Last night I was reading Tara Bray Smith’s memoir, West of Then, when I came across a familiar name in the text. It’s an unusual name, and I looked at it, and thought I wonder if that’s who I think it is? The age would be about right, and my friend also grew up in Hawaii in, shall we say, a sort of hippie household. So I called her up, and she said that yes, it was her, and that the whole thing has been really difficult for her. Smith used not only her first name in the book, but her last name as well, which isn’t a particularly common name, and my friend said her mother is really upset about the whole thing. My friend said that her childhood, which was … shall we say, colorful? isn’t something she hides, but it’s also not something she usually leads with, and now there it is, in this bestselling book. And her mother, who has come a long way from the bad old days is really not happy at all. That’s not her identity any more and she feels exposed in a way that has been very upsetting. My friend wonders why Smith chose to change some names to protect people, and not others. Why didn’t Smith change her name? “Because it’s a great name,” I said. “As a writer, I’d want to keep your name — it sums up so much about that time.” My friend, who is also a writer, said she knows, but it’s still just weird and makes her uncomfortable. That people are calling her up. That she feels made public in a way she never asked for.
We talked about it for a long time since I’m working on this memoir about my life with Patrick. The memoir is about how Patrick and I saved each other, and it’s difficult to write without being rather specific about what we saved one another from. There are people I know I’m going to have to ask if they want pseudonyms, and there are also people, my mother among them, who I know will probably not be happy no matter what I write. Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s sister, wrote about this in the Guardian a few months ago, wrote of her feelings of betrayal and exposure, how she felt her grief had been hijacked by Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy.
“Why are you writing it as memoir and not as fiction?” my friend asked. I told her I’d thought about it. God knows I’ve written a lot of this material as stories already — the Megan and Peter stories from graduate school. Fiction frees you up some, and allows you a scrim to hide behind. And if Patrick hadn’t died, I probably would be writing it as ficiton. But when Patrick died, he took our history with him, took all those stories we shared, took our whole shared vocabulary. I wanted to get our stories down, so they’re not lost entirely. So there’s something left. And I want this book to stand as my monument to Patrick, who was a real person. Weirdly enough, we’d had all these conversations about what to do if one of us died, and I did everything he wanted — I had him cremated, I got him a Catholic funeral (“I’m not a very good Catholic,” he said. “But it’s the only thing I am.”), but I didn’t get him a marker. He wanted to be cremated, but he also wanted a marker somewhere: “So people will know I was here,” he said. This book is going to be his marker. With any luck, it’ll wind up in libraries all across America, a little reminder that Patrick was here, that he was a good, kind, funny man who struggled really hard. A reminder that he loved and was loved in return.
But Suellen Grealy’s article spooked me something fierce because it was a reminder that, especially in families like the one I grew up in, the issue of telling is deeply fraught. Naming what happened is going to be deeply upsetting, especially to my mother, who clings to a somewhat sentimentalized version of the past. I emailed my agent, who edited Autobiography of a Face all those years ago. She warned me about possible libel issues, since my mother is still alive, but even more about the moral quandary that memoir puts a writer in. So I had to do some serious re-thinking about how to handle the very difficult material surrounding Patrick’s funeral “at home” and the consequent deepening of the estrangement between my mother and myself. I had to figure out ways to frame that so it’s all about my experience of that week, what I did or failed to do, and what the consequences of those actions have been. I’ve been wrestling with how to tell my truth without unduly violating the privacy of other people.
And, unfortunately, the concept of other people’s privacy, the idea that not everyone views his or her life as fodder, as material, is one of those issues that constantly gets writers in trouble. David Sedaris has a very funny monologue in his new book about his sister telling him a story and swearing that she’ll kill him if he uses it. Which he does, of course. We’re really sort of heartless that way — Graham Greene called it the “splinter of ice” that lives in every writer’s heart. This is what we do. We tell.
Tobias Wolff tells a story that was on my bulletin board for years: “Tolstoy’s Ivan Illyich, lying on his deathbed, finally can tolerate only the company of his servant Gerasim, because Gerasim is the one person in the house who does not pretend that Ivan Illyich ‘is simply ill, and that he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.’ Gerasim alone does not reduce ‘the dreadful act of his dying to the level of a casual unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident.’ There is something of Gerasim in every good writer—the willingness to say that unspeakable thing which everyone else in the house is too coy, or too frightened, or too polite to say.”
I can’t say whether or not Tara Bray Smith should have named names in her book. It’s not for me to say. All I know is that saying that unspeakable thing isn’t easy, and it upsets people. So I guess you have to be clear about why you’re doing it, and try to be as honest and as tactful as you can. And after that you just brace yourself and take the hit.