My Unsentimental Education by Debra Monroe

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My Unsentimental Education does not lend itself well to concise fifteen-second descriptions, as do the memoirs of celebrities who have lived in the Playboy Mansion or have popular shows on HBO. Monroe did not grow up gay in a homophobic environment; she is not the first female CEO of a traditionally male company.

Monroe’s minority status heavily relies on the fact that she is a woman pursuing higher education, hailing from a Middle American family and community whose members often stay put. Her quest for education gradually becomes entangled with and inevitably overshadowed by an equally tireless pursuit of happily-ever-afters—usually with the wrong men. In her desire to have both an education and a family, and then just an education, and then both again, Monroe sheds rose-colored glasses for lenses of a stronger prescription. She then tosses them at readers to use accordingly.

The Debra Monroe presented to readers in the prologue sits outside the campus of Texas State University accompanied by two very distinct individuals. One is Lyndon B. Johnson in the form of a statue, who Monroe reminds us once said, “If it wasn’t for public education I’d still be looking at the ass end of a mule.” The other is Miranda, a prospective student of Monroe’s who compliments her and refers to her as a “modern role model.”

Both the thirty-sixth President of the United States and Miranda are symbols of the many selves that exist within Monroe. For her, the equivalent of looking at the ass end of a mule is being “a small-town waitress, divorced, with grown children…haughty with boredom,” rather than what she actually is: “a forty-something, a professor with a baby daughter.”

This hypothesis that education has dramatically molded Monroe into something she wouldn’t have become otherwise is expressed later through the deteriorating effect each degree she obtains has upon her familial relationships. As Monroe faces the decision of what to pursue for her PhD, she must also process the fact that her father has told her he would be “done with [her] for good” if she got another degree. Her father’s reaction is shocking, but instead of placing the criticism solely on her father, Monroe maintains an observational tone that compels readers to look critically at education as an socially dividing factor between generations. “I didn’t understand that getting another degree would change me enough to eliminate the last conversational threads connecting me to my family, shred that net forever,” she muses, unapologetic rather than embittered.

But even though Monroe is sure of Johnson’s claim about the power of education, she is still uneasy with her own personal trajectory. She isn’t quite comfortable with being seen as Miranda’s “modern role model.” Despite being forty-something years old with a college-level teaching position Monroe still finds herself trying to navigate the complex world that is dating. As she sits with the statue and the student, she is also sitting with the knowledge that the night before she had “gotten back into bed with a moody jack-of-many-trades” she “dated erratically for years—breakups, makeups, seeing him lately after dark as [her] daughter slept in another room.”

Debra Munroe

Debra Munroe

The well only deepens as Monroe continues to give herself up in the prologue:

Men I’d gone to school with had heard women were their equals. I’d heard this too. But it was recent news then. We’d all been raised in homes where women weren’t. I usually dated down anyway, because dating up was work. Work was work, pretending to be who I wasn’t yet, pretending to be self-assured and expert by day. So at night and on weekends, I’d wanted to stop pretending. I chose men as if I’d never left home.

Her awareness of her own flaws renders My Unsentimental Education an endearing tale of an Everywoman. Knowing what she has done “wrong” before we’ve even see her do these things does not detract weight from their later appearances. Instead, her reflection upon the rough processes of her transformations (and lack thereof) rather than the transformations themselves invokes something inherent within all of us: the urge to view our past mistakes with clarity, acceptance, and sometimes, indifference.

There are advantages to Monroe’s unsentimental approach to her past. When Monroe recalls her fiancé discovering he had a five year-old child for supposedly the first time, what could be an embellished, self-pitying ordeal is instead simply expressed:

When I found out four days before the wedding, I said the child deserved financial support. I felt upset. I said the child deserved to know his father. I felt upset. I said my not-yet husband had known for months; for five years, he must have had an inkling. I felt upset.

Her disappointment becomes even more compelling through the calm and nearly objective report of her and her fiancé telling his family that there was a paternity suit against him. “We sat in their living room with blond paneling, furniture with wagon-wheel and saddle motifs,” Monroe recalls, “and talked about this fact, this new relative, illegitimate, though the word sounded awful.”

At times, readers may wonder how she remembers the paneling of a living room, or at least why she feels they are worth noting. It soon becomes clear, the saddle motifs, the floor plan of a Utah apartment, and the silver paper that wraps an Oriental rug wedding gift from her sister, all serve as portals to other life-changing instances.

By the same token, more obvious details are excluded. That her daughter Marie is black is not divulged until nearly the end of Monroe’s memoir. She drops this tidbit in at the very end, aware that the reader “might think it’s odd” that she never brought it up. “I could write a book about what it’s like to be her mother considering race and racism,” she notes. “I did write that book, my fifth, and this isn’t it.”

This command of details exonerates sentimentality from Monroe’s memoir. As a seasoned writer and MFA professor, she smartly places things where readers would least expect them to be in a memoir. Her objective and detached narration often reads like fiction, preventing tense topics, such as that of a resentful high school boyfriend assaulting her after she ends their relationship, from turning into too much of a cliché: “As I spoke, muscles in my neck moved against Rodney’s grip…His hands tightened. He still didn’t seem violent, just out of options.” The gravity of the abuse is there, as is her awareness of her naïveté at the time.

The heart of My Unsentimental Education is that it is a craftily constructed puzzle—stringing together of moments and events, some essential and others almost unremarkable. Throughout the memoir, Monroe is a woman who is simply trying to find her way as she processes her ever-shifting relations with her family, the people surrounding her, her own changing self, and the hope that each new life will be the “last revision.”

Zakiya Harris is a writer and part-time creative writing instructor who holds an MFA from The New School. She lives in Brooklyn, where she spends an inordinate amount of time falling down random Spotify rabbit holes (usually while working on her first novel, but not always). You can find her on Twitter at @zakiya_harris. More from this author →