By Beth Bevis
The definition of a good memoir, like St. Paul’s famous definition of love, is perhaps better fleshed out in considering what it does not do than what it does. A good memoir, for example, does not ignore the harsh truths of the past, but neither does it delight in placing blame; it does not enlarge the sins of others, nor does it downplay the memoirist’s own shortcomings. Rather, a memoir rings true when it devotes as much time to investigating the self as it does to interrogating the past.
In Margaret Gibson’s new book, The Prodigal Daughter: Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood, we have a shining example of the way that writing a memoir can become, in this sense, an act of true charity. Gibson, estranged from her family for much of her adult life, revisits her childhood in Richmond, Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up in a time, place, and family that clung to class distinctions and resisted social change, she would have plenty of material for finger-pointing. But she resists the temptation, embarking, instead, on an honest exploration of her own past failures to love perfectly.
The memoir itself, in its unflinching but compassionate vision, becomes an attempt to love better. Gibson's memoir depicts her family as flawed but never beyond redemption: thus, we see a father’s punishing belt set against the tender moments of carrying his sleeping daughter from the car to her bed; or a mother’s staunch Christian principles juxtaposed with her daughter’s discovery of a hidden copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a bedside drawer, and the mother’s subsequent admission that “It’s not as terrible a book as they say.”
This is a story of a young writer coming to terms with religious doubt while learning the power of words to explore life’s ambiguities. It is also a tale of a family divided by favoritism, envy, and private grief learning to knit themselves together again. Margaret Gibson, who will be teaching a poetry workshop at the Glen this summer, is the author of nine books of poetry. This is her first book of prose. A chapter from The Prodigal Daughter entitled “Faith, Hope, Charity” is published in Image issue 55.