Saturday, November 21, 2009


From the review of Yagoda’s “Memoir: A History” by Judith Shulevitz: “Ben Yagoda asks the question we’ve been waiting for: How do we know when we’re being duped? The answer is almost worth the delay, even though it’s a quotation from nearly a half-century ago: Think of the memoirist ‘as a person to whom you have just been introduced,’ a Times Book Review columnist named Raymond Walters Jr. wrote. ‘Size up as best you can the personality of the man or woman who is talking and take it constantly into consideration as you judge the truthfulness of what he has to say.’” For obvious reasons, Tim and I think about these questions.

Anyone who reads books carefully, anyone who has dealt with many people in a range of settings -- from those with every reason to deceive to those struggling hard to find rock bottom honesty -- ought to be able to reach a judgment. But it would be far from a guarantee. By now most grownups have come the conclusion that truth is conditioned on context anyway. (Since realizing that there is no “real truth” is part of being a grown-up, I’ve got a loop going here.) This evening’s movie, the second episode of the sixth season of “Wire in the Blood,” kept quoting Nietzche in which he says, “Power over Truth,” meaning what’s considered truth depends upon who has the power.

You already know about Barrus’ books, both by himself and with pseudonyms. (There were more than “Nasdijj” and, in fact, most genre writers use a lot of pen names.) Now, under our real names, Tim and I are writing a “Vook” which is such a new medium that no one can really define it except that it mixes electronic print with videos, so the context of “The Fallen and the Flight” is just as provisional as our credibility. No one knows how much power an ebook can generate, let alone money. Tim has frankly disguised the young men who make the videos. The only context for them is that they are members of Cinematheque, a guerrilla school for boys with art talent who want to get off the streets. They are intense and fragile at once, flammable. As an old lady, I find affinity with their HIV through my Diabetes II, so we’re all about blood and being stalked by death. The modern condition.

I got irritated with Tim the other day because he said he’d wanted to partner with me for my creds, which are academic rather than street-earned. He still has the idea that universities reward true achievement, can define it, put a value on it. He thinks that if I say he’s a genuine high grade artist (which I do believe) then people will stop blowing him off as an imposter. But I am not the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Anyway I long ago abandoned the illusion that a Ph.D. really means a lot more than that you’ve paid out a lot of money and jumped through a lot of hoops. Even being ordained is more political than sacramental. The lifeline I could throw him in this regard is pretty frayed. I want him to write with me because he likes my writing. It’s my problem. He’s reassured me again and again that he values what I write.

At the other end he was annoyed with me because I suggested that his support group -- not just the boys but adults with big creds -- amounted to an NGO. To him that implies a lot of people sitting around a table in a conference room, arguing and negotiating themselves into a state of paralysis: “suits.” He wants to be seen doing things as a guerrilla, coming out of nowhere.

Shulevitz concludes her review, “Truth is the least of memoir . . . though truth can’t be dispensed with. (There’s that little matter of having to speak in good faith.) The power to persuade is all. ‘Once in a while the person talking is just plain funny; the wink in her eye and the tone in her voice tells us we shouldn’t take anything she says too literally,’ [Yagoda] writes. ‘Then there are the prodigious story tellers. They look us straight in the eye, and have us from the first word.’” I’m the winker. Tim’s the prodigious one. The question is whether the good faith between the two of us, which is real, can include the reader/watcher.

A Vook is more than words. Vids of faces, esp. when Tim is earnestly speaking to the camera, all alone except with his dog, ought to tell you something. But we all know about Photoshop and CGI. Is there any such thing as visual confirmation of the truth?

Shulevitz suggests that the point of a memoir may be to justify a life. One critic suggests “[I]naccuracy is a problem to the extent a memoir depicts identifiable people, depicts those people in a negative light, (demonstrably) gets gists as well as details wrong, is poorly written, is self-serving, or otherwise wears its agenda on its sleeve. The more of these things it does and the more egregiously it does them, the bigger the problem is.”

In the Nasdijj memoirs the author disguised people BECAUSE he was depicting them negatively and “wearing his agenda on his sleeve.” They were certainly vividly written. It was the journalist unmasker who “revealed all.” He was the one who had a covert agenda (endorsing Sherman Alexie as a noble if victimized Indian) and who got facts and gists wrong -- on purpose -- in order to make his case against the author by ripping away all the protection from the people involved. The problem was not the subject of the expose -- the author of the memoir -- it was the writer of the expose, the destroyer of the author. That’s where the power is now: attacks and suspicion.

Yagoda’s book, like many histories of ideas, is clarifying and ultimately reassuring. We’ve all been through a lot over the centuries and the story is not nearly finished yet. My first awareness of authors came on a family visit to the home of the author of “The Egg and I.” My parents assumed that because they loved the book and movie, the author would love them. Actually, she was very patient with us and let us hold her puppies. Tim is not so different.

Betty Macdonald
lived in this little chicken coop house and wrote about it in “The Egg and I.” These photos were taken in August, 1947, near Center, Washington. We forget how people lived during and right after WWII. Even today some people would be pleased with this little shelter.

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