| The author Susanna Sonneberg has chosen to celebrate the launch of her second memoir, “She Matters,” in Ketchum tonight. Courtesy photo
Like a chef uses parsley to pretty up even the most droll of meals, so does memoirist Susanna Sonnenberg apply emphasis of painstaking detail and vivid recollection to every aspect of her subject matter. No garnish is a waste for effect, as you will discover at the conclusion of either of her two books, “Her Last Death,” and the latest, debuting today, “She Matters: A Life in Friendships.”
“Her Last Death,” while poignant and beautifully written, is a tough one to recommend. Reading about the at-times unfathomable life Sonnenberg shared with her unquestionably unhinged mother is at times so otherworldly it is exhausting, the weight of the truth almost too much to bear.
It’s not that her story is any better or worse than others who have likewise shared their harrowing lives with ruthless parents, but how Sonnenberg unceremoniously documents the impact of that lifestyle and relates the damage that makes it especially grueling. And, in the end, there is only a glimpse of redemption for Sonnenberg.
“I’ve never written anything that has left me feeling I knew more than when I began,” she explained. “I write to explore the messy underworld of ambivalence. I believe in the not deciding.”
Still, for anyone who appreciates a narrative and exquisite writing, the gift of having stayed with Sonneberg forms, with some time, as one grows to appreciate that Sonnenberg didn’t tie up the messy ends with “Her Last Death.” Because that is real.
At the close of “Her Last Death,” she has moved from the glamorous albeit intangible life on the East Coast to the boring but centering state of Montana. She married a reasonable and steady man, become a devoted (but more than acceptably imperfect) mother, lost contact with her own mother who may or may not be dead, and begun to write in earnest.
One doesn’t have to read the first to fully embrace the second, but it might provoke a desire to know more about this woman. Between the first book and now, she has learned how to analyze her past more deeply, dissect it, learn from it and give credit where it is due.
That’s where the triumphant sequel, “She Matters: A Life in Friendships,” comes in. Sonnenberg will read from the book at the Community Library and Iconoclast Books is bringing copies for sale and signing today, Jan. 9, at 6 p.m.
This second memoir is a gift to those who first met her in shambles, finding her carrying on with the business of life and in a perpetual state of learning and readjusting. Making mistakes and blaming the wrong people for her emotions. This honesty deepens the dynamic between reader and writer. It also invites us all to embrace the influences in our lives, and to recognize the complexity of all relationships. It illuminates the concept that some people are in our lives for a lifetime, others, for a moment, and others, for a painful deliverance to another plane.
We relate, are encouraged, are wiser, because that of which she writes is real.
Ultimately, “She Matters” green lights our instinct to keep those things in our lives that work, and to eliminate those that don’t, especially if it is family.
The following is a dialogue with the author about her journey.
I just finished your first book, “Her Last Death,” and sent it to my mom, also a writer, with the note, “See, if you’d been a worse mother, you could have had this book dedicated to you.” Could it have been written without such an unbelievably messed up childhood? If your mother were less awful at mothering?
Although many aspects of my childhood were strange and even incredible, I felt in writing “Her Last Death” that one thing was universal—we all have mothers. What’s more, we all must define ourselves apart from our mothers. That tremendous insistence on selfhood was more interesting to me in writing the book than cataloging the ways my mother was awful at mothering.
You tell readers in “Her Last Death” that you learned to lie from your mother, a champion liar, and then ask us to believe your story in all its raw detail. When you do that, you open yourself up to analysis and criticism and even scorn from those you might have tried to protect. Did that prospect ever discourage your writing, or was it part of moving on?
Have you ever met a wholly reliable narrator, on the page or in person? Each of us tells a different story, clings to different facts, has a unique perspective. It’s true in friendship, in marriage, in family. That’s what makes it interesting to listen to people, whoever they are. And, I think, that’s why we read memoirs—not for a newspaper account of truth, but as a way to deepen our understanding of the human experience and connect. Memoirs imply a certain kind of “reality,” a specific place the reader can relate to, and sometimes we feel that makes memoirs closer to our own reality, “truer.”
Where do you want to meet readers with “She Matters”?
In “She Matters,” which gathers a collection of friendships into stories, I hope the reader will think of her own friendships, will think of the ways she is herself a friend, and will find comfort and interest in the friend I reveal myself to be. Sometimes we must say the awful truth about ourselves in order not to be so alone in it; and, I think, when we hear someone else say it, again we are less alone, too.
I can relate to how you felt unprepared for normal life. My parents were neglectful in pursuit of careers, leaving the details to others. I became acutely aware of that after I married an Idaho cowboy who was absolutely incredulous that I didn’t go out and water the grass every day, or notice when it needed mowing, or know how to roll a hose properly. I lived in Houston, we had sprinklers and a yard man. Why roll the hose when it seemed to find its way back by itself?
It’s evident that you evolved without a firm foundation to launch from, but it wasn’t just because of you and a therapist, correct?
I remember thinking when I was 6 or 7 that I wanted to have children expressly so I could do the opposite of the things my mother did as a parent. I have learned, through painful and industrious effort, to provide my sons with safety, unconditional love and room to build healthy self-esteem. In “She Matters,” I wanted to look at the way friends have contributed to my own development as a healthy and loving person—so many different sorts of women have given me valuable instruction along the way.
There are a lot of men in your debut book, “Her Last Death,” but one can only imagine a few women got or felt burned along the way. At what point did you make that leap and decide not to lean on your mother, grandmother or sister for your female leads and seek out friends? That takes courage.
As I write in “She Matters,” I come from a world of women. The fathers, the husbands, the uncles—they were so shadowy, almost irrelevant. Yet MEN were such a focus, the realm where we women exercised our power and competed. In college I began to realize, though not fully accept, that the women in my life had been largely destructive to me. I really had to unlearn one version of female support and define another. It was incredibly hard to trust women. That difficulty itself was what made me interested in writing about it.
Do you think the universe gave you boys for a reason?
I always wanted sons, and I’m incredibly lucky not only for the serendipity of getting them but because they are two of the most amazing people on earth. They have taught me so much about the open heart. I’ll admit I was scared I’d reenact the mother-daughter drama with my own children. Of course, I didn’t know how terrifying parenthood was going to be anyway. Nor did I know anything at all of how blissful and gratifying and powerfully important it would be.