I am writing a memoir about aging. My mother died two years ago, and with her death a profound shift in personal boundaries took place. My mother’s last words to me were “Go to hell! Go to hell!” She uttered this from her hospital bed with great, scowling clarity after three weeks in which she’d been described on her hospital chart as “vegetative.”
What had I done, or not done? Was she really talking to me? I was startled, appalled, and painfully, very painfully, amused—almost exhilarated. This gentle mother given to sudden rages was the mother I remembered from childhood. This mother, my mother, hooked up to IVs, her hair finally grown out white after years of claiming that her “natural” color remained “raven,” was still alive. Her story was not yet over. And even now, after the disturbing rituals of my mother’s funeral and the traditional Jewish unveiling of her headstone a year later, I find myself constructing her story daily, her many stories, stories that overlap with mine, stories that then diverge.
My mother told lies, though she would have denied it. She lied about her age, she lied about money. Routine lies. And she also lied about my reading scores when I was in the third grade and she was the substitute teacher in my classroom, proctoring the exam, whispering unwanted hints and answers to me while patrolling the aisles. Her lies shamed me. I wasn’t good enough, she’d invented a different daughter. Yet she bragged about me. When I was twenty-three she lied, unforgivably, to her friends about my abrupt and excruciating divorce from a crazy artist (“Carole loves being a housewife,” she told them for the next two years). “Little exaggerations,” she called her claims, challenged by my fury when I realized she expected me to assist in her cover-up. “People don’t care, they don’t need to know everything.”
“If they don’t care, you shouldn’t bother lying to them!”
“Did you ever hear of the larger truth? Do you realize what people would think of you otherwise?”
“Or, more to the point, what they’d think about you?”
My words made her cry. That was our pattern. She cried or I cried. She raged or I raged. The rest of the time we were loving to each other
My mother was a painter, but she regarded whatever she framed in language as a kind of magic, a powerful protection for both of us, a charm. She was fending off evil. She renamed and reshaped. She regarded her own words the way a medieval alchemist regarded the tools of his trade. She transmuted; she tried to convert the base metal of our lives into gold with her words. She was a caring mother, if unreliable, full of wonder, her heavy-lidded dark eyes aglow as she “corrected” reality to the way it should be.
My mother’s interest in words turned out to be one of her crucial endowments to me. I too am fascinated by the power of naming, the way language conceals and reveals, and how words shape reality. I began writing a memoir after my mother’s death because I needed to tell the truth, to find the right words, to find the right order for them. I needed to find my truths, truths about my life and hers, even if the “truths” were contradictory and skewed. But writing about my dead mother, after so many years of writing fiction about her while she was alive, felt treacherous, urgent—frightening and possibly shameful. The narrative of fiction, officially labeled, had enabled me to disguise my “truth” as a “lie.” In fiction I dramatized and evoked ideas and experiences through barely or thoroughly disguised “characters” who created a conceptual pattern. Yet somehow I don’t think this was what my mother had meant when she talked about the “larger truth.”
For weeks after her burial I slouched in front of my computer, at first driven by frantic energy and vivid observations I had to get out. But later, chin cupped, gazing past my office desk and out the window at a blank, watery sky, self-doubt crept in. The demon of self-censorship kept rearing its Hydra-like head. Disloyal daughter! Badfamily member! What would my brothers and sister say? When I finally began a memoir written in the voice of fiction—the emphatic, hectic if sometimes leisurely voice of the storyteller—I strengthened that voice with the rigors of verifiable fact and critical analysis that I had developed in college teaching of literature over the years.
It is not easy to separate fact from fiction. In a sense, all constructions of the past, of the well-known characters of our inner and outer world, invented or reinvented by memory, are constructions of fiction, an artificial arrangement, prioritizing one detail over another. How do I select and arrange the details, and what do they mean? The construction itself is imagined, a form of a lie.
