“Book Review: This I Can Tell You”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A quietly harrowing memoir that explores a father’s sudden violent death
One of the graces of Brandi Spering’s memoir This I Can Tell You is how gently it leads into the fray of traumatic memory. Her father was the victim of a murder-suicide committed by his roommate. She relates what she knows of the details, gleaned from family members and news reports. Rehearsing the manner of his death is not, however, the whole purpose of the memoir.
While repeatedly imagining his murder is indeed the way she originally processed her trauma, her imagination becomes a doorway into the question of loss, memory, and how we build narratives of our families and ourselves. The book teaches us to be kind to ourselves and patient with our processes.
Spering tells us how her parents met. She introduces us to her siblings, discusses her grandfather’s passing, and reveals that her father was once injured in a car accident. When she was a small child in Philadelphia, her father moved into a separate apartment. There was “never a splitting of ties” between her parents, she says; it was just that they “were always better off as friends.” She saw her father on weekends.
She begins with this context in part to help us understand that the grief around the death of a family member is usually not solitary. It affects a whole family, each survivor experiencing it in their own way.
Halfway through the book, we learn that Spering’s father has moved into one of his friend’s houses, and her father does not allow her to visit him in his new home because his new roommate is supposedly too bothersome. By the time her father’s roommate shoots him, she is a college student. She grieves over every dinner: “I couldn’t fathom why I could taste when he could no longer.”
“I kept picturing over and over what must’ve happened to him,” Spering says in her Afterword. She imagined his murder so many times that, although she hadn’t witnessed it, she experienced post-traumatic stress: “I became unable to differentiate between a car backfiring and gun going off, jumping at anything loud.” She revised multiple drafts of this memoir during her senior year of her creative writing program. As she increasingly discovered the frailties and outright inventions of her memory and as she began exploring them in a more deliberate way, her uncertainties became part of her story.
She recreates her impressions of her father’s death, as well as everything before and after that feels related, in vignettes and poems. There is tenderness, but she also confronts her fear directly. In not flinching from the facts, she uncovers the extent of her own ignorance about the scenario. “Did twenty rowhomes ignore the noise?” she wonders.
There is plenty of blank space on the page, suggesting the emptiness of everything that has already evaporated into the past and her struggle to crawl out of the memory hole. She observes that sometimes we deliberately repress a memory, “pretending an event didn’t happen,” yet other times truly we just “don’t remember.”
Any sudden death leaves behind loose ends and unanswerable questions. This I Can Tell You leads the reader to begin to understand Spering’s unique loss—to the extent that she, herself, will ever understand it. An absence can’t be grasped. The book also helps us to more profoundly understand how we navigate our human vulnerability.
This I Can Tell You is an admirable achievement, showing how all of our lifelong memories, good and bad, are sense impressions and misrememberings, subject to the slippage of time.
Publisher: Perennial Press
Print Length: 184 pages
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