“I feel like the 1960’s is about to happen. It feels like a period in the future to me, rather than a period in the past.” Paul McCartney, 1994
After the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties – A Memoir by Catherine Gildiner (Viking; $25.95; 368 pages)
This is a memoir that I simply didn’t understand, and let me try to explain why. Memoirs – literally, a telling of personal memories – generally fall into one of two categories. In the first, the writer self-examines his or her own life very closely (if not microscopically) and critically. These generally conclude with life lessons and the writer’s unflinching willingness to accept responsibility for the mistakes he or she has made. With the second category, the writer plays it for laughs. Basically, he/she says, “I was young and irresponsible. I know that now, but back then I was such a fool. Oh, well, such is life!”
In After the Falls, Catherine Gildiner refuses to place herself in either category. She writes here about a life filled with errors and omissions but then declines to accept responsibility for her own role in it. (She’s shocked when a crime happens in front of her very eyes; a boyfriend lies to her – actually he simply fails to tell her the truth; she acts hatefully toward her parents, etc.) In a sense she commits one of the worst offenses imaginable in life, which is to be a mere observer of her actions and inactions.
Let me give a specific example of her disclaiming of responsibility. At one point, she writes about observing the gang rape of a presumably underage girl while hiding in the closet of a female friend’s house. The rape is instigated by the friend’s older brother. Does Gildiner report the crime to anyone? No. Does it even make her angry? Apparently not, although she thinks now and then about the girl who was repeatedly violated, but… But she rejects any responsibility on not one, but multiple instances within the pages of After the Falls. This raises a key question that must be asked: If one does not want to accept responsibility for things that happened decades earlier, why write a book that tells the entire world about those actions? (In other words, what is the point of all this?)
I did not read Gildiner’s earlier memoir Too Close to the Falls, but I did notice one person’s comment to the effect that this memoir is darker and more depressing than Too Close. Well, yeah. Frankly, I found it a bit dangerous as well as depressing.
It’s also, sadly, in this reviewer’s eyes a bit of a distortion of what it was like to grow up in the 1960s. There was a lot of excitement about human potential and about the leaders who later fell – beginning with John Kennedy and extending through Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. There was also the Civil Rights Movement (touched upon tangentially in these pages), and great music. But this memoir would lead one to think that the entire decade was, in the words of one notable rock band, “a drag…”, as in “What a drag it is getting up.”
To her credit, Gildiner concludes this unconventional account with an admission of how belatedly she grew to love and appreciate her parents – especially her father who lived for six years with a cancer that eventually turned his brain into “an empty honeycomb.” But it seems to be too little too late.
Missing most of all is a sense of the joyousness of growing up in what was truly a unique and energizing time. We may not be able to go back to those times, but we can certainly treat the decade more kindly that it has been portrayed here. A bit of gratitude might have been in order.