Writing Widowhood: The Landscapes of Bereavement

SUNY Press
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 Explores how memoirs of widowhood can help us understand the reality of bereavement and the critical role of writing and reading in recovery.
The death of a beloved spouse after a lifetime of companionship is a life-changing experience. To help understand the reality of bereavement, Jeffrey Berman focuses on five extraordinary American writers—Joan Didion, Sandra Gilbert, Gail Godwin, Kay Redfield Jamison, and Joyce Carol Oates—each of whom has written a memoir of spousal loss. In each chapter, Berman gives an overview of the writer’s life and art before widowhood, including her early preoccupation with death, and then discusses the writer’s memoir and her life as a widow. He discovers that writing was, for all of these authors, both a solace and a lifeline, enabling them to maintain bonds with their lost loved ones while simultaneously moving on with their lives. These memoirs of widowhood, Berman maintains, reveal not only courage and resilience in the face of loss, but also the critical role of writing and reading in bereavement and recovery.

“Writing Widowhood is a stunning achievement that combines biography, literary history, and theoretical and philosophical exploration into the nature of grief as well as mental illness—all seamlessly executed. Berman elegantly and lucidly conveys a range of theories and perspectives to suit both academic and general readers. Berman never compromises complexity while remaining accessible and straightforward throughout.” — Virginia L. Blum, author of Flesh Wounds: The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery

“Writing Widowhood contributes to the field of autobiography/biography, and particularly to women’s writing within that generic field, by discussing five memoirs which Berman categorizes as the ‘widow memoir.’ No other critic that I know has shaped commentaries into a newly defined genre. Berman’s book, thus, makes an important contribution to the overall field.” — Linda Wagner-Martin, author of Telling Women’s Lives: The New Biography
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About the author

 Jeffrey Berman is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of many books, including Death in the Classroom: Writing about Love and Loss and Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning, both also published by SUNY Press.


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Additional Information

Publisher
SUNY Press
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Published on
Oct 7, 2015
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Pages
244
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ISBN
9781438458212
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / American / General
Literary Criticism / Women Authors
Psychology / Developmental / Adulthood & Aging
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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Every woman autobiographer is a daughter who writes and establishes her identity through her autobiographical narrative. In The Voice of the Mother, Jo Malin argues that many twentieth-century autobiographies by women contain an intertext, an embedded narrative, which is a biography of the writer/daughter’s mother.

Analyzing this narrative practice, Malin examines ten texts by women who seem particularly compelled to tell their mothers’ stories: Virginia Woolf, Sara Suleri, Kim Chernin, Drusilla Modjeska, Joan Nestle, Carolyn Steedman, Dorothy Allison, Adrienne Rich, Cherríe Moraga, and Audre Lorde. Each author is, in fact, able to write her own autobiography only by using a narrative form that contains her mother’s story at its core. These texts raise interesting questions about autobiography as a genre and about a feminist writing practice that resists and subverts the dominant literary tradition.

Malin theorizes a hybrid form of autobiographical narrative containing an embedded narrative of the mother. The textual relationship between the two narratives is unique among texts in the auto/biographical canon. This alternative narrative practice—in which the daughter attempts to talk both to her mother and about her—is equally an autobiography and a biography rather than one or the other. The technique is marked by a breakdown of subject/object categories as well as auto/biographical dichotomies of genre. Each text contains a “self” that is more plural than singular, yet neither.

In addition to being a theoretical and textual analysis, Malin’s book is also a mother-daughter autobiography and biography itself. She shares her own story and her mother’s story as a way to connect directly with readers and as a way to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Autobiographical literature especially reveals the processes by which writers convert their own historical experience into fictional form and suggests how literary forms function in life. This volume defines an original theory of autobiographical writing and provides intriguing analyses of major American works of literature.

The Art of Life examines the transformation of history into literature in Walden, "Song of Myself," Henry James's Prefaces, The Education of Henry Adams, Paterson, and the poetry of Frank O'Hara. These works are approached as events in themselves and are analyzed as conversions of form and history, fiction and fact, and even aesthetics and politics. Thus the work of literature is set in the total experience of living, and the writer is seen not only as an artist but also as a person in a historical, political, and cultural environment. As well as a creator of literature, the writer is viewed as a social, psychological, and biological being.

Chapters on the narcissistic economy of Walden, the mythicizing of history and personality in "Song of Myself," the self-conscious relation that makes the Prefaces of Henry James the autobiography of an artist. the comic perspective of The Education of Henry Adams, and the radical innovation of Paterson and O'Hara's poetry provide new readings of major American works. Each chapter contains some distinct critical insight which not only contributes to, but can be relished apart from, the book's overarching theoretical argument.

