The publication of Francisco Goldman’s memoir Say Her Name is another in a growing field of nonfiction genre about death and grief. Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking), Joyce Carol Oates (A Widow’s Tale), Jill Bialosky (History of A Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life), and Meghyn O’Rourke (The Long Goodbye) are a few such authors who’ve recently written about the deaths of their spouses or, in Bialosky’s and O’Rourke’s cases, a sibling and parent respectively. The latter three have published their memoirs within the last two years alone. Why the grief memoir has become popular to readers seems evident. Death has the unfortunate ability to freeze and crystallize a life in a way a fictional character can be frozen in time, so indelibly etched like a figure in a photograph, easily rendered within a spatial gap of time. And to the writer, it offers the challenge of wrestling with a life now shattered by death and offering a work of finding meaning in both loss and, most importantly, life.
Goldman struggles to find such meaning following the death of his young wife, Aura Estrada, a vibrant writer on the cusp of her own literary and academic career, tragically killed from injuries sustained during a freak bodysurfing accident on a Mexican beach in 2007. What Goldman experiences is what all people who have lost loved ones unexpectedly experience: the rabid unpredictability of grief and the terrible guilt one feels in being somehow responsible for causing or preventing the death. Goldman’s guilt is exacerbated by the fact that Aura’s mother, who never approved of Goldman (Goldman was in his late forties when he met and married Aura, who was thirty at the time of her death four years later), blamed him for her daughter’s untimely demise.
“Eso es tu culpa,” she tells him as Aura lies dying in the hospital. Goldman moves through the stages of guilt and grief, which are not as predictably laid out as one might expect. When he returns to the New York apartment he shared with Aura, he, along with help from Aura’s friends, builds an altar in her honor; her wedding dress, designed by a Mexican dressmaker, is its centerpiece. Here, Goldman invests this object, one of many that has defined his brief marital life with Aura, with the tenderness of someone handling a much adored, but fragile thing:
Now the dress was slightly yellowed. The shoulder straps darkened by salty perspiration. And one of the bands of lace running around the dress, lower down above where it widened out, was partly ripped from the fabric, a tear like a bullet hole; and the hem was discolored and torn from having been dragged through mud, and danced on and stepped on during the long night into dawn of our wedding party, when Aura had taken off her wedding shoes and slipped into the dancing shoes we bought at the bridal shop in Mexico City, which were like a cross between white nurse shoes and ‘70s disco platform sneakers. A delicate relic, that wedding dress.
Their apartment, their things, even Aura’s family and friends, become the means in which he is able to revive her back to life, no matter how painful the process. The greatest fear of death is not simply in the finality of the loss itself but the loss as it exists in memory, in how one sees oneself in the world. “I’m terrified of losing us in me,” as Goldman writes passionately, and his heartbreaking attempt to keep Aura’s memory alive is born out in the memoir itself, which is not only an account of his grief, but of his late wife as well.
Here, Aura bursts uncompromisingly back to life, full of vigor, of insecurities and neuroses, and a passion for life. An intellectual who bristles at professors who warn her about “her love of text,” Aura is also childlike, and listens to “clever girl music, Belle and Sebastian” or the José José records her mother listened to after her divorce from her politician husband—a mystery which mystified Aura throughout her young life. Indeed, the story of her parents’ breakup is a mystery that tantalizes Goldman. He uncovers the truth of this dissolution of marriage from Aura’s father, with whom she had very little contact, after her death. The truth is anticlimactic, but that is beside the point. In Goldman’s hands, Aura becomes so indelible, so bristling with life, that when he writes of his life without her, our grief for his loss becomes as keening as his own.
Yet the downside of the memoir, of course, is memory. How can we trust that we are reading a true account, or as true an account as it was lived by the individuals involved? Goldman questions his own memory on a number of occasions, realizing that “[F]iction has become reality. Or I became fiction.” And that Aura’s versions of these events might differ from his: “…[I]t’s lonely to be left with my versions. Aura would say, ‘It wasn’t like that, mi amor. It was more like this.” There is also the matter of Aura’s family, whose stories would be impossible to exclude. To understand his wife is to understand her family and Goldman delves into their stories with as much detail as it is possible for him to.
Yet, considering the hostile relationship that develops between Goldman and his mother-in-law, one cannot help but wonder what Juanita might say in having her life and that of her daughter’s splayed within book form. She is clearly at a disadvantage, since Goldman is telling her story from a narrow prism gleaned mainly from the few encounters (mostly hostile) that they’ve had, and the diaries Aura kept since childhood and which Goldman has in his possession. Goldman is largely sympathetic and philosophical about this relationship, and at times resentful that her hostility toward him is intruding on his memories of Aura. Yet writing about these episodes acts is part of the process of grieving that he goes through. Would it have been possible for him to tell this story without venturing into the risky territory of telling theirs? Highly doubtful.
Still, Say Her Name is a memoir, not biography or journalism. Goldman’s memories, however unreliable, his insecurities, fears, and grief are the scope of the book. What Goldman achieves is a tender, passionate, and sensual recounting of the all-too brief life he built with his wife and the often painful, stumbling efforts to right oneself after an unexpected rupture in that life. Anyone who has experienced the rupture of death (and who has not?), be it of a lover or spouse, a parent, sibling, child, or friend, can see herself in Goldman’s heartbreaking, yet tender love story. As Goldman advises, sadly-learned:
Hold her tight, if you have her. Hold her tight, I thought. Breathe her in. That’s my advice to all the living. Breathe her in. Put your nose in her hair. Breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it.