A new friend tipped me off about a website (Zillow.com) for real estate business that shows houses when you type in the address. These are more detailed than Google maps and include the estimated value of the property, which is always interesting. But you won’t get anything out of them about my house -- it is below their notice. Google, however, will show where my house is if you can interpret the last few blocks. It won’t really go close enough for you to see the house.
An old friend of mine on the reservation was showing one of these satellite photo websites to some younger people, college-aged. He showed them Browning -- they were amazed. He went closer, to their street, and they were alarmed. He went to their house and they were irate, terrified and indignant! What RIGHT did anyone have to put their house on the Internet so that anyone could see where they lived?? It suddenly became apparent that the ancient art of staying disguised and in a hidden location was vital to being a Blackfeet and that showing their secret formerly hard-to-find place, esp to a bunch of white people, was like forcing them to become targets.
And again, when I was researching the bio of Bob Scriver and spending hours and hours sitting at a microfiche reader looking at old newspapers from the Thirties, one of the librarians became very upset. She said that she had “loved” [sic] Bob Scriver since she was a little kid and her family stopped at the museum to visit him. She had felt a special rapport with him and thought that for me to write about him would dispell his mystique and destroy her dream of some day being his special partner. (He’s been dead since 1999.) She thought that his privacy was sacred and, especially since I’d been married to him, I was desecrating his memory. (She had no idea what I was actually writing.)
I was the third of four wives and wise advisors told me that if I told the deplorable truth about the fourth wife -- even that she was a common-law wife -- I would be discredited and seen as jealous, inventing slander. A lawyer would be eager to seize on this opinion.
Publishers were scandalized by some of the stories I told, even though they were hardly shocking by today’s media standards, and even though they illustrated some relevant points. An early reader asked me whether what I wrote about, though almost expected by sophisticated coastal readers, might not get me bad consequences in a small rural town. (Suicide attempts. Around here they already know about mine but would never tell you.)
And now I come to “Running with the Bulls,” by Valerie Hemingway, who will know exactly what I’m talking about. Does it dispell the Hemingway writing mystique for her to tell about how he wrote, how much he used his own life, how much was discarded and what was hoarded or burned at his death? Will it discredit Mary Hemingway to tell whom she got angry with, how her own writing went, and how much she drank? (Indeed, how much they ALL drank!) And what about the worst scandal in the book -- not that Hemingway’s youngest son was a troubled man who went from being a cross-dresser, to a transvestite to a transgendered person -- but that he was so irresponsibly treated (years of repeated electroshock treatment and self-prescribed meds) and covered up for by colleagues, all the while “qualifying” as a doctor himself and treating patients.
Does all this make the book better or worse? And does a howl go up about her making money from a lot of pain and despair, claiming that she’s not entitled even though she’s also been a professional writer and editor all her life? Does that make the book better or worse? More or less worthy of being printed in a world that would love to have even his dirty socks? If the tables were turned, would Hemingway hesitate to write HER into a book?
This fall when my own bio of an ex-husband is published, I expect to hear the same outcry. And all the while the newspapers and magazines and even bookstores are crammed with exposes, some carefully analyzed matters of fact and some just junk.
So many times I see stories in the paper about people I know that verge on fantasy. If they printed the truth about some of these people, the lawyers would be on their doorstep the next day -- if not the cops. Some of it doesn’t matter -- it’s just promotion of artists, authors, festivals, towns. Once in a while it’s misguided, for instance, a person whom a judge sentenced harshly, unfairly it seemed to the green young reporter and the editor from back East who’d been here only months. There was no way for them to know that this person was being punished for other and worse history, the way the Mafia gets arrested for income tax evasion instead of murder. When I wrote to fill them in, they thought I was being personally vengeful, so I’ve never done that again. (Maybe I was.)
Writers, even newspaper writers, are after all only writing an interpretation of reality, a virtual selection constructed of what are understood to be facts. If they printed everything that might be relevant, it would be quite unreal and the papers would be hugely fat, impossible to digest.
A biographer is in a slightly different position than a news reporter. As our society becomes more open, less tolerant of secrets, more insistent on transparency right into the Confessional, these questions have also been raised by recent frank biographies of Zane Grey (he “romanced” young girls with the knowledge and cooperation of his wife, who was often related to them), Ernest Haycox (a cranky desk jockey not nice to his family), or Charlie Russell (who had been sterilized by VD and was so afraid of medical intervention that he probably died unnecessarily young because of a goiter that affected his heart). Can their fans survive the knowledge? Aren't the books and paintings unchanged?
If people know that writers, Indians and artists are essentially human like everyone else, will they love them anymore? Good question. That small-town librarian evidently thinks not. Some Indians have the same attitude -- that they should remain mysterious. Smart movie stars take the same line. I’m not so sure.