“…a powerful and riveting memoir. The Missing List is an important, essential text in the context of the #MeToo movement; it is also an essential text for women’s studies courses. As Best demonstrates, sharing these stories is the first step towards paving a way forward.”
My memoir The Missing List was published and launched in London on 18th September 2018. I felt proud, relieved, exhausted – it had been an arduous journey to arrive at that point.
In the three years since then I’ve turned to collaborative projects and new areas of work, to give myself opportunities to grow as an artist and to find ways of integrating my past, even moving beyond it. But my past will always be part of me, and I now have more strength and I’m finding new ways of talking about the trauma, the silencing, and the longterm effects experienced by so many survivors of child sex abuse and incest. I’m not finished with this subject, I have more to say.
For now though, I’m marking the third anniversary of The Missing List’s publication by sharing this review by Irene Gammel and Jaclyn Marcus of Ryerson University, Toronto. The review was commissioned by Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme and I’m grateful to the editors for permission to reproduce the text here.
Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme
Review: The Missing List: A Memoir by Clare Best
Best, Clare. The Missing List: A Memoir. Linen Press, 2018.
Reviewed by Irene Gammel and Jaclyn Marcus
In a 1999 volume of essays entitled Confessional Politics: Women’s Sexual Self-Representations in Life Writing and Popular Media, one of the authors of this review explored the intricate rhetorical and performative strategies used by women in the telling of their intimate lives. One of the essays in that book highlights aesthetic strategies as a way of coming to terms with childhood sexual abuse, whereby the lyrical speaker can both assert control through aesthetic composition and seek a sympathetic readership through empathic language. Nowhere is the power inherent in such consciously aesthetic retelling of childhood sexual abuse more clear than in Clare Best’s lyrical memoir The Missing List. Prompted by her father‘s terminal illness, Clare Best’s autobiographical narrator is involved in giving birth to her own life and identity through experimental narration, creating a self-narrative that is ultimately beyond her father’s grasp even as it recounts his abusive control. She does so by engaging a number of documentary media testifying to the truth of her experience, as she relies on transcribed audio recordings, film clips, lists, photographs, and personal journals to explore and share her experiences. In the Foreword to The Missing List: A Memoir, Clare Best writes: “The way I’ve written this story does not form a narrative in any conventional sense. My collection of offcuts is more like a collage, but this reflects my experience” (8). The format of Best’s work leads the reader through the secrets and untold stories of her family history, revealing Best’s trauma in a collage of overlapping and intersecting pieces, moving through past and present through remembered but always fragmented truths – snippets of language, smells, sights, and touch. In doing so, Best presents her own account to the reader bravely and openly, inviting admiration and respect as well as an immersive understanding for those who may share similar pasts.
Best’s memoir begins in her adulthood, when her father has already fallen ill with terminal cancer. The text then moves between the present, as Best begins to record her father’s past as he wishes, and continues to care for him as his health steadily declines, to her childhood, where her father’s abuse is revealed. Best eloquently confronts her need for a resolution before his passing, alongside the fear and hatred she feels towards him. As Best explains: “Write what you know, some say. Some say write what you don’t know. I say write what you need to know. Write what you have to remember, what you want to forget” (20). Both Best and her father feel an affinity towards paper; Best’s father’s career in the paper industry contributes to her interest in publishing and writing. Best and her father also create and edit their own lives; Best through her writing, and her father through his films. Like Best, her father feels the need to record his history, to share his memories with future generations. And yet, as Best writes: “With each layer of his emphasis and retelling, his stories were collapsing into one another, and my own truth was rising. I knew that” (65). For Best, writing her history and sharing her past openly is an act of defiance against her father and abuser, a means of reclaiming her lost childhood and speaking with accuracy where her father does not.
“Sometimes I hear inside me the ghostly voice of the child he stole, the child I may never find, and I have to listen” (52). A major thematic concern in Best’s work is the loss of a younger self whose absence she mourns as an adult. Like a detective, Best stealthily moves through her family records to find traces of this lost child, including in old photographs, family albums, and school records. When seeing images and films of her younger self, Best barely recognizes the vivacious, precocious child who is always active and the centre of attention. Instead, it is the older, quieter child, the child with unexplained absences at school, mood swings, and a quiet, thoughtful presence, that Best identifies with. Best’s self-exploration illustrates the many gaps in memory and understanding that fill her youth, marking the trauma that lies within her past experiences. In rewriting her memories, good and bad, Best offers this child the voice that was denied during her adolescence, creating a platform for others in parallel distress.
For Best, the importance of female role models and a safe space dominated by women is integral to her survival, demonstrating the importance of this memoir, which presents a female figure for others to turn to. Best’s mother and grandmother create hope and consistency for Best as she moves through her traumatic youth, even as Best is unsure how much her mother knew, if at all, of her abuse. Time alone with these matriarchal figures created safety for Best, and revisiting the sites of this respite and security from the past offer healing in the present. Best recounts trips to her grandmother’s house, where “Every sight and sound associated with the place is a positive trigger” (131). As well, moments alone with her mother, in particular through their shared ritual of opening her mother’s jewelry box and reciting the stories associated with the treasures found inside, offer opportunities for positive family ties, threads of connection, and ultimately an affirmative legacy.
The Missing List concludes with Best’s father’s passing, her remembering, and her continued quest for truth, empowerment, and empathy. Mixed in with these feelings is also a salutary anger that fuels her own journey forward. Best’s self-reflections confront the reader with the same reflexivity and care that is embedded throughout this powerful and riveting memoir. The Missing List is an important, essential text in the context of the #MeToo movement; it is also an essential text for women’s studies courses. As Best demonstrates, sharing these stories is the first step towards paving a way forward.
The Missing List: A Memoir is an experimental memoir written by Clare Best as a means of understanding and exploring her relationship with her father, his abuse, and her traumatic childhood. Prompted by her father’s terminal illness and impending death, as the writer in the family Best is asked to help record his life; in doing so, Best revisits her sexual abuse at the hands of a parent, her youth and adolescence, and the continued impact of this personal history on her present-day life and family. Hoping to finally confront her father about his actions and find potential closure, Best agrees to assist her father with his last project. In this memoir, Best relies on transcribed audio recordings, film clips, lists, journal entries, and memories to share her experiences. Best’s eloquent writing memorializes the female role models in her life, particularly her mother, with kindness and affection, while also addressing the painful topic of child and sexual abuse within this setting with bravery and honesty.
Dr. Irene Gammel teaches at Ryerson University, where is she is also the director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre. Her research focuses on issues of gender and the body, and she is the author of numerous articles and books including Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography and Looking for Anne of Green Gables; she is the editor of Confessional Politics: Women’s Sexual Self Representations in Life Writing and Popular Media, and co-editor of Florine Stettheimer: New Directions in Multimodal Modernism.
Jaclyn Marcus is a doctoral student in Ryerson University and York University’s joint Communication and Culture program, researching the intersections between fashion, literature, and modernity. Specifically, her research explores the impact of dress on social identity in adolescent texts published at the turn of the twentieth century. She is also the Managing Editor for the open access, academic journal Fashion Studies.