The Debt I Owe Bernard Cooper

Last summer I wrote a post about a memoir that had a positive effect on my book project: Bernard Cooper‘s The Bill from My Father

The title, The Bill from My Father, serves as a reminder throughout the book that there is a reason Cooper keeps his father at arm’s length most of the time–sometimes even farther, such as when he let a period of several years ago by without communication. The title refers to the father sending his son a bill for the cost of bringing him up. The father is a “character,” in the sense my mother means–somebody I would call a “piece of work.” His son tries to make sense of the man and of his own feelings about his father in this remarkable memoir.

Although I’ve learned something about writing my book from every memoir I’ve read, this book has probably been the most important to me–at least in pulling the book together into a narrative.

Let me break a big rule of writing and quote myself (from that post):

 [Cooper] sets the story in a very limited present-day, which covers his father’s aging and eventual death.  Then he goes on excursions into the past through flashbacks, which are in some cases very lengthy.

His structure is a far cry from what my first memoir instructor insisted upon–complete chronology without flashback.  And while I can understand that a story focused upon childhood or a coming-of-age story makes the most sense told chronologically, for my story it wasn’t working.

What I plan to do is use “a present-day framework that moves to the past and then comes back to the present again.” Again and again. A weaving together of various time periods. Let’s hope it works.

Back to Cooper, the father seems to get progressively crazier as he ages. It eventually becomes clear that he has Alzheimer’s, but Cooper doesn’t have this context for his father’s nutty or dangerous antics until he comes to this realization. Since the father has always been a difficult person and the onset is so gradual, it seems as if his odd behavior is just part of who he is/was.

There is a scene where the old man attacks the DWP man with a potato peeler.  Twenty pages later, after his father has died and Cooper wants to open the packaging of a video (it’s a Christian video about Hell and was given by the father’s caregiver/girlfriend–the Cooper family is Jewish), Cooper accidentally picks up a potato peeler.  In this passage, we see him re-thinking his views on his father.  I love the way the action functions as a metaphor of sorts.  We are used to “things” being metaphors or symbols, but it’s Bernard’s absentminded grasping of the potato peeler that seems more potent because it echoes his father’s earlier action which was viewed as nutty.

If you have had a difficult parent, this book is a must-read. If you have a parent with Alzheimer’s or have struggled with conflicted feelings about an aging parent or a parent who has died, this book is a must-read. Even if none of those applies to you, the book is a must-read.




Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

29 responses to “The Debt I Owe Bernard Cooper

  1. I’m beginning to get the impression that you like this book….

  2. Thanks to you – this book is already on my TBR list. In your blog post then I realised that this is something special, Luanne.

    • Karen, it’s so often that in memoirs where parents are characters, the parents are presented either with a rosy glow or a bit of a skewering. I love how Coopers very complex feelings evolve over time in this book. He really knows how to show nuances.

  3. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    Luanne, I’m trying to digest the advice your first memoir instructor gave you. That seems quite restrictive, particularly as to the timeframe from which the story is told. I’m glad you found a structure that you can see your story (which I can’t wait to read) working within.

    • Ellen, I found her online the other day. She’s still teaching, affiliated with a university writing program. I wonder if she teaches differently today than she did in (I think) 2009. She was adamant about no flashbacks. While forcing myself to write without them was good exercise, she really sent me spinning for a very long time. Thanks for your kind comment.

    • I believe that most writing is self-taught and that our writing will teach us what we need to know as long as we keep at it. Which isn’t to say that workshops and classes and blogs can’t provide valuable shortcuts and tools to make the journey easier. “Take what you like and leave the rest” is pretty good advice. And be suspicious of any advice that comes with “always” or “never” attached.

      • Good advice, Susanna. I do think that writing is self-taught in that the more one does of it (with an open mind) the better one gets–and that being a good reader is part of that process. But I have learned a lot from participating in workshops, as well. I don’t know if they have made my journey any shorter as I am still taking a long time, but I think I have absorbed a lot.

  4. Thanks, Luanne. I learn something new every time I read one of your reviews. This book shifted to my urgent read pile.

  5. Great review, Luanne. Makes me want to read this book. The potato peeler part reminded me of when I cleaned out my dad’s kitchen after he died and I came across a very old flipper in a box of utensils. I had a good cry over that flipper because of all the eggs and pancakes my mother had made for us so many years ago using that old flipper. To anyone else, it’s just another flipper.

    • Oh, Anneli, what a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. It is amazing the emotional power that certain objects have for us. On a related note, while I’m definitely not a hoarder, it’s hard for me to understand having no emotional attachment to any objects whatsoever.

  6. It really does sound like this book is a ‘must read’ Luanne! I’ve added it to my TBR list 😉

  7. I can so totally relate to both the difficult relationship with a parent plus the complications of Alzheimer’s. In my last book (I’ll Call It Like I See It) I explore the resolution of the distance between my mother and me during my caretaking through her last four years. The healing between us was remarkable and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to show her how much I loved her – and to learn how much she loved me.
    Bless all the children and their parents tonight.

    • Sheila, that’s a sweet wish. I’m so sorry about your mother. I’m looking forward to reading that book in the future! It sounds like a rewarding read.

  8. I too am now putting the book on my ‘to read” list, having also had a difficult parent and being her caretaker during the last 3 months of her life. I also can see how the structure he uses could be much more compelling than writing it chronologically. Moving back and forth through time i would think could add needed contrast and tension. Thanks for introducing us to this memoir.

    • Yes, Deborah, exactly–contrast and tension! I’m sorry you had to go through that experience–difficult parent as well as the caretaking. I imagine it happens more often than we know!

  9. You’re such a bad influence on me, Luanne. Trying to curtail my spending on books is impossible with these great reviews.:)

    • Hah, I love being a bad influence–especially when it comes to books!! Maybe we need to go work part-time on-the-side for Amazon to pay for some of our purchases!

  10. I like the idea of the shifting between present and past for a memoir. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it!

    • Yeah, isn’t it the way that memory works, though? When we think we go through all different time layers. The trick is to make it so readers don’t get confused since they haven’t been there for those memories.

  11. I just read an excellent novel that uses a similar structure, and also deals with layers of family secrets: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s one of those books I started rereading as soon as I finished it, in order to figure out how Fowler did it.

    • It sounds really interesting on Amazon, although I was dismayed to feel that there is a spoiler right off the bat (I assume it was a spoiler because it felt that way to me!!). It’s on my list, Susanna. Thank you!

  12. You need to know this: I have now bought 2 books on your recommendation and each of them is a keeper. This one will be the third. Remember “the great book purge” at the beginning of 2014? Well, I now need a bigger bedside table to accommodate the latest additions. Sigh. Thanks, Luanne. You are a great teacher and sharer and connector.

  13. I like the way you found this particular memoir to be life changing! I cannot imagine why one of the first teachers that was talking about memoirs, wanted a strictly chronological book. I think it is much more interesting if you go back and forth, as long as you have connections and allow some time to filter into the flashback. I am one I hate to backtrack in books, to figure out who a character is, how did he suddenly appear? I liked the example of the potato peeler, too. This was a really interesting way to bring the two elements together.

    • That’s what I am thinking. Reading a new one right now and she goes back and forth, and I find it’s very interesting because I remember who she is “now” and who she was “then.” If that makes sense!!

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