October 6, 2010
A couple of years ago, in a post for the Boston Globe blog Brainiac, I expressed astonishment that so many members of the Reconstructionist Generation (born 1964-73) had already published memoirs.
In the confessional spirit of so many of my contemporaries, I must admit that my snarky comment about “premature autobiographication” was nothing but sour grapes! For I, too, once published a memoir — on October 6, 1976. My ninth birthday. Now out of print, J.G (Park Lane Press) was, if I do say so myself, way ahead of its time.
Anticipating David Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my own memoir recounted — movingly, yet not un-ironically — my efforts to raise my younger brother, Patrick, after our parents divorced. It is impossible to read the chapter in J.G about “Hunter and Birdy,” a game in which my brother’s role was a motherless fledgling, and mine a hunter who builds Birdy a nest and cares for him, without shedding tears of joy and humiliation. Or so Patrick tells me.
Long before Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors, I crammed J.G with shocking but hilarious anecdotes about my mother and her Cambridge, Mass., shrink friends — like Arthur, the Adlerian
family therapist who organized the children in our communal household to demand equal representation in decision-making processes. The veracity of Burroughs’ memoir has been questioned, but rest assured: the incident in which Lisa Campbell and I threw a box of cereal, a gallon of milk, and a Guns of Navarone playset over the back fence, in an attempt to run away, is 100% true. As I watched the spilled milk drown plastic German and American army men alike, I suddenly understood the meaning of Weltschmerz — a term that Arthur used when lecturing to us on the development of our egos “as they mediated between the urgings of the id and the realities of the external world.” I also felt very, very hungry.
A.J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World is considered an example of “stunt journalism,” but there was no stunt intended when I read my way through the William Monroe Trotter School library’s entire collection of Ebony Jr.! and Jet magazines in a matter of days. As you’ll discover by perusing the index of J.G for references to Billy Dee Williams, the experience altered my life and worldview in ways with which I’m still coming to terms. Until recently, I imagined everyone agreed that Williams’ Let’s Misbehave (1961) is the greatest jazz album of all time. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
As for Sean Wilsey’s Oh the Glory of It All — what, he thinks his mother’s ultra-liberal ideology caused him suffering? My mother wouldn’t let me watch Speed Racer ever again after she overheard an episode where Speed wouldn’t let Trixie drive the Mach 5 “because you’re a girl.” I’m still struggling for closure on that one. My father, meanwhile, used to pay me a dime for every gender or ethnic stereotype I found in the course of my reading — if Anne was making lunch while Julian was building a fire, ka-ching. Anyone familiar with Pavlov’s experiments will shudder to think what kind of monster I became — a child thrilled, even titillated, by un-PC thought-crimes.
PS: Todd Bridges’ memoir Killing Willis: From Diff’rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted, is a total rip-off of J.G.
PPS: So is this:
READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE
Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).
What do you think?
No barbed wire and glowering Japanese guards? Wait, that’s that *other* J.G.’s memoir.
Such a sweet and delightful, true yet tongue-in-cheek remembrance of Josh’s childhood. I remember the early publication. Just a few comments: First, I’d like to think Patrick played the part of a fatherless child in Hunter and Birdy. Second, Arthur was not a family therapist, but an analytically trained individual therapist, which is why his ideas about equality for children in family decision-making were so off base. Third, I learned many years later that Josh and Pat simply went to their friends’ houses to watch Speed Racer. Loved the pictures!! He was cute, wasn’t he?!! And his early idea about Heaven was that it must be a library. The child is indeed father to the man. Happy Birthday, sweetheart. Mom
Mother, I hope you appreciated the lengths to which I went in order to avoid ending the following sentence with a preposition:
How can one be so avant garde and earnest at the same time? Answer: be JG at 9.
Love those Stonehenge pants and the levi jacket patches. Fashion forward, even then!
I somehow knew that ‘with which’ had been delpoyed under the sign of grammatical surveillance.
Josh, you had EXCELLENT haircuts. And just how cool is your mom? Happy birthday!
I’m still bummed that I let my copy go to auction in 2005 when the bookstore was struggling. Even the paperback is damned hard to find these days, and the publisher’s cloth? Forget about it.
HUGE part of my childhood growing up; I read so many times after coming home from a rough day at school, my old copy still has Ritz cracker crumbs in the binding. The part with the Shriners in Mt. Auburn Cemetery is a narrative I recount to this day.
I am writing to complain that this book gave me a papercut that left a ridge on my right index finger which still bothers me when I type, three decades later. Also, I got grounded for staying up until nearly midnight reading it under the covers. It was worth it.
“His early idea about Heaven was that it must be a library.”
I want this as any and all of (a) a t-shirt, (b) a tattoo, and (c) a piece of laser-cut-steel graphic art.
i have to say that i never liked this book – reading it as a fellow nine year-old, i found it raised impossible expectations as to the quality and texture of my intellectual life. to put it another way, i was bored silly. revisiting ‘J.G’ now, though, i am struck more than anything by its authorial modesty – here i am, it seems to say, take me or leave me. but by all means take me.
