“I didn’t want to write a memoir,” writes Danielle Chapman in the preface to…her memoir. In the hands of another writer, the sentence might feel like false modesty: My story simply had to be told, despite my own best efforts. Or like advertising: My story is so shocking, so shameful. Turn the page!
But Danielle Chapman is a poet. She knows that words matter; she chose these introductory ones carefully, and she means them. Her slim memoir Holler contains plenty of pain—pain, the reader understands, it really might have been easier to leave unsaid. In Chapter One, Chapman’s father drowns in a snorkeling accident while she watches from the beach. She was only a toddler—lying on a towel underneath a sky that “darkened to a bruise.” Then, suddenly, a Styrofoam innertube, and a man, “bellowing like a viking as he dove,” swimming out in an attempt to save her parents, her father’s head disappeared beneath the waves. “To my own psyche, it’s gospel, the origin of consciousness,” Chapman writes of the scene.
Gospel, too, is the story of her “mother’s salvation,” offered as a kind of confession: “God told me I had to live to take care of you.” As she does occasionally throughout Holler, Chapman turns to literature to help her make sense of life’s ambiguities. In this case, Chapman’s text is Shakespeare’s King Lear, that “genius of perfect ambivalence, a stalemate between faith and despair, catastrophe and miracle, death and love, in which each side can claim the victory according to their temperament.” Her mother had “wanted to die” as her husband’s hand slipped from her grip. In that moment, she was Gloucester, ready to fling herself from the cliff. Ultimately, she chose to live. Ultimately, she was Edgar.
An entire memoir could be devoted to this childhood trauma. But it’s really only an introduction to what will consume the majority of Holler—and, in fact, only an introduction to the source of Chapman’s real reluctance to write her story down.
That reluctance relates not to her father, but to his father: Leonard Fielding Chapman, Jr., 24th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, the grandfather who takes the place of the dad she lost. It is Chapman’s “Papa,” a decorated hero laden with medals, who takes center stage, accompanied by a cast of Marine “warhorses,” Southern stalwarts, and other “salt of the earth” figures. These friends and relations, to put it mildly, are “problematic.” They spew racist invective, and tell terrible war stories, and recommend the film The Birth of a Nation. They shoot dogs who go on to wander in the dust for days, wounded but not dead. They womanize; they drink too much.
These “good country people” are also complicated; they hurt, and they are hurting. They eat peanut butter logs and play ruthless croquet. They take “nerve pills,” and have their legs amputated. They suffer from PTSD and poverty; they burst into tears at inopportune moments. Even beloved Papa—who by contrast is noble and dignified, well-positioned, well-connected, graceful and, it must be said, good—can occasionally be goaded into a slur, or tell a too-rosy tale about his family’s past. Chapman, as an adolescent, holds any racism “up in his face.” As an adult, she repents of her “tendency toward the grotesque, my eye for every exaggeration, my prosecution of every foible”—even as she retains the moral and political perspectives that made her call out the affronts.