Photographs are permanent images, but our memories fluctuate and transform themselves. What is pictured in photos is often photo-shopped in our minds and hearts. Jill Christman examines the interactions of memories and photos as she looks at her own family photos, stories, and personal memories in her award-winning memoir Darkroom: A Family Exposure. She simultaneously reports her family's story, analyzes it, and comments on how memory might affect it. She insists that photographs, rather than reinforcing our memories, often force us to rework them.
Her family story begins before she was born when her "two-year-old brother's skin left its indelible print on [her] father's palms." Sound bizarre? That's her memory of a family story thirty years after it happened. "The story of Ian's burning changes like a hurt and healing body—written, erased, written over with the thick tissue of scars: coordinating palimpsests of words and flesh. Each time memory ignites, details mutate and emotion shifts: she remembers a phone call, he remembers that the diaper was on, they both remember the scream. Elements are scraped away, scribbled in, retracted, and still some pink shows through." Memories twist, but photos capture a moment in time. They do it without emotional judgment or distortion, but they also do it without the context that memory provides.
Christman tells her family story by comparing actual photos of family members with her personal memories and supplementing her narration with academic research about the ways memory distorts the truth. Her own life is her best illustration of the ways both memories and photos shape self-knowledge.
She examines her counter-culture childhood, her eating disorders, sexual abuse, love, the death of a lover, the death of her Grammy, literature, and the journeys that five therapists took her through as she fought to make sense of her life. She writes of an absentee artist father, an uncle sentenced to ten years in jail for growing marijuana, and a mother who struggled before responding to her daughter's needs. Darkroom is an intense encounter between Christman's cerebral, emotional, and analytical sides. She pieces her complex stories together as skillfully as her Grammy placed photos in a family scrapbook.
Well-written books about any family's dysfunction appeal to me. I'm curious about relationships and how they are perceived, and I enjoy comparing other families to my own.
The interspersed quotes from experts confirm Christman's analysis but occasionally pulled me out of the story. Maybe that was her intention. I couldn't help wondering if those quotes had the same disorienting effect on the reader as Christman experienced when the old photos didn't match her memories. Most of her exquisite language and deep thought kept me riveted, though. She encouraged me see my own life through a new lens.
Alternately humorous, sensitive, intellectual, evocative and eye opening, Darkroom is a written collage that will touch and enlighten readers. No wonder Christman won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction for this deep, thorough examination of photos and memories. I recommend Darkroom: A Family Exposure to all thinking women.
Jill Christman's memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2002. Recent essays appearing in River Teeth and Harpur Palate have been honored by Pushcart nominations and her writing has been published in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Literary Mama, Mississippi Review, Wondertime, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction in Ashland University's low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her website.
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