The Narrator-Guide: A Conversation with Sharon Harrigan
“I always hated Father’s Day. Did I need a holiday to remind me that I couldn’t remember my father?” So begins Sharon Harrigan’s 2011 essay, “Revenge of the Prey: How a Deer Killed My Dad.” That essay prompted her to tackle the much larger task of a memoir, Playing with Dynamite, which was published in October.
Harrigan and I met about a decade ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, both of us seeking a challenging writing group. We have a lot in common: red hair, our roles as moms, our passion for writing. Eventually, we discovered we also shared fathers with outsized personalities, men of their times who died young—hers when she was seven, mine shortly after I became a mother.
Harrigan’s father was dead before she turned eight. Playing with Dynamite is her quest to commingle memories of her father with pieces of her family’s memories to form an idea of the man, in full, whom she barely knew.
We spoke in my kitchen in September, a few weeks before her book launch.
The Rumpus: Early on, in reference to gaps in your memory, you write, “Am I who I am because of the holes? … If my memories change, will I change, too?”
Sharon Harrigan: It’s not an exaggeration to say that the research I did for this book changed my life. Asking for other people’s secrets made me more able to share my own. There was a part of me I had kept hidden that I’m able to make more public now. I have more confidence, less fear, and I take more risks. I always thought talking about what happened to my father might kill me. I survived. (Spoiler!) So what else is there to be afraid of?
And my family relationships changed—especially with my mother. I went looking for my father and found my mother instead. That’s something I didn’t expect, and it’s been one of the most gratifying results. My brother and I, too, have become closer because we shared this part of our past with each other. We had kind of locked it off, but now it’s always available.
Rumpus: This was, on one hand, a story about your dad. On another, it was a story about each of the people who were telling you about him. How did you navigate among so many different versions of memory?
Harrigan: The normal memoir structure is: you remember a lot of things; you put those things in scene; and then you present it almost like a novel or a movie. The storyteller disappears, and on the page is just the story. I couldn’t do that because I didn’t remember enough, so I had to ask other people. And I couldn’t just write what they told me as a single narrative because people told me different things. So I had to make clear which story was filtered through which person. To do that, I had to insert myself as the narrator-guide, making my search visible, showing myself gathering information and talking to people.
Rumpus: What was the biggest difference between your memory and your brother’s?
Harrigan: He said he was relieved when our father died, and that astonished me. That stopped me in my tracks and made me reconsider all my memories. The story I always told myself was that my father’s death was our family tragedy, the worst thing that ever happened to us, the thing that defined us. If my brother was relieved, then I obviously didn’t know something important. That was the first motivation for me to ask for other people’s stories.
Rumpus: While I was reading your memoir, I was aware of how, in your search, you were piecing together what your life might’ve been like if your father hadn’t been lost, while, from the other end, I’ve long wondered what my life might’ve been like if I had lost my father when I was younger. I was almost thirty when my dad died, and it took about two years before I stopped cringing when the phone rang, afraid it was him. That always makes a special fascination for me when I’m reading any memoir about parental loss. I find myself wanting evidence for what’s being mourned.
Harrigan: That’s really interesting. A number of recent memoirs that have gotten a lot of attention, like H Is for Hawk and Wild, show adult children who are so wrought with grief they can’t function. But that’s not everyone’s reaction. When I was writing Playing with Dynamite, one of my mentors, Debra Gwartney, said, “What if your father’s death wasn’t actually a tragedy? What if, in fact, you were lucky?” That seemed like a radical, deeply uncomfortable idea, but it helped me open my imagination to all possible conclusions, instead of making assumptions about how a daughter is supposed to grieve her father.
Our relationships with our parents, especially after they die, feel sacred. As my uncle says in the book, sometimes we whitewash their memory. It would have been easier, emotionally, for me to do that. But I wanted to honor the fact that people respond in so many different ways when their parents die.
Rumpus: You refer to a book you edited while were writing your memoir, about a daughter who stopped talking to her mother. Though estrangements like this happen a lot, you say, “no one talks about it. There’s too much shame, on both sides—the ones cut off and the ones doing the cutting. Maybe if we all started to share our stories, the shame might disappear.” Frankly, this is why I could never bring myself to cut ties with my father. Could the shame of estrangement feel better than his mistreatment of me? Has sharing your own story of estrangement from your sister eased that shame for you?
Harrigan: When I started this book, I thought my sister would agree to participate. That was wishful thinking, because she wasn’t in contact with me. She wasn’t responding to my reaching out to her. But I thought it was possible that the happy ending of my story would be that she would want to tell me about her experiences as a kid, and she would talk to me again. At a certain point, I had to give up on that idea. And it felt like a failure. On the other hand, I have to respect her privacy and her way of coping. Though, as I’ve told people about my sister, I’ve found that it’s actually not that uncommon for there to be some lost connection in a family. When you realize that something is that common, you might not feel as ashamed about it.
Rumpus: I found it poignant when you stopped resenting your mother for not trying to sway your sister to treat you better: “What kind of magical thinking had I engaged in, imagining my mother had so much power? That any of us did?” That really resonated.
