“Look Who’s Talking: The Development of Narrative Voice Over Marya Hornbacher’s Memoirs of Mental Illness”
Elisa Marder states that the feminist ‘we’ represents a “disarticulated voice,” or an individual female voice lost within the din of the collective interest (151). The ‘we’ creates ground for women to be heard, yet suppresses the individual voice in the interest of the group. Similarly, Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford argue that female writers create textual “space” by sharing authority (415). In that space lies not only the individual experience, but the sociopolitical implications of the individual experience for the group. Feminist narrative, then, is developed from the individual experience speaking through the voice of the collective.
In Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (1999) and Madness: A Bipolar Life (2008), Marya Hornbacher constructs narrative voices that seldom settle on a concrete ‘I’. Her first memoir, Wasted (about her childhood and adolescence with an eating disorder), favors ‘you’ and ‘we’ to describe the first-person narrator’s experience. By contrast, her second memoir (in which she describes her experience with bipolar disorder) flits between the voices of three women – a manic woman, a depressed woman, and the woman caught between these two. In the first memoir, Hornbacher draws her reader to empathy with the second-person singular pronoun and creates a community of eating-disordered individuals with the third-person plural. In the second work, she works to cohere three selves with the first-person singular, but still finds points where she loses her narrative identity and says, “Now I’m someone else” (49). In my thesis, I want to explore Hornbacher’s development of narrative voice using theories of feminist discourse and narrative theory, examining how Hornbacher employs characteristics of feminist prose in order to represent and politicize the mental illnesses about which she writes.
In both memoirs, Hornbacher uses herself as a case study to support a larger political gesture toward advocacy for individuals with mental illnesses. Her juxtaposition of herself and the clinical literature surrounding her disorders turn her personal narratives into political ones. This politicizing of the self is both a quality of illness narrative (as highlighted by Garrett) and of feminist prose (as shown by Smith). I argue that Hornbacher combines feminist prose with attributes of illness narratives in order to extend the feminist style of writing beyond the political realm of feminism and into the realm of mental illness advocacy. Instead of creating multiplicity in her narrative voice to speak for a larger group of women, Hornbacher creates multiplicity to speak to and for those with eating disorders and bipolar disorder.
I plan to use a comparative approach between the two memoirs to highlight how Hornbacher’s narrative voice develops over the chronological frames of the narratives. I will examine how Hornbacher’s earlier memoir attempts to insert the coherent ‘I’ – her personal experience – into many pronominal selves. I will then contrast that ‘I’ in many selves with the ‘I’ in Hornbacher’s second memoir, in which she presents many selves within a coherent pronominal ‘I’. In addition to looking at pronouns, I will consider the linearity and fragmentation of Hornbacher’s memoirs and her incorporation of outside voices into texts, that by definition of their genre, are supposed to be owned by their author. By delving further into the structure of the works, I hope to uncover how each work is communicates its larger message within memoir – a personal genre that implies a singular ‘I’.
Of course, I wish this project were as coherent as I’ve presented it; yet I must concede that it is endlessly complicated. I must ask: can feminist prose lose its ‘feminist-ness’ and become true advocacy narrative? I also have questions about genre. If I claim that Hornbacher’s texts employ multiple voices that speak for a larger cause, can I call the texts memoir? Must memoir focus on personal experience and interpretation, and if not, who ‘owns’ the prose? Even more questions: what is the relationship between aesthetic representation of mental illness and advocacy for that same illness? And does representation of an illness by Hornbacher represent the illness or the individual experience? Where is the border between the singular voice and the collective, and is there a difference between the politicized self and the politicized collective? These two texts that consider questions of genre, ownership, voice, and structure, all of which interact not only within the texts, but beyond their pages as they advocate for those with mental illness. My question is whose voice – and how – is behind that advocacy.