Perfect people are boring. Fortunately, by her own admission, Diana Joseph is far from perfect. However, her memoir I’m Sorry You Feel That Way approaches narrative perfection in that it is anything but boring. By turns smart, snarky, laugh-out-loud funny (I did, several times), and wrenchingly poignant, without sentiment or artifice, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way is intensely human.
An ideal memoir treads the knife edge between honesty and generosity. A slip too far in either direction tips the narrative into the chasms of spite or of sentiment. Joseph deftly avoids losing her balance in this collection of essays.
And when my son is born, all I can see is my brother Mitchell. Those two look a lot alike. Oh, those long eyelashes wasted on a boy. Oh, that sweet smile and those pink cheeks, and what a dreamy, starry-eyed boy. Sometimes my son is just standing there, he’s gazing at the heavens, he’s studying the stars, there’s a beam of sunshine casting its golden light on him and him alone, and a chorus of angels sings a single holy note, and even though the boy is minding his own business, he’s thinking his own thoughts, when I look at him and see my brother, I am almost overwhelmed by the urge to reach out and give that kid a hard shove. I don’t, of course, but the impulse is still there.
Funny, funny, funny, funny. Ok, some people — the faint of heart and collectors of pastel porcelain figurines, perhaps — might be offended. Those people should not read this book. If you just love any variety of Chicken Soup for the Soul, or firmly believe that children should never, ever watch R-rated movies, or feel that an admission of previous drug use shows a deep and abiding immorality, you should not read this book. If, however, you tend to look back on your own life with a wry grin, have been known to show up to the school bake sale with brownies still in the supermarket plastic clamshell, or simply find perfection boring, read on.
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way is subtitled: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man & Dog. I’m not sure about the astonishing part — Joseph doesn’t fly, or turn ordinary materials into gold, or anything, but the rest fits perfectly. In a collection of casually voiced, intelligently written essays, Joseph lays out the details of her relationships with father, brothers, son, ex-boyfriends, ex-husband, common-law husband, male friends, and dog.
“Now, look,” my father said. “When a girl goes with this one, and then with that one, and then with that one over there, and with who knows how many others, what happens is people start to talk. People will always hear all about what she did, see, and when they do, they’ll talk about it. They’ll say that girl is a pig.”
The Lucky dangled from my father’s lips and his eyes were squinty from the smoke. He raised his eyebrows. He was jabbing his finger at me. Moving only half his mouth, my father said, “Don’t be a pig.”
That was the first time my father ever talked to me about sex. It would be his final word on the matter. Neither he nor I would ever speak of it again.
Joseph begins her memoir with a set of essays that depict her imperfect, and therefore human, relationship with her father. By her own account, “when I was growing up, my father seemed unapproachable and unpredictable…It’s easy to remember the mean things my father did…Growing up the daughter of such a man, it’s easy to fixate on those things, to hold a grudge. Letting go of the grudge is much more difficult.” Plainly, Joseph ultimately wishes to let go of the grudge. “So when I think about my father, I try to keep in mind the other things I know about him, the things I know for sure.”
There are a lot of things that Joseph knows for sure. Her essays are replete with the sorts of details that most of us brush off in the everyday race that is life, but Joseph seems to know that these details are life. “I will always admire the things Karl Bennet knows: how to skin a buck, break a horse, sew a button. He knows that duct tape, WD-40, and Neosporin are the only emergency supplies you’ll ever need. He knew that when his father died, he wouldn’t have much to say, and that when his mother died, he’d weep.” In those sentences that balance the commonplace WD-40 and duct tape with the death of parents, Joseph paints an acute picture of her ex-husband. We see exactly the sort of man he is through the “things [he] knows.”
Similarly we see her son and their relationship through the everyday details of trench foot: “Though this boy has a dresser full of clean socks…he one day decided he’d wear again the pair he’d already been wearing…If you ask the boy why, why would you do such a thing, he’ll shrug. He’ll smile. He’ll say he doesn’t know.” And of T-ball: “What you don’t know is when T-ball season ended, the boy was bellyaching again. What surprised me was why. He was sad it was over. He liked T-ball. He liked his name in white letters across the back of his shirt. He liked how the players lined up to slap hands with the other team. He liked how everyone was nice, saying way to go, good job, good game.”
The closing scene with the man she calls “the man who would become, according to Colorado state law, my common-law husband” fills the eyes and heart with details that overwhelm. “Al and I were sitting on the floor in the basement, piles of dirty laundry all around us, while a boy we loved was alive, safe, playing video games in his room, and a cat was purring, flicking her tail and weaving herself between our bodies. Al and I had been together ten years. I wanted us to be together at least ten million more.”
If some authors strike the reader as inhabitants of the ivory tower, lyrical in their prose, lofty in their thoughts, Diana Joseph hangs out in the living room. She is the friend you’d invite over for coffee or a beer after a bad week, because you know she’d have a funny story about how her week was screwed up, too. She’s the friend who says the things you think, but would never have the guts to say. And this is one thing I know; we can all use a friend like that.