I‘m no stranger to marriage memoirs. Two come to mind immediately: Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation and Heather Havrilesky’s Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage. A few months ago, I read Florence Williams’ Heartbreak, and a few days ago, I purchased Maggie Smith’s newly released You Could Make This Place Beautiful. I enjoy novels, too, that revolve around complicated marriage, and here I’m thinking of Nora Ephron’s iconic Heartburn, based on Ephron’s real-life split from Carl Bernstein, and Jenny Offill’s fictional Dept. of Speculation, which is a portrait of a marriage in crisis told in “ruminations” or “meditations.”
Offill’s work is what I was most reminded of upon reading Hannah Pittard’s We Are Too Many: A Memoir (Kind of). Pittard is the author of four novels and a professor of English at the University of Kentucky. Her new memoir is an intimate investigation of the dissolution of her marriage after her husband has an affair with her best friend. But, as a writer of creative nonfiction myself, it’s the “Kind of” in the book’s title that initially interested me.
We Are Too Many is a genre-busting memoir, a hybrid of memoir, short essays and scripts, or, perhaps more to the point, a speculative memoir that curates memories alongside and intertwined with imagined scenarios and fantasies. It’s a collage made with different materials, the whole of which is a picture of a complex relationship between three people.
Part One, “Remembered Conversations,” is a collection of short conversations, scripted like plays, that jump back and forth in time — much like memory does. Each begins with a title that includes the month and year the conversation occurred, a bit of “scene-setting,” followed by a “play” between two or more “characters.” Hannah, her husband Patrick, her best friend Trish, all of whom are writers, as well as others, appear and re-appear across conversations.
And the conversations are sharp, snappy, wry and a pleasure to read. Here’s an excerpt from “July 2013 – Hannah Tells Trish a Secret,” when Pittard and Trish were “walking around Chicago, pretending to shop for trinkets until it’s an appropriate time to start drinking.”
HANNAH: I had a boyfriend once who asked if I’d ever been messed with. That’s how he put it — “Have you ever been messed with?” Isn’t that a weird thing to ask a person?
TRISH: Had you been messed with?
HANNAH: No, I don’t think so. But I spent a lot of time after that trying to remember whether or not I had been.
TRISH: Just him asking that messed with you.
The conversations in Part One are largely “remembered,” although one between Patrick and Trish is imagined (Pittard wasn’t there) and another explicitly includes an “Imagined Patrick.” So, already, the edges of the memoir part of this memoir are starting to blur.
Part Two, “An Imagined Exchange,” is just that — an imagined exchange or dialogue between Pittard and Patrick about his affair and the failure of their marriage. Whereas the first part was written in the third person, the second part is in first; Pittard’s narrator uses “I,” and when she references or directly addresses Patrick, he is “you.”
Part Three, “A Coda in Pieces,” is altogether different. It’s a collection of 47 flash essays, numbered, see-sawing, like the conversations in Part One, back and forth in time. I found the coda especially moving because it represents a tonal shift from what came before. The author’s ironic detachment — her emotional distance — is gone. The coda essays are earnest, intimate, and revelatory.
In the coda, Pittard explores the heartbreaking development of her body dysmorphia and her bulimia, which she’d somehow (remarkably) managed to hide from her husband all the years they were married; the post-divorce return of her childhood fear of the dark; and how she — her nature really — might have contributed to her failed marriage and doomed friendship. Her honesty is brutal with a capital B. “I like to say I have no regrets,” she writes, “but it’s not true.”
Don’t we all want to say we survived some crucible and came out better, more whole, on the other side of it? With nothing to reproach ourselves for?
But there are no easy answers. Some of Pittard’s most powerful reflections probe her inability to assert herself, to ask for what she wants and needs, to express anger, to trust her own instincts, and to trust the motivations of others. I was stunned to see so much of myself in these musings, and I wonder if she might not be touching on something here that is universal about women’s lived experiences.
In one of her final essays, Pittard recalls how she used to play hide-and-seek with her brother and sister when they were young. They would tell her to hide to get rid of her, but they wouldn’t come find her. She then remembers a time when she hid from Patrick as a joke, and Patrick similarly failed to come find her. After coming out of her hiding place, she told him sadly, “You didn’t find me.”
There is a metaphor here, I think. Perhaps this is the lesson I take away from the collage Pittard makes in We Are Too Many: It’s not for others to find us when we’re hiding; we must instead reveal ourselves — better yet, our many selves — to the people we love. Maybe we shouldn’t even hide in the first place.
We Are Too Many: A Memoir (Kind of)
By Hannah Pittard
Henry Holt & Company
Published May 2, 2023