Post #92 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
What if “The Help” Were a Memoir?
By Diana Paul
The Help has been a popular book, especially among women, and is now showing in movie theaters. It’s fiction but has many elements of non-fiction. I started wondering how we would approach this movie, if it were a memoir.
Let me back up. The Help, a 2009 best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, is a fictionalized account of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960’s. The narrator’s voice (Skeeter) tells the story of the heroine, a black maid named Aibileen.
Skeeter, a young white journalism major who has recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to Jackson to find that Constantine, her nanny and the family’s housekeeper, no longer works for her mother. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine, she begins to see the underbelly of life in Jackson for the black residents who are a vital part of the white community’s quality of life. Skeeter is motivated to change things for those who have cared for her and her peers. The ugly web of racism spins in familiar patterns. The era evoked, not even fifty years ago, presents us with the painful recognition of the best and the worst of US race relations.
I recently reviewed the movie version of “The Help” (see the September 27 post in www.unhealedwound.com.) What surprised me most, after posting the article that was favorable to the movie, were the critical comments by readers of my blog who were upset that a white woman would dare to tell the story of a black woman’s struggle against racism. The voice of the narrator should have been black and not to have that voice speak for itself was insulting and arrogant, some said.
I started wondering–Is this reaction endemic to writing about a group to which one does not belong? Beginning with the 1970’s there has been a greater appreciation of minority and ethnic authors writing as “insiders” about their communities and experiences. White writers describing minority experiences started losing their dominance, appeal, legitimacy, and authenticity. Readers started demanding an insider’s thoughts as representative of the community to which they belong.
If you’ve read The Help or seen the movie, what do you think? I’d be glad to get your thoughts in the Comments section below.
Here’s an interview with Kathryn Stockett in which you’ll see that some of the details of the fiction were drawn from her life.
I believe what some commentators of my blog as well as others who have read the book and/or seen the movie object vehemently to is not only that Skeeter tells the plight of Aibileen but that she doesn’t really give full focus to racism’s effect on the perpetrators–the white residents of Jackson–and the damage inflicted on themselves by their brutal acts of inhumanity. In a memoir, the inconvenient truths need to be exposed–even celebrated–in revealing what has been concealed. The standards are not set so high for a movie–in which entertainment value is primary.
Nonetheless, “The Help” tells a story that has not been told before. Perhaps the next narrative will be a memoir in the voice of the main character. But for now “The Help”, not a first-person narrative about a black woman’s experience, is still a bridge between the outsider and insider and raises an awareness of what life may have been like in pre-civil rights America. To the degree that “The Help” bridges the gap between differences, it connects one person’s experience with the reader’s and triggers the affect of memoir.