Betsy Hearne's "The Cobra's Son"
I once had the opportunity to hear Jeanette Winterson speak about writing memoir. Jeanette Winterson is an award-winning British writer. The book that made her famous was her novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, published in 1985. Since then, she’s published a lot: plays, short stories, essays, children’s books, more novels, and a terrific memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, about growing up with a mentally ill abusive mother, among other things.
In person, Winterson is eloquent and intense, the sort of person who speaks in beautifully composed paragraphs. Among the many brilliant things she said the day I saw her was this: “Chronology is how we get through the day, but it’s not how we get through the night.” Stories do that—stories shape the chronological events of our lives into meaning.
This is what good memoir does. Writing it can seem almost like a biological urge, especially later in life, when so many people look back at their individual chronologies and try to make sense of the events that have happened in their lives. Winterson talked about this, too. She said that experience happens once. But memory goes on happening to us. Memoir is the effort to understand the ongoing nature of memory.
I want to share with you today the work of a memoirist I admire. Betsy Hearne is Professor Emerita in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. She is a scholar of storytelling and a terrific storyteller herself, and like Winterson, an award-winning author. She lives in Urbana, Illlinois.
This is the beginning of her essay “The Cobra’s Son,” which was published in the Winter 2015-16 issue of Ninth Letter, a literary journal produced by the U of Illinois’ creative writing department. Ninth Letter nominated Betsy’s essay for a Pushcart Prize—a high honor.
My father is telling me the story of a night at his British boarding school in the Himalayas. His parents have given permission for him to sleep on the outdoor wood staircase because the dorms are stuffy. He’s half asleep when the steps begin creaking toward him. He clutches his penknife and covers his head with the cotton spread. The creaking stops beside him on the landing, and something snuffles the length of his body. Finally it moves away, but he spends the rest of the night waiting for its return. In the morning light he slips down the stairs and finds, in the soft ground below, the pawprints of a leopard. He is thrilled to have survived the night. For him, danger is addictive. For me, age five and sleeping on a screened porch in the Alabama heat, danger is tormenting.