Believe in Me: A Teen Mom's Story, by Judith Dickerman-Nelson

I met the author recently when we appeared together on a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Although her book is designated a work of fiction, it is closely based on Dickerman-Nelson's own experience of getting pregnant at 16 while attending a Catholic school. We quickly found common ground between her experiences and my own, described in my memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. We also had a similar motivation for writing our books: to dispel or at least try to counteract the harmful stereotypes that stigmatise people in our situations.

Reading Dickerman-Nelson's book that night, what resonated most for me was her honesty. No platitudes here about slutty girls (in sharp contrast to recent political shenanigans) or irresponsibly promiscuous boys; no Splendor in the Grass tragedy with a violent ending out of an Appalachian ballad. Just a girl and a boy, completely recognisable, who are in love and believe they are about to be married and make a life together. The narrator, Judith, is a cheerleader who, far from being ostracised and condemned as one might expect, is allowed to stay in school even after she admits to her pregnancy and is supported by her loving adoptive parents. Meanwhile, Kevin struggles to stay true to their vision of a life together while enduring pressure from his family who don't want him to ruin his life by becoming a husband and father at 17. His wavering between his love for Judith and obedience to his family keep the suspense high for both Judith and the reader. No villains here, just a conflict that many people face, honestly presented.

There is nothing wrong with placing a book that is mostly memoir in the fiction category. Authors get snarky when readers assume that their novels reveal true experiences from the author's life. I, myself, had to speak sternly to my critique group when they continually referred to the protagonist of my fictional work-in-progress as though she were me. We certainly use what we have learned from our life experiences, but transform them to meet the needs of the story. One author, whose name I've forgotten, compared our experiences to butter which is used to make a cake (the novel). You would never look at a cake and say, My, what a nice block of butter. The novel is purely an invention of the author. That's why it's called fiction.

At the same time, it's true that some novels, especially first novels, are thinly disguised memoir. And, unfortunately, some so-called memoirs are mostly fictional. In the memoir workshops I teach and in online writing groups I often hear from people who want to mix a little fiction with their memoir, perhaps to make the story more interesting or to make a point more strongly. I have no problem with that, but the resulting work is not a memoir, in my opinion. It is fiction. The strength of memoir is that it tells a story that is true, that really happened to the author. There have been too many newsworthy memoirs later revealed to have been enhanced or even completely made up. The public outcry and sense of betrayal should make it clear that readers expect something called a memoir to be true. I've read much research about the fallibility of memory, so perhaps I should add “to the best of the author's ability”. So I applaud Dickerman-Nelson for calling this mostly-memoir fiction. The truth in it shines through.

I was impressed by how well the book straddles the line between Young Adult and Adult fiction. Librarians and booksellers must make a distinction between the two, but we readers just want to read what we enjoy. The voice, vocabulary and concerns are clearly those of a teen-aged girl, making it utterly appropriate as YA. Yet, the book works well for adults, too, especially those of us who have children of our own and may have forgotten our own tumultuous teens. I was so engrossed that I finished it that night, and it was well worth my bleary eyes the next day. I recommend the book, and hope that the author and I can appear together again soon.

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