The most interesting memoirs are the ones that are fiction. Like Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” which is almost transparently her own story when you know what really happened to her, except that it’s an idealized story. In real life Lucy Maud had a long struggle with a deeply depressed Presbyterian minister husband and hated “being” Anne Shirley. In the end she committed suicide, a fact withheld for a long time. But if you just read her letters, strewn through time, the impact and meaning of it all is really contained in the “little” story of Anne. Something similar is true of Louisa May Alcott.
I wonder whether this isn’t true of men as well. Isn’t “Two Little Savages” more revealing of Ernest Thompson Seton than his own real life? Don’t you find out more about James Willard Schultz by reading his wild adventure stories about Blackfeet than by listening to the “facts” about him in the Browning “oral tradition”? It’s an interesting question.
Even more interesting is the lengths people go to in order to find out what was “real.” The woman who wrote “Fifty Shades of Grey” gets asked, “Did that happen to you?” even though the story is about the sort of thing everyone agrees should be private. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is labeled soft porn (which the hard porn people say shows the author is an amateur), so the mischievous ladies on “The Visit” tried to get Obama to render an opinion on the book. He resourcefully claimed not to know anything about it and promised to ask his wife what she thought.
Of course, his old girl friends had just sold a big story to “Vanity Fair” about what he was really like in his youth. (Stuffy and earnest. He hasn’t changed that much.) And an actual trial at law is proceeding about John Edwards and what he really knew and when he really knew it and just where was he when he got his “loose cannon” mistress pregnant and . . . oh, we can’t ask that, can we? There are rules. But if he writes a novel, as so many of these guys do, we’ll know what he THINKS he was doing.
It’s a bit of a mystery why suddenly readers have major concerns about the “truth” of their lives. No one ever tells the truth -- simply because people don’t really KNOW the truth about their own lives or even the lives of their families. When my female cousins and I found out -- long after her death -- that our grandmother’s first baby, premature, had died out there on the South Dakota prairie in her little homesteader tar-paper shack, it explained a great deal. Knowing that he was named for our grandfather’s father explained even more. There’s a lot more we don’t know: where that baby was buried, whether he was christened (could probably find that out), and whether he had red hair. We do know that for the next baby, my father, she went to stay in town for the last month. He was named Bruce, for the warrior who kept trying and trying. If you’re a Scot, you’ll know the story and you’ll have hold of more of the truth.
Deconstruction, post-modernism, and all that has been the fashion for quite a while now, giving us a legacy of suspicion and inversions of what we hear. It has become a weapon, once used against overweening authorities and too-knowing Viennese analysts, but now it is used against anyone who tells a story we don’t like. As opposed to unreliable advertisers who are supposed to be believed in spite of Consumer’s Research and all those stars and thumbs, English teachers used to tell us unreliable narrators are often revealing. Their failure to explain how to see through them has laid us wide open, gullible in our belief that we can ever know the truth, demanding evidence as though life were a murder mystery that could be resolved in an hour and a half.
All those brilliant liberal arts majors who read “Three Cups of Tea” didn’t realize it was written in the same colorful rhetoric as Tim Cahill’s “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg.” Cahill was a founder of “Outside” magazine, which has close ties with mountain climbers, forcing them to choose between Krakauer and Mortenson. Perhaps readers didn’t realize that someone else wrote “Three Cups” and forgot to put “as told to” on the cover. But please, they go to court to get the $15 for the book refunded because the facts were wobbly? These self-righteous “liberal” people spend that much on coffee in a day. Someone who knew them confided to me, “They just don’t like Mortenson’s attitude.” In other words, he snubs them. I would, too.
When I wrote my “biographical memoir” of Bob Scriver, someone at the Montana Historical Society wanted to know how I knew such-and-such happened. “I was standing there,” I explained. “I was his wife.” Another time someone else remarked, “I didn’t expect so much of it to be about you.” But I was STANDING THERE, I slept beside the man, we poured bronze together, we rode horses at dawn together, we . . . use your imagination. An old lady asked me bluntly, “Was he really that good -- in the husband way?” What could I say? I just sighed. Vigorous and resourceful as he was, the romantic exploits that have been told to me since the book was published would fill another book.
And bad things. They especially like to tell me bad things, I guess to prove that they know more than I do. Most of what they tell me isn’t true and I know it. I was standing right there, sometimes right beside the guy telling me something he doesn’t think I know. They forget entirely that I love the man.
So much of this “truth” stuff is about sex, as though people fake books the same way women fake orgasms. I think it is because these days everyone is really quite flummoxed by the protocol of sex and they’re all watching each other out of the corners of their eyes to see what the neighbors do. What can they get away with? We hear flat assertions like Mitt Romney’s declaration that God and the Christian Founding Fathers believed that marriage is between one man and one woman, totally blanking out Thomas Jefferson who didn’t believe in miracles and owned the mother of his second family. Also skipping over the Romney paternal ancestors who, like many Biblical figures, had multiple wives.
But why isn’t the reaction simply laughter? Maybe a sigh. I just stand here.