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The Limits of Autobiography Review - The Limits of Autobiography
Trauma and Testimony
by Leigh Gilmore
Cornell University Press, 2001
Review by Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Ph.D., M.S.W.
Jan 2nd 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 1)

Leigh Gilmore’s The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony is a fine addition to the body of excellent recent work in trauma studies, and is highly recommended for all working in the mental health disciplines. However, neither the title nor subtitle even hint at one of Gilmore’s major contributions: her intricate analyses of, and insight into, the ways in which the legal system embodies patriarchy and other forms of oppression and is thus imbricated with the constitution of trauma for both males and females. The book has five chapters in each of which a limit-case of autobiography, a case in which the canonic criteria for autobiography are transgressed, is explored. These chapters are framed by substantive introductory and concluding essays. The writing is extremely fine throughout, and the book is a rich cornucopia of literary and psychological analyses, theoretical sophistication, and interdisciplinary connectedness; these treasures can only be suggested here.

The introduction, titled “The Limits of Autobiography,” includes a fascinating discussion of the accusations that Rigoberto Menchu’s memoir was falsified, and a presentation of the main themes of the book. One of Gilmore’s aims is to challenge the “consensus that has already developed that takes trauma as the unrepresentable to assert that trauma is beyond language in some crucial way. Attempts to meet these expectations [by linguistically representing trauma] generate incompatible assertions that both metaphorize and literalize trauma.”(6). Gilmore’s goal is to show that trauma can be and has been represented in ways other than literal or metaphorical representation. Of particular interest to this reviewer, though not often explicitly thematized by Gilmore, is her intention to show, contrary to the received view, that trauma can not only be survived; rather, through linguistic means the “sovereign self” can be subverted and the traumatized subject radically transformed 

Chapter One, “Represent Yourself” confronts the paradoxes of autobiography, e.g., that the autobiography both represents the author qua individual, and is representative of a genre and a type of person. Also featured are a critique of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and a section on “Foucault, Pierre Riviere, and Althusser.” These discussions subserve Gilmore’s “intention to describe an alternative jurisdiction for the self-representation of trauma.”(43). The existing jurisdiction is patriarchy, which has constructed these questions: “Can women tell the truth? Do women have lives worth representing?” (21). Gilmore maintains the limit-cases of autobiography described in the next four chapters offer “a figure to rival the representative man”, the figure of  “the knowing subject who inhabits locations and forms of knowledge for representations of the self and trauma that refuse the deformations of legalistic demands.”(44).  Chapter 2 is an interpretation of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. According to Gilmore, Allison’s Bastard, a book about the trauma of illegitimacy in Greenville, South Carolina in the late 1950's, “is a formal experiment in the self-representation of trauma,” which depicts “a life that challenges the assumption, for example, that law equals justice and that justice prevails” (48-49). In so doing, it opens up “an alternative jurisprudence” which emerges “as the bastard daughter rewrites her mother’s legacy”(49).

 Shot in the Heart, interpreted in Chapter 3, is Mikal Gilmore’s dual biography of himself and his brother, Gary Gilmore, who, notoriously, insisted on his own execution for murder. According to Leigh Gilmore, the book shows “how the family is embedded in a culture that makes the father’s violence both permissible and invisible, both public knowledge and private, hence protected, activity.” Thus, the tragic hopelessness of Gary’s life is encapsulated in his last words: “There will always be a father.” Allison brilliantly summarizes her view of Mikal Gilmore’s book as written “to dismantle the epistemological privilege of just about everybody over Gary Gilmore and to reinscribe his wounded brother as the vector through whom interpretation must flow” (95).

 In Chapter 4, Gilmore views the four books published by Jamaica Kincaid in 1983, 1986, 1991, and 1996 to be a serial autobiography. Jamaica Kincaid, a West Indian woman, born in Antigua in 1949, is, as Gilmore points out, preoccupied with both “the mother daughter relationship as a site of enigmatic trauma” and “the legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean...” (102). Gilmore asks, “...what of the antagonistic relationship between law (as official discourse) and truth (as unofficial and resistant discourse) that structures the self-representation of the colonized?”(103).  Regarding the mother-daughter traumatic bond, Gilmore presents an extended discussion of Julia Kristeva’s views on abjection. Yet, even while struggling to free herself from her intensely ambivalent relation to her mother, “The colonial system aims toward a different end. Annie [Kincaid’s protagonist] is to become an object in a narrative in which she is made to know her place in the colonial order as strategically and necessarily marginalized” (112).

Jeanette Winterston’s Written on the Body (Chapter 5) is Gilmore’s final example of a limit-case of autobiography that opens up new possibilities for the representation of self and trauma. Winterston’s book “features an ungendered, unnamed narrator who falls in love with a married woman.” Further, “no gender references are permitted about the ...narrator who nonetheless describes her or his sexual adventures with men and women in some detail.” The narrator refuses the patriarchal regime of names and this unmet expectation “reveals that identity is a function of representation which is thoroughly imbricated in the juridical” (124). For Gilmore, Winterston’s refusal of names for purposes of identity including sexual identity does not sidestep representation of the narrator’s traumatic past and is an act of resistance to “how the enforced linking of names to kinship structures makes legally binding familial ties out of arrangements such as marriage, and through this construction legalizes acts that would be crimes were they committed against nonkin” (138). In conclusion, Gilmore writes, insightfully and courageously, “ ‘Sex’ as it prefigures ‘gender’ and the autobiographical body for women is not primarily, then, a lived construction so much as a nonlived obstruction” (142).

Gilmore’s concluding chapter is called “The Knowing Subject and an Alternative Jurisprudence of Trauma.” Here, Gilmore is most explicit regarding the influence of Foucault on her work. For Gilmore, the books she has interpreted are ones in which the writer “undertook the ethical project Foucault adumbrated as the ‘care of the self,’ which he linked with the techniques and practices...that make it possible for one to become other than what one is [ “On ecrit pour etre autre que ce qu’on est,” a quotation from Foucault previously cited by Gilmore]”(145) In her concluding sentence, Gilmore is again most explicit regarding the necessity of transcending trauma through self and world transformation: “The knowing self in contrast to the sovereign or representative self does not ask who am I, but how can the relations in which I live, dream, and act be reinvented through me?”(148)

  The Limits of Autobiography is an extremely fine book that stands on its own and deserves wide readership and study. As mentioned above, this reviewer is inclined to look favorably on a work that presents, as Gilmore’s study definitely does present, new ways of showing that trauma can be not merely survived by transcended in acts of self-transformation. Nevertheless, it seems to me (this is not a criticism of the book, which is the book that Gilmore, not I, wished to write) that Gilmore’s important, indeed invaluable insights would be more pregnantly realized in a philosophical and psychotherapeutic framework that thematized the dialectic of self and subject in the context of developmental theory of gender and intersubjectivity (the work of Jessica Benjamin, is in my view the most relevant) and in the context of a phenomenology of the life-world (Fanon and Husserl).


© 2002 Marilyn Nissim-Sabat


Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Ph.D., M.S.W., Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Lewis University, Romeoville, IL , Clinical Social Worker, private practice in psychodynamic psychotherapy, Chicago, IL, Member Executive Board, Assoc. for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry


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