‘Yokohama Threeway’ a captivating and cringeworthy memoir

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The memoir is the most tiresome kind of book. College students are given them as poorly concealed advice, and they all amount to the same thing. The author compiles the best and most flattering parts of her life and rolls them into something like the highlights of an autobiography. The best memoirs, though, focus on something compelling and specific. Beth Lisick’s “Yokohama Threeway and Other Small Shames” is utterly unlike any memoir a reader has ever encountered.

“Yokohama Threeway” is Lisick’s life told in a series of cringe-worthy episodes of freaking out, fear and failure. She offers stories in which she is gross, inadequate and cowardly. Lisick takes those moments in life that people will do anything to forget and honors them with power and poetry, recognizing them as forces that changed who she is.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Lisick described the process by which this unusual memoir was conceptualized. “I thought, ‘What if I made a list of all the memories that made me physically cringe?’ ” she said. She decided to make the list of embarrassing moments on a flight from San Francisco to New York. “By the time I landed, I had like 62 things. I realized that this would kind of be the nail in the coffin of my memoir writing, to put out the stories with the most angst. But I had to trust it. This was the only book I had to write.” She emphasized the word “had” like she had been driven to this by an impulse she could not deny.

“Yokohama Threeway” is full of stories of humiliation and anguish, but they’re all the kind of thing to which almost anyone can relate. In one, Lisick fails to establish boundaries with an older man. In another, she embarrasses a pair of celebrities with a poorly planned party. One of the worst involves an intimate experience of hygiene administered by a kind but horrified lover. When asked which she felt the worst story was, Lisick chose one of her first.

“The one about never defending my brother when he needed it,” she said. “That one still gets me. That one really hurts.” In the story to which she is referring, a much younger Lisick overhears playground bullies tearing into her brother. It’s a heartbreaking moment of weakness but one nearly everyone has experienced in some form.

Lisick also wrote “Helping Me Help Myself,” a memoir of a year spent trying out various forms of self-help. With a billion-dollar industry telling her not to relive her failures or allow them to define her, Lisick did the exact opposite. She undertook the brutal business of telling the most unflattering truths about how she became the person she is today.

When asked why she went where authors fear to tread, Lisick was blunt. “I think it’s really good to feel shame,” she said. “It’s productive to look at your failures. I almost exclusively define myself by my failures. You learn stuff when you fail.”

Other writers have approached failures with a positive outlook, always striving to relate the worst in life to the best. Lisick rebels against the platitudinous outlook of glamorized memoirs. “It’s such a big part of our culture, putting a spin on failure,” she said. “I think we just need to let things be terrible and bad and shameful. To have regrets. The idea of no regrets — you know what? You should have regrets. I don’t walk around thinking, ‘I’ve been famous, I’ve done all these things.’ I walk around thinking that I didn’t know how to wash my ass properly until I was 20 years old.”

“Yokohama Threeway” is a rare work. It’s hilarious in parts and terrifying in others. It is a funhouse mirror in which Lisick’s failures reflect the reader’s and force us always to look into our pasts. In the author’s haunting words, it is a book that looks back and says, “I built that. I couldn’t apologize enough.”

Meg Elison covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]