The Art of Life is a sophisticated theoretical discussion of autobiography with rich psychological, philosophical, and cultural ramifications.

In Companionship in Grief, Jeffrey Berman focuses on the most life-changing event for many people---the death of a spouse. Some of the most acclaimed memoirs of the past fifty years offer insights into this profound loss: C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed; John Bayley's three memoirs about Iris Murdoch, including Elegy for Iris; Donald Hall's The Best Day the Worst Day; Joan Didion's best-selling. The Year of Magical Thinking; and Calvin Trillin's About Alice. These books explore the nature of spousal bereavement, the importance of caregiving, the role of writing in recovery, and the possibility of falling in love again after a devastating loss. Throughout his study, Berman traces the theme of love and loss in all five memoirists' fictional and nonfictional writings as well as in those of their spouses, who were also accomplished writers.

Combining literary studies, grief and bereavement theory, attachment theory, composition studies, and trauma theory, Companionship in Grief will appeal to anyone who has experienced love and loss. Berman's research casts light on five remarkable marriages, showing how autobiographical stories of love and loss can memorialize deceased spouses and offer wisdom and comfort to readers.

"Jeffrey Berman's examination of each partner's writings gives this book its unique perspective. I know of no other work like his in thanatology; Companionship in Grief will make a significant contribution to persons interested in death, dying, and bereavement."---David Balk, editor-in-chief, Handbook of Thanatology: The Essential Body of Knowledge for the Study of Death, Dying, and Bereavement

"This is a book that will be interesting to theorists of grief and grieving and to critics of contemporary British and American Literature while at the same time appealing to general readers who have themselves experienced crucial losses---or fear them."---Sandra M. Gilbert, author of Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieve
During the past decade, Jeffrey Berman has published widely on the pedagogy of personal writing. In Diaries to an English Professor (1994), he explored the ways in which undergraduate students can use psychoanalytic diaries to deal with conflicted issues in their lives. Surviving Literary Suicide (1999) investigated how graduate students respond to novels and poems that portray and sometimes glorify self-inflicted death. And in Risky Writing (2002), Berman considered the ways teachers can encourage college students to write safely on a wide range of subjects often deemed too personal or too dangerous for the classroom, from grieving the loss of friend to confronting sexual abuse.

Empathic Teaching builds on that earlier work by showing how a pedagogy based on understanding the other can transform the experience of learning. Berman begins with a discussion of several well-known stories and films featuring literature instructors who exert a formative influence on their students, including Good-bye, Mr. Chips, The Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, and Dead Poets Society. He then goes on to examine the pedagogical importance of empathy, trauma, and forgiveness in helping students cope with the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of everyday life. Subsequent chapters are devoted to an analysis of actual student writing -- powerful, insightful, authentic essays about lived experience that reveal both intellectual and emotional growth.

In the book's final chapter, Berman considers the risks and benefits of empathic teaching, demonstrating how teachers can play a therapeutic role in the classroom without being therapists. Teachers who are regarded as trusting, supportive, and dependable, he argues, become attachment figures, influencing students to be more sensitive to and connected with their classmates' lives. Or, as Berman succinctly puts it, empathic teaching leads to empathic learning, an education for life.

Death is often encountered in English courses—Hamlet’s death, celebrity death, death from the terrorist attacks on 9/11—but students rarely have the opportunity to write about their own experiences with death. In Death Education in the Writing Classroom, Jeffrey Berman shows how college students can write safely about dying, death, and bereavement. The book is based on an undergraduate course on love and loss that Berman taught at the University at Albany in 2008. Part 1, “Diaries,” is organized around Berman’s diary entries written immediately after each class. These entries provide a week-by-week glimpse of class discussions, highlighting his students’ writings and their developing bonds with classmates and teacher. Part 2, "Breakthroughs," focuses on several students’ important educational and psychological discoveries in their understanding of love and loss. The student writings touch on many aspects of death education, including disenfranchised grief. The book explores how students write about not only mourning and loss but also depression, cutting, and abortion—topics that occupy the ambiguous border of death-in-life.

Death Education in the Writing Classroom is the first book to demonstrate how love and loss can be taught in a college writing class—and the first to describe the week-by-week changes in students’ cognitive and affective responses to death. This interdisciplinary book will be of interest to writing teachers, students, clinicians, and bereavement counselors.

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