“Unlocking: A Memoir of Family and Art,” by Nancy Pressley

Nancy Pressley

Reviewed by Honey Rand

Ever since Mary Karr put thoughts to paper in The Liars Club sharing her personal slice of life about “growing up, crazy,” writers have amped their disclosures of people and events in memoirs. As writers, that’s what we are often coached or compelled to do; put your experience on the page. Memoirs are disclosive and, often, explosive. In the last year, I’ve read memoirs by women who have lived lives but mostly wrote about certain events or aspects or people in their lives. One put herself through college as a dominatrix; another woman-of-a-certain age decided to seek and find relationships with a specific number of men after a hard divorce, and the resulting self-esteem issues shook her confidence. I’ve read memoirs about working as a maid and memoirs of love affairs with booze and birds and more. There are memoirs of detaching from parents, mourning, and keeping or releasing secrets. Each memoir focuses on a specific aspect or event in the writer’s life.

Unlocking is something different, closer to an autobiography. It’s mostly a chronological narrative of her life.

The writer, a lover of art, pursued formal and higher education, building a career on her passion for art and artists. She developed a successful career curating art, counseling museums, and even serving in government, providing and defending government grants for out-of-the-mainstream art.

But this story is not just about work.

The writer begins with a mystery of her origins and spends the first part of the book exploring it. She is seeking answers about how she came to be. She moves through her life, mostly chronologically, breaking with her father, going to college, discovering her passion, meeting her husband, and living her life.

She came of age at a time when women were beginning to assert themselves in the workplace. She struggled with balancing work and child-rearing. She left her job so that her husband could have his, and she fought through the exhaustion of having to be “the center of the family” and through illness and life changes. These are life events that too many women have lived, are living, or will live.

The writer tells us what happened, how she felt, and how the things that happened early in her life informed later decisions and reactions. She documents conflicts and challenges. She records feelings and responses.

Transformation is a compelling catalyst in most memoirs, at least the good ones. In an autobiography, people sometimes reveal, but it’s time that drives the story. This writer describes her transformation, the necessary healing that she needed, and eventually achieved, but I didn’t feel it with her, and I wanted to.

The difference between this book and others is that it represents a reasonably normal, successful life—her entire life. There are good times and bad, concerns about money, serious health challenges for a spouse, and later for the writer, and she is forthcoming about it all, including a family member with a debilitating substance abuse problem.

While the book includes pictures of family and art curated or collected, the writer only occasionally holds back the curtain to help us understand the world of art. Too much of it is listing with a technical explanation, dates, times, locations. In the memoir of the dominatrix the reader is invited into the sex business, arguably a place most of us will never go, though we can “experience” it as the writer channels what happened, how it felt, who did it with her, what the rooms were like, what the clients were like throughout the narrative.

Several times the writer says she is an empath, deeply feeling on behalf of other people. But, on the page, that just doesn’t come through—to someone who doesn’t know her. There is disclosure, and readers should be able to relate to various times of the writer’s life from having a baby to saying last goodbyes to loved ones. The empathy that the writer feels so acutely just isn’t sufficiently evocative to connect the reader to the telling.

This book describes a life led, a person that searched for her true self and eventually resolved her conflicts and questions sufficiently to enjoy whatever time is left.

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