I’ve always found eulogies disturbing, but not for the usual reasons. Eulogies have always irked me because they so often ring of falsehood. They are one person’s version of the truth, and often a highly flawed version at that. Hearing family members and friends wax poetic about someone else’s happiness and inner peace never feels like a tribute to me; it feels like a slap in the face, a kick to the nuts. Eulogies often pillage a person’s life of all nuance and ambiguity and shoot out a polished and rote version of a life. In fairness, it is not the dead that request this adulation. The rose coloured glasses are for the living. And even though I understand the need of the living to process death on their own terms, eulogies as they are delivered often strike me as a fundamentally selfish act. I comb the obituary section of the local newspapers on the regular. I skim through the formulaic words about who is being left behind and how the deceased spent the early years of their life, what charities they gave to etc. This sanitized chronicle doesn’t interest me. I search for a cause of death or details about a marriage of 50 years rent asunder by mortality. I am looking for something resembling bare truth, crystallized and shining among so many platitudes and banalities.
This week has been filled with many conversations with friends and family about my blog. It all started with an email from my Dad last week, an e-mail I read at two am, wherein my dad expressed his concern over things I have written. I believe he was hurt by some of the things I said, by the way he thinks I view him, and by the way he worries others might view him. He said that readers of the blog would probably think geez, what a jerk. He said he didn’t object to the facts per se, but that he felt the portrayal of him was lopsided. He hoped some of the nicer things he has done over the years and some of the nicer things I have said about him will also make into the blog. He also asked me not to write about his current wife and her family. He said this should be easy as they have played a very small role in my life.
My mom had an almost opposite reaction. She said she does quibble with the facts. She said I need to check my facts. For example, I wrote than no one in my family has been to college. My mom told me this week that she has an associate’s degree and that my great grandmother was one of the first women to graduate with a degree in agriculture from Mcgill. These were things I didn’t know. Or perhaps had forgotten. She said she wasn’t curled up in the fetal position for a year. She said she did sleep on the couch, but it was only because she had whooping cough, and not because she was depressed, as I had remembered it. She said that this was the actual truth.
My husband was surprisingly supportive. I told him I needed lots of hugs and he gave me lots of hugs. But he also quietly suggested, what seemed to him an easy solution, maybe you should just NOT write about your family? After more discussion and a couple sleepless nights he understood the impracticality of this injunction and in order to advise me quoted a couple of pop culture’s most influential figures. He adapted Kendrick Lamar’s words, saying the other writers give people diabetes, but you don’t sugar coat it. He quoted an entire scene from Seinfeld verbatim. Those aren’t Peterman’s pants stories, he said, those are your pants stories. Those are your stories.
While going to graduate school for creative writing, my colleagues and I talked at length about what it means to be a writer of nonfiction. Write like everyone you know is dead, Joe R Lansdale, a writer of memoir once said. Meaning, if you get too bogged down in how things look on the outside, you risk not writing anything real or resonant. I have yet to meet someone who actually writes as if everyone they know is dead. I certainly don’t. I think this is part of what surprised me about my parents’ response to the blog. This is me CENSORED, I told my mom. This IS censored. In graduate school I wrote and published, but obscure literary journals pale in comparison to a blog’s ability to reach a wide audience almost immediately, and though I have internally grappled with these questions for a long time, publishing on a blog brought them to the forefront. As I have said before, I was raised to worry about other people’s feelings before my own and the caretaker/peacemaker in me wars wildly with the writer.
