For most of her life, Sharon Harrigan has been haunted by questions surrounding her father’s death: He died in Michigan when she was 7, and the exact cause was shrouded in a fog. Her debut memoir, Playing with Dynamite, is about finding the courage to ask questions, to question her own memory and ultimately to question the stories we tell ourselves. But as she writes in the book, “It’s harder to untell than tell a story.” But this is what her memoir does. It pulls at the threads to unstitch a story she has told herself all of her life, and then stitches together a retelling.
She began by talking to her family about her father. “The first thing I found out is that my brother and I remembered things very differently,” says Harrigan. “That was kind of the impetus for the book.” She wondered, “how does the way that we block memories, even as small children, not knowing what we’re doing—maybe as a coping mechanism—how does that change our ideas and memories?”
Given this premise, Harrigan structures the memoir as a journey of discovery as she sifts through her family’s collective memory. The reader perches like a fly on the wall as she moves from Michigan to New York to Paris to Charlottesville. She realized, she says, “I had to make my search, my quest, visible.”
This requires a certain amount of vulnerability that, perhaps, fiction does not. “I think there’s a reason that a lot of people who eventually come out with a memoir start by telling the story in a different genre,” says Harrigan. “It is very hard to be that naked on the page.” She, in fact, did first attempt to write her family’s story as a novel. But, she says, “I was still obsessed with my father’s story and I realized that to go deep enough I actually had to tell the truth.”
Piece by piece, memory by memory, she reconstructs her father on the page. The resultant man is someone who adapts to life with only one hand after a dynamite accident, who feels compelled to perpetually prove himself and remains a risk-taker, a characteristic that pushes him to drive in dense fog where his life is cut short. Yet he is not the only one in the story who takes risks. Harrigan explains that the jacket design of her book—the cursive text of the title igniting an explosion—is “supposed to show that it’s the words themselves that are the fuse. That the person playing with dynamite is not only my father but me, the writer. Writing our stories is inherently taking a big risk.”
In writing memoir, Harrigan sees the risk from potential judgment by others or causing harm to people she loves. The self-examination and introspection required also left her open to self-judgment. There is a moment in the book when she realizes that one of the stories she told herself was that her brother was the kind of kid who got bullied, rather than considering the possibility that her father could be a bully and she, herself, a victim, too. She recognizes how victimhood in our culture can be this monolithic thing that doesn’t allow for complexity, for strength. She writes, “We tell ourselves stories, sometimes, at the expense of others.”
And as much as the book is about her father, in her journey she learns more about her mother, too. “I realized at a certain point that I went looking for my father and found my mother,” she says. “I started with a lot of questions and some of them I don’t have definitive answers for, but some of them I feel like I do.” More importantly, she is no longer afraid to ask.