I’m glad I read Before the Door Closes (by Judith Hall Simon) directly after Keeping My Balance. This, after that, reminds me that good writing is not so simple as replacing summary with scene, always; rather, good writing has both in moderation.
If writing were as simple as giving us scene after scene, Before the Door Closes would be beyond reproach. We are present for everything, from formative experiences between Simon and her father to hospital trips at the end of the father’s life. Our placement in a scene engages our feelings for daughter and dad, but there are so many different things going on from passage to passage that it’s hard to know where to spend our emotional energy.
In a single section of the memoir, we jump from Simon buying a mattress cover as a young woman to being a girl at a carnival. Then, in a new section, we are back to buying the mattress cover for a single sentence, before jumping thirty years into the future. There are lots of instances of this throughout the memoir, in which a passing thought during Event A throws us immediately into a full-blown recollection of Event B, which even then sometimes leads to subsequent immersion in Event C. The connective tissue linking these memories is thin, and Simon does not reflect much to tie the events together. As a reader I often found myself lost.
Some of the issues could have been addressed with more logical breaks between sections. It’s also a reminder to bear the narrative question in mind. What curiosity keeps the reader reading? And, once I know what that is, am I making sure that there are not too many other questions piling up? My goals are to a) build interest in the topic at hand, while b) giving the information required to understand the problem, the stakes, and possible outcomes – all the while leaving out unnecessary distractions.
One distraction from this memoir really derailed me. In an early scene, Simon overhears her husband singing the praises of an old high school friend. “I never should have let her get away,” he says.
For me, this statement sets off red flags. It makes me worry for Simon – for her emotional well-being, and for the state of her marriage. Yet never once does she confront him, and we learn nothing more about their relationship. I understand that her marriage is not the focus of the memoir. But by the same token, if I’m not supposed to worry about this detail, why is it there?
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The marketing for this book is misleading, too. It’s billed as “A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father,” but his alcoholism and its effect on his child are hardly the focus of the work. There are some references to alcoholism and trauma – an instance in which Simon’s mother flees and a gun is fired, for example – but, even when these are given as scenes, they are offered without introduction and never revisited. To the end of the memoir, what Simon calls her father’s “Secret Shame” stays a secret.
When a writer teases information, but never fully explains, it is called “false suspense.” Lots of new writers do it in the beginning of a work (myself included), thinking it’s enticing. It isn’t, though – even for a single page.
That’s not to say that what this book does have to offer isn’t valuable. I think Before the Door Closes is primarily a memoir about problems in end-of-life care. In various facilities, Simon’s father experiences appalling neglect and disrespect: he is expected to sleep in a La-Z Boy recliner instead of a bed, he is given the wrong medicine (and, once, a 125 mg. dose instead of 12.5), and forced to be treated by a psychiatrist without a degree in psychiatry. Nurses ignore which family members are authorized to make medical decisions, calling the father’s children seemingly at random.
Secondarily, Before the Door Closes shows the fragility of machismo. Simon works hard to maintain her father’s dignity. He does not actually seem capable or strong-willed, even in flashbacks to his healthier days. This does much to demonstrate that traditional masculinity is a façade, as those around the head of household tiptoe and micro-manage situations to his benefit.
Overall, I don’t wish that this memoir were written differently; rather, I wish that its topic were more accurately described. There are important experiences chronicled in it. A clearer focus on the themes might have led to different editing decisions, and made for a more cohesive story.