The shock my parents felt in reading the blog, and the shock I felt at their shock, is partially indicative of the gulf between us, of everything that remains unspoken within a family, of the calcification of one version of events over another, despite the fact that no one version of the truth can claim dominion over another. Mary Karr writes that in her family they joke that the trouble started when you hit me back. Everyone has their version of events, seen through the prism of the age they were when things happened, the time that has passed since, the events that have passed since, their need to deny and not come up against their own shit, their need to protect themselves and those around them etc. I tried to explain this to my mom. I told her that as a child whose world was turned upside down overnight, I remembered her lying on the couch for a year incapacitated, in a ball. Incidentally, I told her that this seemed like a very reasonable reaction to being left to care for three emotionally overwrought children on your own, not to mention abandoned. She said, you weren’t a child, you were 14. I said, to me, 14 is a child. She said, that neighbour who you said tried to kiss you when you were 12, he wasn’t a neighbour. I said, he was Grandad’s neighbour when we stayed with him for over a month in Mexico, to me that’s a neighbour. My mom said, I didn’t know about all the things other parents said about you in high school. And I said yes you did. I can distinctly remember her snubbing parents in the mall because of those very comments. You can see how the truth can be slippery. It’s not that her version is right and my version is wrong or vice versa, only that experience, interpretation, and the passage of time colour the way we remember things.
Neurologically speaking, what we often remember is the emotion of the moment, while the details become fuzzy or even alter completely over time. Think of the controversy that exploded when A Million Tiny Pieces was published. Or the controversy of John Kraukauer’s Into Thin Air. Both authors were accused of fictionalizing and fabricating; they were burned at the stake and forced to publicly confess, revise, and excise.
Fiction writers make up events and nonfiction writers tell the truth. Right? My husband who is not a reader or a writer always asks me to remind him of the difference. I get frustrated and stomp my foot while rolling my eyes while sighing. How many times have I explained this to you? But actually his confusion is closer to the truth than my certainty. When you read enough and know enough writers you come to understand that while nonfiction writers by necessity, and sometimes preference, take certain liberties with chronology, dialogue, and interpretation, fiction writers are often composing thinly veiled narratives of true events. Mary Karr calls fiction a tiny “fig leaf”.
And then there is the fact that all events are subject to the lens of the storyteller and to the distortions of time. In her book The Art of Memoir Mary Karr tells the story of Mary McCarthy who stalwartly claimed that Mussolini rode and was thrown off her bus in 1943 in Hyannis, Massachusetts. In actual fact, the driver had pulled over to the curb to inform the passengers of breaking news: They’ve thrown Mussolini out, he exclaimed. Mary Karr also tells of David Carr who wrote in his book about a show-down with an armed and deranged man in an alley. Years later, he discovered he had it wrong. In fact, HE was the armed deranged man with a gun. This is the unreliability of memory. Many and better essays have been written on this topic, but for now, lets try to agree that memory is unreliable and inherently biased. There is no one version of the truth.
Some things however, are outright lies. Like Binjamin Wilkomirski, who wrote a memoir based on his horrific experiences in Nazi concentration camps, but who was later uncovered as a fraud. He had never lived in Switzerland, he was not even Jewish. Then there was Misha DeFonseca who wrote an entirely fictional memoir about being raised by wolves after escaping from the Nazi’s. And Herman Rosenblaut who won an endorsement on Oprah Winfrey for his never published Angel at the Fence, which detailed the heartbreaking but fictional love story between a concentration camp inmate and a young German girl. In spite of these more egregious examples, most memoirs, personal essays, and stories told over coffee stop short at outright fabrication and falsehood. They are subject to both the distortions of memory, as well as to our own personal biases. It is the memoirist’s job to subject this lens to scrutiny, to question the nature of memory and to expose the innards of the process for the reader. In this respect my mom was right when she said she wanted me to make explicit my relationship with memory, to write a disclaimer so that my audience would know that this wasn’t the official version of events. Initially I bristled at this. Mom! Did Joan Didion say in every single sentence THIS IS JUST A MEMORY! Did Tobias Wolff? Did Mary Karr? I’m NOT going to write THIS IS JUST A MEMORY every time I say something. And I’m not, but she was right that I need to expose more of the machinations of remembrance, that I need to examine more of my own motivations for shaping a narrative in a particular way, for including some details and not others.
