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An arresting memoir of 'Consent' asks: Does a marriage's end excuse its beginning?

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In her new memoir, "Consent," writer Jill Ciment revisits a turning point of her early life and has some second thoughts. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Ciment has given readers a brave and beautiful variant on the #MeToo memoir. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: If, as some wise people have said, our lives are made out of the stories we tell ourselves, then Jill Ciment is having second thoughts about one of the core stories of her life. In her slim, bold, new memoir called "Consent," Ciment picks up not the proverbial pen but an X-Acto knife to slice away earlier, more neatly packaged stories of her first meeting and long marriage to her husband, Arnold. Jill met Arnold in 1970 when she enrolled in one of his art classes. When they began sleeping together, she was 17. He was a 47-year-old married father of two. In fact, Arnold's teenage daughter was the same age as Jill. Their eventual marriage seems to have been a happy one. It lasted 45 years until Arnold's death in 2016 at the age of 93.

Does a story's ending excuse its beginning? Can a love that starts with such an asymmetrical balance of power ever right itself? Ciment draws us readers into the process of mulling over these and other tough questions in this arresting memoir. Ciment wrote an earlier memoir called "Half A Life" that covered much of the same sexual and romantic terrain. May-December unions also purveyed her writing, most recently in the incisive 2019 novel "The Body In Question." But the #MeToo movement has cast a colder light on such liaisons, causing Ciment to wonder about how she's understood, until recently, the key relationship of her life. Wonder is the crucial word here. Ciment is a rigorous self-interrogator who isn't interested in simply switching out her old narratives about her forbidden romance and marriage for something more contemporary and censoring.

On my last night of art class, Ciment writes, I dawdled in the hall until the other students were finished. As soon as they were gone, I slipped back into the classroom and shut the door behind me. Arnold was leaning against a window frame, arms folded, eyes shut, yawning. I unbuttoned the top three buttons of my peasant blouse, crossed the ink-splattered floor and kissed him. He kissed me back, then stopped himself. But that isn't quite the way things happened, Ciment admits now. Arnold kissed her. Ciment mulls over her motivations for tampering with the unfolding of events in that earlier memoir. Was I protecting Arnold? Was I protecting my marriage? We had just celebrated our 27th anniversary.

Portraying herself as a teenage seductress, Ciment implies, was preferable to painting Arnold as a groomer, a predator, if in fact that's what he was. Ciment certainly isn't the first memoirist to publicly rewrite aspects of her life story. Maybe the most famous instance of this type of autocorrection is Mary McCarthy's classic 1957 memoir "Memories Of A Catholic Girlhood." In that book, McCarthy tells the story of losing her parents and being raised by a series of odd and inadequate relatives. But at the end of most chapters, McCarthy adds italicized commentary in which she corrects herself and sometimes admits she just outright lied in the preceding pages.

McCarthy and Ciment, two unsentimental women, seem to me to be autobiographical sisters under the skin. In their memoirs, both share the conviction that the truth, however elusive and hard it may be, is worth searching for, even as they recognize that the lies we tell ourselves can be just as revealing of who we really are.

MOSLEY: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Jill Ciment's new memoir called "Consent." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Questlove talks about his new book, "Hip-Hop Is History," a detailed look at hip-hop over the decades from his perspective as a performer and historian of the genre. He also talks about vulnerability and how he came to embrace it. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

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MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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