My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland (review by Haley Papa)

by | May 11, 2020 | Blog, Reviews

It is difficult to believe how little Jenn Shapland knew of Carson McCullers prior to the creation of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, but upon her discovery of “intimate, suggestive” love letters between McCullers and Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, it is more difficult to see how anyone knew Carson McCullers outside of her own written word. At the time, Shapland wondered about her findings, even more so as she conducted further research on McCullers and posited if she was “reading into her queerness”. The uncovering of the initial eight letters marked a turning point in Shapland’s life, when she was going through a “major, slow-burning catastrophe” of her twenties. 

Prior to her literary debut, Shapland could previously be seen published in Tin HouseOutsideThe Lifted BrowElectric Literature, and elsewhere, as well as winning a Pushcart Prize in 2017 for her essay “Finders, Keepers”. Through My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, however, Shapland now leaps headfirst onto the literary scene with a debut that feels both like and unlike a memoir in its entirety, detailing little by little a nuanced history of both McCullers’ life and Shapland’s own candid wonderings over how her sexuality and chronic illness are reflected in a woman buried by time.

Shapland’s research on McCullers takes into transcriptions of letters and taped therapy sessions, pieced together like a puzzle with unarticulated edges as her discoveries convince her more and more of McCullers being a lesbian who was relatively unashamed in her love for several women, among which prominent lovers appear to be Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach and Dr. Mary Mercer, who was introduced to her as a therapist. The observations of McCullers she finds are presented in a nonlinear pattern in brief sections, slotting history and musings into a narrative that comes from her belief that “to tell another person’s story, a writer must make that person some version of herself.” Indeed, the parallels between McCullers and Shapland blurs the lines of reality and the imagination at times, and the similarities of the two writers’ experiences with chronic illness, queerness and writing itself are sometimes challenging to separate on paper.

While without defining the evidence she continues to unveil as solid truth, the memoir allows for not only Shapland, but the reader as well, to begin their own wondering of society’s heteronormativity and ability to read between the lines of queer history and self-knowledge of one’s identity. The assumption of compulsive heterosexuality runs rampant in American history and culture, and Shapland speaks bluntly of the dehumanization of your identity being written out of your cultivated narrative on behalf of both herself and McCullers. In one section, titled “Euphemisms”, she lists various biographers’ references to McCullers and her lovers – “obsessions”, “roommates”, “traveling companions”, “special friends”, on and on it continues. Shapland’s exhaustion over this apparent obliviousness is blatant: “I’m over it. I, for one, am weary of the refusal to acknowledge what is plainly obvious, plainly wonderful. Call it love.”

Shapland also criticizes the misdiagnoses of McCullers’ illness and her own, pulling back a curtain on the treatment of women with disabilities, for “to question, to cast doubt, on how a person experiences her own body is cruel and damaging, and all too common”. Queerness and illness are frequently connected even now, often through misconstrued depictions in culture as “tortured, sick, and unfit for living”, displaying women who love women as obsessive or invisible to society. Shapland confronts these interpretations with her personal experiences and fears, of the unreality placed upon queer womanhood at a young age. How can a search for truth behind a queer, disabled woman’s history begin if we do not face the societal norms that bury these histories in the first place? Whether McCullers defines herself as a lesbian or bisexual or perhaps queer, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is proof of the interrogation one should utilize toward the assumptions a one-sided history presents.

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