What is more problematic for me than the nature of memory, is my parent’s emotional reactions to the content. Both parents were dismayed to see themselves portrayed in what they felt was an unflattering, and in some cases, they felt, dishonest light. This made me feel bad. I didn’t eat for 48 hours. I called every writer friend I know. I forced my sister, roommate, and two friends to read every blog entry then gather in the living room and tell me if I was mean or evil or sociopathic. My sister said that she herself was kind of scared but she said don’t stop. Keep writing. She also said that her only criticism was that, sometimes you apologize and explain away your feelings too much. She said, take up the space you need. She said if you hate weddings, say you hate weddings. My most trusted writer friend Ted, told me that he had one reaction to this dilemma as a person and a separate reaction as a writer. Which perfectly describes the conflict in my heart between the tiny peacemaker/caretaker charging with a miniature spear at the lilliputian writer. Ultimately, Ted said, sometimes these things can open up conversations that never would have happened. He said they could be opportunities for relationships to grow. He said, it feels awful for your parents and it feels awful for you, but its just growing pains. My trusted counsellor friend and life guru said stay true Jax. She told me my parents would figure it out and would love me through this.
I believe that both my parents want the world to know they were good parents as well as bad, and that my childhood was filled with joy and not just angst. World, you should know this. For me this goes without saying, but for many people their children are their life’s work, and thus they feel that the child they put out into the world speaks directly to their success as human beings. Their child feels like a testament to what they have achieved or failed to achieved in this life. The stakes are high for misrepresentation. I think my parents feel this way. While I have many positive things to say about my parents, I resist doing so under duress.
In a family where you have always worried more about other people’s feelings than your own, you have always subsumed your own narrative for other people’s preferred story. That is where the shock comes in. Writing can be an act of reclamation and empowerment. In fact, narrative therapy rests on this very theoretical assumption. In narrative therapy, clients are encouraged to tell and then retell their narrative, reordering and re-shaping events in such a way that they are made both coherent and empowering. And so while I understand my parents’ hurt at some of the things that were left unsaid (it seems the unsaid words troubled them more than those that were actually said), I resist the injunction to alter my version of the truth to conform to their needs. I have every intention of being sensitive and mindful and as accurate as possible, but these considerations will inevitably always remain constrained by the limitations of my own memory.
Cheryl Strayed told her students to find the true, truer, truest story. But after all is said and done, these are just memories. They are not facts. Isn’t it weird that in the age of excessive documentation, of incessant Instagram posts and shares and stories, of blogs and Facebook and email and tweets and iPhones with sophisticated cameras and iclouds bouncing around in the ether pregnant with pixels and gigabits and megabytes and data that supposedly contain the truth-isn’t it funny that the truth becomes even more difficult to ascertain? Along with all the aforementioned examples of data and data storage comes the knowledge of filters and photoshop and ways to delete and edit. My husband recently said, while looking at my instagram page: You know, filters are really….2014. Everyone knows when you use a filter. People want to see something real. While you might be able to remove a filter from the camera, you still framed the photo, chose the lighting, chose who to tag, chose the hashtag, decided which photos to keep and which to delete, which photos to post and which to save to the cloud. Your instagram is not a representation of your life as it is, but rather a representation of your life as you choose it, as shaped by you, and as shaped by so many forces operating under the surface of awareness. People want to see something real.
I made my sister promise I am not destroying my life on the Internet. She confirmed that I was not. But she also said, maybe a little bit of destruction is a good thing. Maybe destroying your life a little bit is necessary. These are the growing pains Ted was talking about. Having these conversations over the past week has been painful, but not unequivocally bad. I’ve lost some sleep and I’ve lost a couple pounds, but I’ve learned a few things too. More on this later. For now, know, that this blog is full of, not facts, just my memories. Don’t write about family. Check your facts. Write a truer version of the truth. Don’t write about him, her, them, this. Stay true. Keep writing. They are just my memories, but they are also just MY memories, meaning they are my stories to tell, as I see them, as I remember them, but they are not facts, just memories.