Kristin Czarnecki ~
In March, I published my first book, a memoir called The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming, about the experience of being named after a deceased sibling—my parents’ first child, who died when she was three years old, eight and a half years before I was born. What I thought would be an essay grew into a book in part because of the research I undertook. While I knew I would write about some of the authors, novels, and poems that were meaningful to me, I had no inkling in the beginning how deeply research would enhance such a personal story.
In my journey to find out more about the first Kristin and the ripple effects of her life and death upon me and my family, I talked, texted, and emailed with my parents and siblings. I combed through family photo albums, scrapbooks, and some of my father’s files. But I also searched online and read various books to see what I might discover in relation to this family matter—a lot, it turned out, and I wove my findings together with reflections on my lost sister.
In my research, I learned the term necronym, a name shared with a deceased person. I learned about a phenomenon called replacement child syndrome, which led me to several books on the subject with passages addressing the possible ramifications of naming a child after a deceased sibling. I learned that Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, and Salvador Dalí were replacement children. A link on a page about Dalí took me to his painting Portrait of My Dead Brother, a haunting work manifesting his conflicted feelings about having the name of his brother, who died as a toddler nine months before Dalí was born. Dalí once said of himself and his brother that they “resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections”—an intriguing way to think about my own situation.
One of Heid Erdrich’s DNA poems led me to an article in New Scientist on the recent discovery that women bear within them the cells of all of the children they’ve carried, cells they then pass along to the subsequent children they have. “Being given the first Kristin’s name didn’t impose an identity on men, then,” I write, after discussing the article. “She was already there, within me, from the moment I was conceived.” In fact, Erdrich’s poem and this scientific finding were the primary catalysts for my embarking on the memoir.
I learned more about the medical condition that led to the first Kristin’s death and about the psychological importance of funerals. A friend suggested I read a book on inherited family trauma, which led to a momentous “aha” moment and further research into my struggle with impostor syndrome—intense feelings of inadequacy despite apparent success or achievement. I also read books and articles by others who have experienced the sudden death of a young child, such as Tom Hart, whose graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning, became a touchstone throughout my book.
Through research, I came upon concepts, images, and vocabulary that helped me clarify and refine my ideas. Drawing from literature, psychology, art, and science while writing about the first Kristin and my own sense of self allowed me to convey the multifaceted nature of human experience and that even the briefest of lives harbor nuance and complexity. I never lost sight of the primary focus of the memoir, however, and kept passages from research relatively brief. I also avoided becoming heavy-handed with specialized details or jargon. I wanted the research to flesh out the story without overtaking it.
It was important, then, to make decisions about what to keep and what to leave out from research. I consulted books on memoir and mourning that gave me much food for thought but that I never ended up quoting or citing. I read a book on the psychological benefits of expressive writing that resulted in just one sentence, of my own making, that appears amid my musings on whether writing the memoir allowed me to resolve certain issues. It was also tempting to go overboard with literary criticism as that’s the kind of writing I’m most accustomed to, but the story of the first Kristin needed to remain the central narrative thread. Workshopping the memoir with other writers was crucial. They alerted me to places where the research seemed problematic in some way: off-topic, abrupt, or prolonged. I could then revise to establish clearer transitions when heading into or out of research and trim down certain parts to maintain narrative flow.
As with any endeavor, the balance came over time and with trial and error. Even the research I didn’t use was valuable as it helped me realize what I wanted the memoir to be. And so, I encourage anyone writing a memoir or personal essay to conduct a bit of research on relevant related issues—or even issues that may seem tangential at first—and see what happens. Take your time and let the process unfold organically. Let your curiosity—and all those hyperlinks—lead you down paths you may otherwise not have followed. Let different subjects intermingle in the pages of your memoir just as they do in life.
And explore the growing genre of hybrid memoir to become more familiar with how research enlarges our understanding of ourselves. I recommend Kelcey Parker Ervick’s The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Katharine Smyth’s All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, and the graphic memoirs Belonging, by Nora Krug, and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, for example, all of which incorporate research in ways that beautifully and poignantly enrich their personal stories.
— Kristin Czarnecki
Kristin Czarnecki holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and is Professor of English at Georgetown College. Currently, she is serving a second term as President of the International Virginia Woolf Society. She has published essays on Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Zitkala-Ša, and Samuel Beckett, among others. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, Journal of Feminist Scholarship, College Literature, Journal of Beckett Studies, Woolf Studies Annual, and the CEA Critic as well as in several essay collections. The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming is her first book.