“Nothing is sacred anymore when your underwear is hanging in your trees.”
NAKED: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina was selected as the 2014 Readers’ Favorites Best Memoir Bronze Medal winner, and nominated for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters nonfiction award. I selected it for review from Book Club Reading List.
In the summer of 2005, Julie Freed’s life was torn completely apart. At the same time that her earthly possessions were decimated by Hurricane Katrina, her marriage imploded, leaving her to pick up the pieces of her life and to take care of her one-year-old daughter. NAKED is a true-life story of cataclysmic loss, but also of redemption and of birthing a new, better life from the ashes of the old.
Told with Maturity and Compassion
One thing I so appreciate about this memoir is how readable it is. Freed, a self-proclaimed academic with virtually no creative writing background, displays a keen understanding of plot and story structure. It is non-fiction, yes, and reads as such; in other words, it does not feel unduly embellished for effect. But it also does not read like a diary or a series of loosely connected blog posts, but rather, finely crafted episodes that play out in a chronology that makes sense and also engages the reader’s interest. Freed’s memoir begins with the shocking revelation that her husband, to whom she thought she was happily married, either wants her to have copious amounts of sex with him, or he wants a divorce. Freed spends the next few chapters in an interesting flashback of sorts, showing how things got to that point, and then spends the remainder of the book showing how she managed to pick up the pieces of her life. By the end, it is easy to feel like you know Julie, you know her ex-husband–at least…you know enough–and if you don’t exactly sympathize with his life choices, you at least have a pretty good understanding of how he got to where he did.
What amazed me most about NAKED was the compassion with which Ms. Freed wrote about events and people that basically obliterated her life. Make no mistake, there was no excusing of past wrongs, no explaining away of bad choices–just as one cannot mitigate the damage of a hurricane simply by saying “Oh, well, that’s just what a hurricane does.” Rather, Freed showed a mature understanding and acceptance of her pain and her trouble. She took us into the thick of it, the raw of it, the actual digging around in the rubble of her former existence. And then she brought us out of it–not to be too cliche–not unlike a phoenix from the ashes.
I appreciated that Ms. Freed, for the most part, steered clear of the dangerous precipice of sentimentality. Maybe that is some readers’ cup of tea, but it is not mine. I like it when a memoirist draws a lesson out of their experience (why write the memoir, if not?) but there is a fine line between that and outright didacticism. My feeling was that NAKED stayed within parameters of the former while steering well clear of the latter.
“All our homes had been shattered to nothing. Our belongings scattered in our yards and into the Gulf. We had all been reduced to our naked selves. No one could hide behind their possessions, beautiful landscaping, home furnishing, and real estate. Katrina served as a tremendous normalizing event.”
I went into NAKED knowing very little about the particulars of the story, and I think that was a good way to go in. I believe it is a memoir that would appeal to a wide variety of readers. From a purely human interest standpoint, it is a first-person account of surviving Hurricane Katrina, which should be reason enough to recommend it. For another thing, it is a story about something too many of us can relate to: divorce. The collapse of family life. The perpetuation of family dysfunctionality. But more importantly… NAKED highlights the strength of family and friends. Furthermore, it serves as a reminder not to assign too much value to stuff, but to hold fast to more enduring things, like education, sense of self, and the relationships that will carry us through any storm.