speaking directly about herself.
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way does not follow a discernible timeline. Instead, each chapter is devoted to one person in the author’s life. The chapters are not in any discernable order, and, for no reason that I can determine, flip back and forth between time and location. The first chapter is about Joseph’s relationship with her father and their awkward, uncomfortable phone conversations. One chapter is about her ex-husband, Karl, who sometimes eats salted peanuts for dinner; Another is about her son, who hates National Public Radio and, once he gets his license, will not listen to it in the car; and yet another about her father-in-law, who may not have working taste buds, but passionately adores every bite of food he eats. The small, idiosyncratic likes and dislikes of each family member are carefully catalogued, and are relished rather than ridiculed. Joseph uses her respect for the uniqueness of people to give depth and meaning to her own story. I find this roundabout way of storytelling refreshing, because it provides a different view on the typical “it’s all about me” memoir.
In my favorite passage in the book, Karl tells the author a story about his favorite childhood dog, Sandy. Sandy had killed a neighbor’s chicken, so Karl’s father instructed his son to shoot the dog. Although he was heartbroken, Karl reluctantly followed his father’s instructions and shot Sandy, but couldn’t bear to bury his beloved childhood pet. “The next morning,” Joseph writes, “Karl found Sandy alive, but barely, crawling out from under the porch to lick his hand. To this day, Karl Bennett believes that’s an example of love, pure and true.” Joseph leaves the rest of the story up to the reader’s imagination, and her own reaction becomes a story in itself. “I felt so bad for him,” she writes. “I remember the first time I heard it, early on in our courtship: how Karl kept his head down, his hands fidgeting with something in his lap—a piece of twine, maybe, or a twig. His voice was soft, but flat, his brow furrowed. Looking back, I don’t think Karl Bennett told that story to seduce me, though that was the effect it had.” The story of Sandy shows a rare, intimate moment that Karl and Joseph share, fraught with love, loss, regret and sorrow. The passage becomes not only about Sandy, but about Joseph’s own desire to love and be loved, unconditionally.
Another revealing chapter is devoted to Joseph’s college ex-boyfriend, Vincent Petrone. Vincent is a self-proclaimed bad boy with a naked mermaid tattoo who still has the heart to take his grandmother to Mass every Sunday. Joseph, who is awed and intrigued by Vincent, believes she can change his habits of shoplifting and drunken violence. The author describes Vincent’s eccentricities, including his extreme love of desserts and his desire to fatten her up to increase the size of her “rack.” Joseph, who falls head-over-heels in love with Vincent and accepts his marriage proposal at Taco Bell, gives readers a window into her own impressionable college years. Although Joseph is not as hot-headed and wild as Vincent, she uses the character as a foil to show her own impulsive nature, low self-esteem and desire to fit in at age nineteen.
Several chapters are devoted entirely to Joseph’s son, who she refers to as “the boy.” The boy, who only eats grilled cheese and pepperoni pizza, hates going outside, and stays up all night playing Halo. Although I understand that Joseph’s son is integral to her story, I found him to be the least captivating character in the book, probably because he sounded like a typical rebellious teenager to me. Having multiple chapters about one character makes the book feel lopsided; Joseph’s pride for her son seems to get in the way of the book’s construct. If I were to pick a character that deserved multiple chapters, I’d love to hear more about Joseph’s impeccable younger brother, who, as a child, washed and ironed his allowance money and hung it up on a clothesline.
Although Joseph may be a friend to man and dog, I don’t find anything “astonishing” about her story, as its title suggests. In fact, not much happens in the book at all. Joseph spends a great deal of time mapping out each of her characters, describing what they like to eat for lunch and their favorite jokes. Although these details create rich, vibrant characters, the story is not astonishing because each character exists in a vacuum; they do not interact much with one another. If the book’s title were different, I don’t think I would miss the lack of astonishment. It just isn’t that type of story.
Also, I’m not sure why Joseph does not devote any chapters to the women in her life. Although her mother and mother-in-law are mentioned, they are merely supporting characters in the chapters about her father and father-in-law. Even Joseph’s dog, Bobby, who has his own chapter, is male. Why a pet dog rates a chapter when her own mother doesn’t is baffling. I felt that because I never read about how the author relates and reacts to women, an essential piece of Joseph’s life was missing from the book.
Joseph uses lists to catalogue her character’s traits, allowing readers to create their own impressions. In a particularly revealing passage about her ex-husband, Joseph writes, “Karl Bennett can’t hold his liquor. Scotch makes him mean. He faints at the sight of his own blood. He’s never surfed the Internet and doesn’t own a dictionary. He doesn’t have a suit, he doesn’t have a passport. Karl Bennett doesn’t like looking up numbers in the phone book. He doesn’t like Ed Bradley’s pierced ear, women who wear a lot of makeup, or little boys with long hair.” Sometimes, Joseph’s style sounds a bit like a personal ad, which may feel a bit gimmicky, at first. But because each character in the book is given his own lengthy list, knowing these details begins to feel less like a device and more like a new way to build a character beyond the typical “soft brown hair, blue eyes” descriptions common in so many memoirs.
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way is an ambitious first memoir that breaks the traditional conventions of true story in first person. I don’t agree with every choice the author makes, and I do not follow Joseph’s story every step of the way, particularly because of the absence of female characters without an explanation for the oversight. But when given the choice between an ambitious, rule-breaking first memoir and a safe one that stays within the lines, I’ll go with the rule-breaker.
Books mentioned in This column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.