Still, people should read fiction for “a dose of truth,” I regularly tell my college students, particularly when those students define nonfiction and fiction as “true” and “not true.” I want to goad them past facile assumptions. Fiction, I tell them, capitalizes on resonances and ambiguity of “the lie,” pressing words and images into service as symbols and story. And memoir, I was discovering, could also speak of more than itself.
I was already writing my memoir, a form chosen because it reminded me to stick to the verifiable facts of my mother’s life and my own, when two literary scandals occurred, one concerning a fiction writer, J.T. Leroy and, the other a writer of a best-selling memoir, James Frey. Both authors stood accused of faking literary identities. The cachet of J.T. Leroy’s fiction had been “his” elusive persona; though photographed in sunglasses and a light, mop-like toupee, the notoriously “shy” Leroy turned out not be a young AIDS-ridden male sex hustler from West Virginia, but a middle-aged San Francisco woman who had pursued a creative writing degree in New York, and a second woman who impersonated “him” in public. Frey, on the other hand, author of A Million Little Pieces, had boasted manfully of being brutally truthful and self-taught: “I don’t give a fuck about [being] part of the literati,” he scoffed.
Frey was a media darling who became a media target. First honored and endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and her book club, Frey’s tough-guy tale of drug addiction and harsh cure was exposed on the internet as riddled with make-believe. He was immediately lambasted in a frenzy of media self-righteousness. When Frey admitted that he’d first tried to sell this book as fiction, been turned down by five publishers, then re-shopped the same book as “memoir,” Oprah, embarrassed (“I never read a book of such unflinching honesty!” she’d gushed to her audience earlier on air), called him back to her show. By that time, Frey had become the poor shivering mortal to Oprah’s outraged Homeric goddess whose temple he had defiled and for which sacrilegious act he would be hounded to death. His tough guy mask had already slipped to the extent that he’d brought his own mother to testify about his character onto the Larry King TV show and I’d watched, thinking, what comedy. How absurd. Imagining my own mother alive and testifying for me before cameras, patting my hair into place, swatting me lightly on the back as she hissed, “Sit up straight! Don’t slouch!” made me cringe. I was sympathetic to Frey’s claim that he was only telling his own “subjective truth,” but he seemed—in making up literal events—to be crossing ethical lines.
Memoir, of course, is an evolving form. It is different from journalism, or biography, or even autobiography, although it can contain elements, or even the forms, of all of those. But to me, after all this attention to it, the genre began to feel beside the point. Good literature is what I want to read—and to write. Art, in any form, is genuinely “moving.” That is, it shifts your perception of the world, both internal and external, so that when you emerge from the imaginative universe, familiar people and events and even the geography look slightly different to you. Yet confessional writing about sensational topics has popularized the memoir recently, and made it a more commercial genre for the big publishers than “fiction.” Publishers know that readers prefer to view their own dark undersides, their shadow selves, through the lens of sensational and usually redemptive confession. The illusion of truth is cherished as “fact,” well-packaged for easy spectacle and drama. “Culture” has become big business. Books and authors are commodities. The media fascination and the scandal of deceit illustrates the primary commoditization of “the author”–commoditized as is everything in our lives these days, including our experiences and even, more dangerously, the shape of our imagination. The “meaning” of books is flattened to what we think we already know about the authors’ lives.
Why is it important? Why is the public so anxious that authors be who they say they are? Frey is a bad boy, and Leroy, unmasked, a bad girl. We live in an unstable world we know to be suffused by lies, enormous political lies, huge corporate lies, and what can only be referred to as “publicity”—publicity that is unanalyzed and lies that are insufficiently challenged. We seem to be looking for “morals,” as in modern fairy tales, and not for meaning. The unveiling of lies in the Frey memoir and in the underlying assumption about the author and “his” background in Leroy’s case feels like a kind of creepy grace note to the cult of celebrity and gossip that has substituted for inner life in our culture.
