An image from "Book of Ruth" by Robert Seydel. (Robert Seydel / Siglio Press )
Over the weekend, a piece by Alexander Stille on the New York Times Opinionator blog raised some interesting questions about the family memoir. Stille is writing about his Aunt Lally, whom he describes as a compulsive hoarder, but what he’s really getting at is complicity.
Here he is, on the conundrum faced by any author who dips into the dangerous territory of family:
“The writer is taking events that belong to several people, appropriating them for himself, and turning them into something that feels alien to those who have lived them. I was asking Lally to read about a piece of her own life placed in the context of my parents’ lives and told in my voice instead of her own. Moreover, I had eliminated masses of detail and greatly foreshortened various characters’ roles to focus on what was, for me, the main story: my parents and their marriage. It must have been like seeing someone else wearing your favorite coat: it would look recognizable, but totally different and totally wrong.”
Stille nails the basic issue nicely: that in a work of literary nonfiction, a memoir, the people in our lives become not themselves but characters. And yet, they also continue to walk and talk, to live and breathe, outside the pages of the book, making for an uncomfortable tension between their lives as we imagine them and as they are.
So what’s a memoirist to do? For Stille, who has just published “The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace,” the solution was to give his aunt the manuscript and engage her in a conversation about how she was portrayed. It’s a noble gesture but fraught with its own risks, as he learned when she provided him with a 30-page “counternarrative.”
Better, I'd suggest, to accept that by pursuing family stories, we are always co-opting those we love, compromising their privacy as we compromise our own. They have no choice how we write about them, as Stille proves when he tells his aunt what he is and isn’t willing to change.
I think of Robert Seydel’s “Book of Ruth,” which came out last year and uses art and text to represent the inner, or dream, world of the artist’s aunt, “a Sunday painter who worked days in a bank” and shared a small apartment in Queens with her brother Saul. It’s a very different sort of book, not memoir, or re-creation, so much as a collage of the imagined life.
And yet, it gets at a fundamental truth about this sort of project: that the writer, or creator, is the final (only?) arbiter, the voice through which the story must be told. Even when, as in Seydel’s book, the intent is tribute, the key responsibility is to the work itself.
That’s not to say there are no ethics to the memoir or that we are allowed by the genre’s necessary disclosures to be cavalier or cruel. But it does imply a certain ruthlessness, which the memoirist must apply to him or herself as much as anyone. Memoir is not about revenge, but it is about revelation, which is, I think, what Stille is getting at when he writes about his aunt.
“Within this kind of work,” he concludes, “there is inherent conflict. The characters in a memoir are not real people, but inevitably feed on the blood of the living like vampires. And so it is entirely natural for those real people to defend their identities as if they were fighting for their lives.”
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