In Donna Miller’s Know Thyself: Help Me, I’m Naked, Book Three, readers will find an engrossing, heartfelt, and honest memoir. Miller is a natural story-teller and memoirist, her memory of events startlingly clear, the prose crystalline, spare, and even. The events it depicts are relentlessly tragic, yet affirm the gift of life in faith, grace, and hope. The sense of harmony at this memoir’s depth is achieved through the rich development of its many strong female characters, who repeatedly demonstrate ingenuity, self-sacrifice, and resilience in the most trying circumstances imaginable. In one passage, the narrator admits that she does not grasp the difference between knowledge and understanding, with knowledge being defined as the possession of information, and understanding being defined as the possession of meaning in that information. This memoir’s great achievement is that it maintains just the right distance from its well-developed characters and detailing of events, a kind of sympathetic distance for the great costs attributable to free will, allowing the reader to grasp meaning in spite of the complexity of motivations in human callousness and selfishness. It is a memoir that reads like a great novel, presenting heavy, life-altering events with hard-earned insight into their value to the human spirit. Shining amidst the great many books competing for readers’ attention, Miller’s has all the makings of a classic, a memoir to be read by one and all.
Part of this memoir’s immediate charm is the large cast of flawed, yet colourful, characters, each one of whom is sufficiently developed such that there is a distinction between playing a crucial role in events or being positioned to be acted upon. The narrator Korel’s family is extensive, consisting of her three daughters, mother, grandparents, several aunts, many cousins, step-father, and step-brother. In addition to these are the several young men who appear in the households, “lost souls” seeking shelter from life’s dips and turns. The households are matriarchal of necessity, insofar as this is possible in a patriarchal social order, with Korel’s aunt and mother each having re-married after leaving abusive husbands. The women in this memoir seem innately trusting and kind, and the reader may cringe with expectation, given that their circumstances will and do attract men who are wont to use them, looking after their own needs at the expense of financial and emotional stability. Korel, herself, has three daughters from a previous marriage and seldom works, preferring to stay with her aunt and mother to look after her girls. Korel is in an ideal position to observe daily household activities and relationships, a dependable core at the centre of the comings and goings. Spending very little time outside the home, she has the quintessential iron strength, the mental and physical fortitude, to be a bastion of love and perspicuity, to observe each catastrophe, yet remain sufficiently distant to act. Through her eyes, careful and alert, we see a nuanced record of the streams and currents of family life. One of the insights that this memoir provides is the social aptitude and cohesiveness necessary for women’s survival in a male-dominated society. The men of this memoir, most of whom are masters of the broken promise, tend to plunder the resources of their partners, taking without giving back. The women survive on the fitness of their constitutions, their shrewdness and adaptability, and the right attitude after being left high and dry.
It would be remiss not to comment on the thematic significance that astrology has in this memoir. Self-discovery and self-understanding become a necessary occupation for Korel. The disorder and chaos that surround her make the study of astrology seem a natural choice for an ordered form of connection with the world. By the end of the memoir, the reader may be able to see the difference between the passive pursuit of knowledge promised by the naked life and the active pursuit of love and enjoyment that a multi-layered understanding rewards. A memoir that communicates this in its central character is great, indeed.
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