Thinking about all this and the art of the memoir affected my writing. It made me a little nervous, I admit, about the publishing future of the memoir form, and uneasy about the accuracy of my memory. Maybe I just need another word for what it is that I am doing, another word I can’t yet find for stories that are unfolding from memory. Yet memory itself is constantly shifting. There are many different ways of seeing an event or a series of events as you go through life and change your viewing perspective. For instance, I am not the same person in relation to my mother that I was as a child, or even, as it turns out, as I was last week when I was thinking about her. So what I am writing and what shape it takes is still not pinned down for me as I work. Nor do I want it pinned down artificially by a pre-packaged form. My bottom line is unchanged. I want to tell the truth. The truth has many facets, many ways that it can be viewed. I think Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: A Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is stunning because it employed fictional techniques to portray not only the characters, but also our reliance on language to understand the shifty and shifting nature of what we represent and what is represented to us as the factual world.
As an aging woman living in a puzzling period of history, I am trying to figure out what my story means—what my story is—as I write and rewrite it. I am examining my patterns of association and paying closer attention to details of chronology, place, and event. But right now, it’s a little scary to be surrounded by so much uncertainty, not just personal uncertainty, but huge global and national uncertainties—climate change, looming species extinction, war, terrorist attack, the fraught economy? We live in a world in which we are bombarded by “news.” By sound bytes, actually. It is a world which feels more and more slippery, our own myths of progress sliding away from us quickly in the present political matrix. It must mean something that “reality shows” are the most popular and profitable for the TV networks. Why are people so willing to settle for this oversimplified, overmediated presentation? To both feed our imagination and to trivialize it, everything—even our most complex experience—is reduced to the common denominator of gossip. (Not that I dislike gossip, which has both its uses and pleasures.)
Maybe I too am a liar of sorts. I am trying not to be.
But if and when my memoir is published, I am worried about more now than hearing the phone ring and my sister or brother yelling in my ear, “This is not how it happened! Mom is not like that! This is not right!” I worry these days that because the world is so unstable, we are trying to make memory seem more solid and material than it is, in order to make it reliable. When illusions are dispersed, it reminds us that everything else we “think we know” may be an illusion too, and the world is revealed as a very scary place. I worry that the imagination itself is threatening because of its ambiguity, the uncertainty of where you end up when you are “moved” by art.
My mother would have loved her own funeral. The testimonials, the attention, friends traveling from great distances, the loving jokes. But she would have hated the next year’s unveiling. We put pebbles on the headstone of her grave and then left, heatedly negotiating distribution of her jewelry and paintings, and arguing over the headstone dates because my mother had destroyed most of the documents that gave away her true age.
It was after the unveiling, cleaning out my mother’s house, that I began packing up my mother’s painting, her own work that she’d exhibited, and discovered forgotten portraits she had created of me. I’d forgotten too until then how she always “corrected” my features in her paintings for public viewing, just as she’d always “corrected” my truths. Could I blame her now if she’d wanted a more idealized daughter? She’d also wanted a more idealized life. At first, I didn’t even recognize myself in these old portraits. I looked like any generic and sentimentally perceived dark-haired, dark-eyed pretty girl. Had I been so bland and pretty? There are photographs, of course, and family snapshots. Photos too are relics that seal themselves in memory. I remembered how often my mother bragged about her wonderful memory. “You have a wonderful memory too,” she often flattered me, trying to bypass disagreement we might have had about facts.
It was during that last housekeeping that I accidentally discovered my mother’s old diaries. They had to be excavated from archaeological layers of papers and clothes. In them she’d recorded her goals as an artist and her happiness with small things, a freshly painted apartment, a new friend, her child’s first days of school—and she recorded her unhappinesses too, thought rarely their source. I found many diary entries curiously at odds with my own child’s memory of events during those same times. My father’s absences, for instance, had been shorthanded along with his political activities during the fifties into “lodge meetings”—an understandable evasion during those McCarthyist times.
But with prodding, memory unseals as well. The past and present engage in ongoing dialogue. We know the present through the past and the other way around. Distinctions dissolve, even as I write about them.