Henry Selick and Noah Baumbach have nearly come to blows over the screen rights, from what I hear. A Vampire Weekend soundtrack (supplemented with the requisite nostalgia baiting) can be expected.
As a kid, I discovered all of my role models in books. Thanks to J.G, I became a benevolent hunter.
Hmmm….. I say fix the captions. Young JG is obviously defacing Stonehenge (note the radical hippie patches), and that barn door was obviously left open with intention.
Happy to see this post! Birth is of course a singular event, the first in a line of events which comprise a life. Day leads to night and so on, but I ramble. Josh has, with this memoir, left an important record.
I first encountered the book while researching an article on Famous Experiments in mind control. I found it intriguing but it is not until now, with the images reproduced in color (my edition had low grade black and white renditions) that I am utterly convinced that the last photo has been altered in some way, reversing the order.
In the original the image is in black and white, which conveniently obliterates a crucial clue as to the origin of the logo on the back of that child (who cannot possibly be JG): it is the color yellow, the color of mystery! One of many puzzles. About this I will wonder always. Want more? This is fun. I wonder at the secrets we can find further in. If you’re good; Which of the logos is a company? All, in the end, represent a kind of love. Rightfully you could ask “So what. And?” Thus we are left without a good answer, only to ponder, and study, and give thanks. Reversing order again and then we’ll leave it: As is.
Nevertheless, this is all mere hermeneutics. Circular logic and impossible to prove without putting things in the right order. What remains true is that, even should all evidence be faked – orders be altered and entire paragraphs nothing but a red herring, the very plinths of Stonehenge would have been impoverished without a visit from young JG who surely did at one time grace them with his presence. Hear hear! Let us drink to his celebrated name.
Tez, wonder no longer! The yellow symbol on the back of the jacket is a giant Boston Bruins logo. I still have the jacket, and you’re welcome to study it in exchange for bringing some beer to my house… PS: The white-ish patch below the yellow symbol is a faded R. Crumb “Keep On Truckin'” patch. Inherited from an older cousin, transferred from his jean jacket to mine by my mother, whom Mark Kingwell would have us believe is a paragon. If Mark had actually read “J.G”, like some of you commenters did (I guess it didn’t sell well in Canada), he might think differently.
Tom — this is a crazy coincidence, but *I’m* the one to whom you sold the edition pictured here, in 2005. Although we later met and became friends, I never reminded you of this transaction because I was embarrassed about buying a copy of my own memoir. Seemed like a weird thing to do. The truth is, I no longer owned any copies of it. Now that I’ve written about it, maybe it will actually acquire some market value — let’s talk about putting it up for auction some time soon.
“I guess it didn’t sell well in Canada.”
Very likely true. The mid-70s were a period of general cultural retrenchment here, and nationalism was the order of the day. If you had pretended to be living in Saskatoon or Summerside, or sold xeroxed and hand-stapled copies exclusively on university campuses, sales might have gone better.
So no, haven’t read it. But I did see a tattered used copy in a head shop on Toronto’s Yonge Street one day in 1978. I was visiting a cousin in Mississauga. We decided to spend our allowances on cast-lead Tolkien figurines and hot dogs from a vendor instead. Was I wrong?
Yes. Almost certainly yes.
Aha — Tez, I just picked up on the coded message(s) in your comment.
PS: credit on all photos here should read CHARLES GLENN.
I have long been struck by the structure of a most fundamental piece of this work – the title!
The most striking feature is that, while the first letter of the title is punctuated with a period, the second letter is not. In fact, the second letter has no following punctuation whatsoever!
First, we will posit (in the way that we might initially interpret a painting by looking directly at the face the painter provides) that the first letter of the memoir’s title, “J”, is the abbreviation of the author’s first name. Similarly, we will consider the second letter of the title, “G”, to be the abbreviation of the author’s last name.
If we look at people and their names, we may consider that everyone has at least two parts: an Individual self, associated with one’s first name; and a Collective self, associated with one’s last, or family, name. The Collective self is founded on all the forces, including family, that brought the Individual into being. (Perhaps this can be traced back indefinitely – think of the movie “Altered States”.)
We know that the period as a punctuation mark serves to define, to set boundaries.
With “J.G,” it appears the Individual “J” was grounded in enough finitude, enough Present, to warrant an immediately-trailing period. The Individual at the time of writing was enough of a definable entity/identity to permit a memoir. There was enough of a Present within which the Individual might stand for a vantage point on the past.
The Collective person as symbolized by the family name, however, apparently was wide open. It is possible that the memoir was motivated by some sense of the Collectivity being open and unknown, a deep well. While at the same time, it is possible that the very process of memoir further blew open the Collectivity. An Individual looking backward through family and time sensed no end to the Collectivity of the past…. Therefore, there was no period placed after the “G”.
In the face of common grammatical conventions, one could postulate this dynamic as an inadvertent or accidental omisison. Yet William Burroughs would say through his cutups, and Freud more obliquely through comment on humor, that there is nothing inadvertent, there are no mistakes.
Happy Birthday belated and early.
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