Recording the entire span of one's life is generally referred to as an autobiography, whereas a memoir serves to answer one fundamental life question and only covers those events that pertain to that …
Recording the entire span of one's life is generally referred to as an autobiography, whereas a memoir serves to answer one fundamental life question and only covers those events that pertain to that question.
In Harvey Mudd's recent book, "Leaving My Self Behind: A Memoir 1940-2017," it appears to take the span of his entire life to answer one fundamental question and hence this nearly 500-page tome can be said to be both an autobiography and memoir.
What is the fundamental question of Mudd's life?
Over the course of his fascinating and adventurous lifetime, he wears many hats, has many occupations, lives in multiple residences and is married several times. Always, Mudd is evolving and searching his soul, seeking to discover himself.
You might recognize the author's name, Harvey Mudd, and yes, he is the grandson of the wealthy mining engineer for which the Claremont, California, college is named. Mudd writes, "My family … was more than just conventional; we were of the rarefied social strata that had rigid parameters of behavior. ... My family was prominent enough in Los Angeles that the family name alone presented an obstacle to me. I was always the young man identified by the frequent question, 'Any relation to …?'"
Mudd feels the need to distance himself from his family legacy and Los Angeles so that he can become his own person.
"My childhood, in which I include most of my adolescence, ended with an emotional collapse, a breakdown, at age 19. But I managed to land in the care of a good psychoanalyst, and that made all the difference." Mudd moves to New York City to work with his psychoanalyst and to heal himself.
This period is so cathartic for Mudd that quotes from his psychoanalyst show up throughout the book. The narrative does not move strictly chronologically. Mudd's writing shifts back and forth in time between the future and past, much like one's memory might bounce around when working out a problem, unveiling truths from different moments in life. At times, this can be confusing, challenging the reader to determine what year we are in and the author's age at that time.
One overarching theme that seems to burden Mudd no matter the course his life takes is his relationship with his parents, mainly with his very complex and cruel mother. "I had found the dark kernel from which had grown a noxious weed that had crowded maternal feelings out of my mother's heart and allowed fear and paranoia to take their place. There was a secret. The secret was what had contaminated my childhood ...The repressions, rigidity and punishments that characterized my childhood stemmed initially, if I am correct, from her fear of exposure."
Even in later years, Mudd never feels completely comfortable with his life choices, worried that he isn't living up to his family's high expectations. "Inherited money sometimes turns out to be a mixed blessing," he writes. "Because it allowed me to try out a number of different personae - poet, activist, farmer, among others - no clearly identifiable normative persona emerged. No doctor, lawyer or merchant chief."
As a young adult, Mudd travels throughout Europe and the Middle East, living in various cities, dating various women and delving into art and literature. Upon his return from his travels, he joins the army. "It was a system that had complete control over my daily activities, and over my life, too, a system that could use my body in any way it chose, even waste it, though that year, 1963, with Vietnam barely visible, just below the horizon, I didn't give that extreme outcome any thought."
After the army, he moves to a home he renovates in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. While there, he witnesses the great influx of hippies that come to New Mexico in the late sixties. "Few … if any, have examined the unsettling collateral effects on the Hispanic communities that, without being asked, played host to the newcomers; all was not happy. There was a great deal of friction, for along with the visionaries and sincere communalists came the dopers, fakers, runaways, criminals, mentally ill, the arrogant and rude."
Around this time, Mudd also finds a calling in social activism. He recognizes the inception of air pollution coming from the coal plants in the Four Corners region. "I became in every sense of the word, an 'activist.' It was an occupation," he writes.
His work in environmentalism brings him in direct conflict with his family's business. "Once, after a hearing before a legislative committee regarding regulation of water usage by a coal mine, a mining executive approached me in the corridor. After confirming who I was, he politely but unmistakably accused me of not sticking together with those in the minerals extraction business, implying that they were a tribe of some sort and that I, by birth, was of this tribe."
As with other memoirs about rich people it's difficult to feel empathetic for a character who struggles with having too much privilege. But Mudd's life is daringly interesting.
Perhaps, Mudd finally answers the fundamental question of his life, who is Harvey Mudd? But one might suspect from reading his memoir that he is a character that never stops evolving and questioning his place in the world.
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