Harrigan: As I read it now, it seems so obvious, but I couldn’t learn that lesson emotionally until I got to that point—until I lived it.
Rumpus: An oft-repeated description of your father in your memoir was as “a man of his time.” My dad was also a man of his time, and he lived into my adulthood. Though he did change with the times, sadly he never became a better or kinder father. I was fascinated by how you kept imagining your dad, had he lived, as changing for the better. In one scene with your mother, reflecting back to a time when your father fixated on her weight and demanded that she work hard to shed some pounds, you say, “I need to believe he wouldn’t criticize my mother or me. He’d even cheer on Ella’s healthy appetite.” Was it a conscious decision for you to generate images of a father, alive in real time, who was better than the one you knew?
Harrigan: I could’ve easily gone the other way. I’ve been aware after the election that, if my father were still alive, he would be the same age as Donald Trump. He’s a man of his time, and he has not become gentler or more respectful of women. Instead, his masculinity has become more toxic. I have the privilege, because my father died, of imagining whatever I want.
Why did I imagine my father getting better? I think partly because I saw my mother become more independent, more of a feminist, someone who could fight for her rights and stand up for herself in a way she couldn’t when she was younger. I’d like to imagine that, as she became stronger and more able to advocate for herself, that he would respect that and change his views of the roles of men and women. I like to imagine we all have the possibility of change within us.
Rumpus: So many times throughout the book your mom does brave and empowering things. But then there are moments—like when she was presented with your birth certificate when your dad was out of the room, and she tells you, “I could’ve written anything. I knew your dad wanted to name you Sharon so that’s what I wrote.” What did it feel like when you came up against such revelations?
Harrigan: Part of what we do in memoir is take our present self and try to see things about our younger self that we couldn’t when we were living that life. That’s what my mom was doing in that moment. She was looking at her younger self and seeing things she couldn’t see then. Now she can wonder, Why didn’t I do that differently? But back then, she was in the habit of doing what people told her to do. I have to admire how far she’s come.
Rumpus: Your father’s loss mirrors your son’s sense of his own father’s absence in his life, leading to another reflection: “Even people who aren’t orphaned early might mourn their lost opportunities for intimacy.” And you disappeared into your first marriage, much the way your mom disappeared into hers. These elements of your history must have been difficult to examine so closely. How did you steel yourself for the job?
Harrigan: If you’re writing about something emotionally difficult, there are all sorts of things you can do, like make a list of traumatic events you’re going to have to write about and give them a number one through ten, with ten being the most traumatic. Then start with the ones and work up slowly to the tens. Also, if you’re going to be writing about something you know will be emotionally raw for you, perhaps set aside a special time of day when you won’t be interrupted, and maybe even time yourself. Then, once you’re done, stop, and do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself, whether it’s spending time with someone you love, or being alone, or taking a walk. But be mindful that you don’t reinjure yourself. You need to realize it’s going to take a toll on your body. So be careful.
For some people, sharing your experience helps because you might think something you did or something that happened to you is unusual, when it’s not. I write about sexual assault and about my abortion, which were the most difficult things for me to reveal in the entire book. But when I finally told some people, they talked to me about their own experiences. It was a strange relief to know I wasn’t the only one. I put those stories in the book because I don’t want other people to think they’re the only ones, either.
Being female is physically dangerous. That was true in my mother’s generation and is true today. There’s still so much mistreatment of women and endangerment of women. We have to keep telling these stories. A lot has changed, and we owe feminism a big debt for that. But there’s still so much progress to be made, and I wanted to show that in my book.
Rumpus: You write about times when you were ashamed or embarrassed, or when you were in danger and afraid to speak out or protect yourself: “[I]t can be hard to break the habit of making myself small.” How did telling these stories help make you feel a little bigger?
Harrigan: The process of writing the memoir was the process of overcoming my fear of writing it. Anything you’re afraid to do, if you do it, you come out feeling enlarged, because you survived it.
Rumpus: Your uncle talks about how, after your dad died, their parents blamed him retroactively for all the bad events of their childhood years. I love what he said about your dad then: “I loved Jerry…. But I didn’t love him so much that I forgot who he was.”
Harrigan: That felt like a gift when he said that. It explained so much.
Rumpus: To me, it felt like he was the most clear-eyed with your dad, with the fewest illusions about who he was.
Harrigan: Which surprised me. He was the one I was most afraid of talking to, because I thought he would see my questions as a betrayal.
Rumpus: Did anybody did see it that way?
Harrigan: One person wanted some big changes, and I made them. It was important for me to not have anybody feel like my book was a betrayal because that was not my purpose. My purpose was actually to tell the story, with my family members almost as my collaborators.
I was grateful that people were willing to be honest with me. They deserve for me to treat their revelations with care.
Rumpus: You set out to answer certain questions, and sometimes you answered one question with another question, but have more answers bubbled up since you finished the book?
Harrigan: One of the remarkable things that happened at the end of the book was that my mother came to visit and had no more dramatic and surprising memories to share with me, so that felt like closure. But, since then, she’s told me some new ones. Every story is ongoing. Isn’t it?