The ethics of autobiography and the desire for revenge

I have read now the story of the ethnographer Renato Rosaldo and of how he could not understand the urge of the Ilongot tribesmen from the Philippine’s to head hunt when they were overwhelmed by grief, to head hunt as a means of ridding themselves of their rage, rage born of grief. To throw away the head of another was to throw away the pain of the rage.

Rosaldo could not understand these motives. He tried to reconstruct them into terms of exchange, the talion principle, an eye for an eye, but this was not the way in which the Ilongot’s men understood their ways of dealing with grief. When they could no longer headhunt, as it had become illegal, the old men as Rosaldo described them chose to become Christians as a means of assuaging their grief and rage. They could find comfort in the thought that their lost loved one might find comfort in a life hereafter and that they too could join them in the future.

And so one primitive practice was used, was overtaken by another more theoretical practice, that of Christian doctrine, which urges us to bear the pain of this life in an illusory manner. Put your pain aside because in time you will find relief and solace in the world hereafter.

It is hard for those of us who doubt the existence of a life hereafter. It is hard to find comfort in such notions. Maybe we who cannot find comfort in notions of everlasting life and joy in the company of Christ, must revert to the old ways of feeling our pain, which can sometimes, at least in the early stages of grief become that feeling of desire for revenge.

Rosaldo felt rage and fury when his wife died suddenly on a field trip in the Philippines. She had lost her footing and fell down a steep incline to her sudden death. Rosaldo railed against her, furious that she had left him there, then. Furious that she had been so careless, furious that she had taken with her all his joy, all his meaning, everything worthwhile. Only after he could know of his own grief after the death of his wife could he begin to understand the Ilongot’s desire to headhunt, not that he, he writes, would chop the head off the insurance investigator who refused to concede that Rosaldo’s wife had died while at work, however incensed. Rosaldo does not expect replications of behaviour in response to grief but understanding of the motivations as alternative attempts to deal with it.

Ruth Behar later wrote a paper as a tribute to Rosaldo in which she deplores the academic tendency to decry the ‘vulnerability’ and the subjectivity of the observer.

This is my dilemma. How do I justify my use of the first person? Even in academic circles where we write about autobiography, there is a clear preference to write about other people’s autobiographies, to keep ourselves at a distance? Too much emphasis on the ‘I’ makes it difficult for readers to appraise the validity of a piece of writing, as if they can no longer critique it for fear of offending the writer, who is in fact the narrator, who is in a sense creating, making a fictional character of herself out of the bedrock of her own personal experience, but this bedrock is inevitably sustained not merely by memory but by imagination.

There are so many gaps in my memory I must draw on other memories to create a narrative that makes the work readable. In so doing I distort facts. And because I do not, did not, hopefully never will live in a vacuum, I must also draw on the experiences of the times I have spent with and observed others. Herein lies the greatest pitfall for autobiographers – the degree to which my perspective differs from that of others, both those involved in the scenes and events I might describe and those other bystanders who look on.

Ann Patchett wrote her book, Truth and Beauty based on her relationship with fellow writer, Lucy Grealy. Grealy wrote the acclaimed Autobiography of a Face. Patchett’s book also received critical acclaim. She could write about her friendship with Grealy presumably only after Grealy’s sudden death from an accidental overdose of heroin.

Grealy died in 2002, Patchett’s book came out in 2004. In 2008 a letter appeared on line written by Lucy Grealey’s sister decrying Ann Patchett for violating her grief, the grief she Suellen Grealey carries with her other surviving sister, Lucy’s nonidentical twin, Sarah.

Suellen Grealy feels betrayed. Ann Patchett has interfered with her grief, distorted the public view of her dead sister, included details that the family, the remaining family, namely she and her sister would prefer were not on record. If Grealy’s mother were still alive, she too would be devastated or so her oldest daughter insists, for Patchett’s portrayal of the mother’s chronic depression, the knowledge of which would be best kept within the family where it would not be taken out of context and exaggerated. The letter goes on and towards the end, Suellen decries Patchett for making things public, even as she Grealy herself makes public these things she suggests should be kept out of view. Grealy’s letter puts them even more into view.

I have difficulties with Suellen Grealy’s position. Not her right to publish such a letter, but her right to challenge Patchett’s right to publish her book. I have difficulties with my own position vis a vis Suellen Grealy’s position. I think both are free to write and express their perspectives (within reason – that they not slander or vilify the other) but both should be free to write. Yet I find Suellen Grealy’s right and writing more untenable because she writes after the event and I have the sense that she is saying Patchett should not have published Truth and Beauty in the first place. Patchett is the well-known writer, as is Lucy Grealy. Suellen Grealy, on the other hand, has no such claim to fame, except perhaps as the older sister of the now dead Lucy Grealy.

All this leads me back to life writing as fueled by the desire for revenge. A similar occurrence elsewhere. I publish a paper, I present a paper and my professional siblings call for my exile because I have spoken about things that they consider should be kept under wraps. Am I the head hunter, for writing as I do, about family dysfunction, or are they, my professional sibling/colleagues the head hunters, for trying to get my scalp in punishment for my crimes as they see them. Could the same be said of Grealy and Patchett? Which one of them is the head hunted, which one hunted?

Where is the compassion in the views that follow? The bloggers who comment on Grealy’s letter seem unevenly divided into those who now declaim Patchett’s book and refuse to honour it by reading it and those others, many of whom have read Patchett’s book and insist on her right to write and publish, that the book is her attempt at dealing with her grief, her memorial to her friend.

Whose rights are greater, that of the family, that of the friend? As Suellen assumes to speak for her sister Sarah and for her dead mother, can we ever be sure that the mother and twin sister of the dead Lucy Grealy would in fact agree with older Sister Suellen?

In my own family such polarisations continue to exist. None of us can speak for each other unless one or other of us gives permission to do so and endorses the views expressed. The difficulty here, I cannot canvas for the views of my siblings, take a vote on what gets included and what not without rubbing up against the ones who insist I not write about my experience, in so far as it might include them, at all. The ethics dilemma again of life writing, of autobiography and of memoir-how can we write about ourselves without writing about others and in so doing without affecting the light and shadows cast on the image of the others that will enter the world, often against the wishes and sometimes the interests of the persons so portrayed?

We can be as honest as we can be in relaying our own views of ourselves but clearly that view is also slanted. It is difficult not to want to put a best foot forward even as we can admit to shame and guilt about our own perceived wrong doings, but still we try to enlist the support of our unknown audience. Witness the Brett sisters, Lily and Doris, one who claims their mother was an angel, the other experiencing the mother as its opposite, a damaged frantic woman who destroyed her older daughter’s self view. I could go on.

Profiles and the passage of time

The thing about my profile picture I realised with a shock the other day is how quickly it ages. I put it there because it’s one of the few respectable photos I have taken of me in black and white, taken for my husband’s fiftieth birthday.
I notice it from time to time and wonder, have I changed much?
Clearly I have but it’s subtle.
I’ve aged.
Tonight I realised the subtlety – all ten years of it.
Tanya Sutton, a good friend and previous nanny to our children, took this photo, the last one in a series.
It was in the days before digital. She’d been photographing all four of our daughters for a photo collage for Bill’s fiftieth birthday and used the last shot on me. That was ten years ago.
Maybe it’s time to put up a new self representation, but I’ve yet to find one.