The third grade was a big year for me. That was when I learned I was related to a president. Grover Cleveland, the rather husky Democrat who served as the 22nd and 24th president starting in 1885, is somehow my cousin. He is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. After hearing about what I was learning in school one day, my dad dropped the bomb on me. I was a descendant of a man whose portrait was on my social studies teacher’s wall. Of course I announced it to my class the next day, which immediately made me the coolest kid in school for an entire class period. After discovering our school library had nothing on dear cousin Grover, I begged my mom to take me downtown to the public library. This is when I read my first biography. I was hooked. I then read every other book about my cousin, followed by biographies of every other president. Then I moved on to other people who were important enough to have a book written about them. I couldn’t stop.
Fast-forward two decades. I recently finished A secret life: the lies and scandals of President Grover Cleveland by Charles Lachman. I came across it while browsing the Main Library’s biography section. My mind was blown, again. The man I was bragging about for most of my life had a scandal that almost ruined his political career. None of the children’s books or my father mentioned he was so scandalous. Obviously, I had to read it. Nearly 500 pages later, I feel a little perturbed that I wasn’t informed of this sooner after years of now resentful bragging.
What bothers me the most, however, is that the former president did not write an autobiography. According to the book, he stole his love child from the birthmother, gave him away to some friends and admitted the mother to an insane asylum against her will. He then married the 22-year-old daughter of his deceased best friend Oscar Folsom, whom he helped raise. And the kicker: he named the love child Oscar Folsom Cleveland. This and more was made public, yet he was still elected president. Twice. He must not have found it necessary to publish his own version of the scandalous events. Part of me doesn’t blame him, while the other part desperately wants to compare his version of the story to the many biographies written about his notorious life.
Autobiographies and memoirs are so fascinating because it is the authors themselves who are penning their own intimate details. Famous people write about themselves all the time, with many of their works becoming bestsellers. But I would argue that many of the greatest life stories are those of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Let’s be honest, reading about others’ misfortune makes you feel better about your own. Because of this, memoirs often inflict introspection and inspiration. My all time favorite book is Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, a memoir of an impoverished child growing up in Limerick, Ireland and Brooklyn, New York. McCourt’s story is nothing to laugh at, but you find yourself laughing at times because he lyrically gives you permission. It’s depressing, inspirational, shocking, heartbreaking and triumphant. It’s many things, which makes it so great.
Here are a few autobiographies/memoirs/biographies, which are also many things:
The glass castle: a memoir Jeannette Walls
Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Cheryl Strayed
The Last Lion William Manchester and Paul Reid
My lucky life in and out of show business: a memoir Dick Van Dyke
Why be happy when you could be normal? Jeannette Winterson
Seriously…I’m kidding Ellen DeGeneres