On a recent weekend morning, I set out with my son to do errands. As we drove from the post office to the health food store, he began fiddling around with the radio, looking for NPR. I reached over and turned it off. He turned it back on. I turned it off again. He shot me a look, puzzled. After all, he knew I enjoyed the fact that, at age 12, he was a fan of public radio.
“What’s the problem?” he asked.
“No problem,” I said. “I just don’t feel like listening.”
I couldn’t tell him that later that afternoon, “This American Life” would be rebroadcasting an episode with a reading I did years ago from my first memoir, “Slow Motion.” That I was afraid a promo would come on the air, and that suddenly, improbably, horrifyingly, he might hear his mother’s voice of more than a decade earlier, telling a story of events in her life that had happened more than a decade before that, a story no parent would want her child to hear.
Before I became a mother, I spent many years writing with no thought that some day I might have a child. When I first started the memoir, I hadn’t even yet met the man who would become my husband. And so I wrote with abandon, a kind of take-no-prisoners story about dropping out of college at 20 and, in a booze- and drug-induced haze, becoming involved in a destructive affair with a much older married man, the stepfather of my best friend. My life was turned around by a car accident in which my father was killed and my mother badly injured. I was in my early 30s when I wrote “Slow Motion,” and my focus was on trying to capture that painful and chaotic time. I wasn’t projecting forward to a lifetime later, when, as a Connecticut wife and mother in my 40s, I’d be driving along with an impressionable and curious preteenage son whose access to his mother’s not-so-pretty rebellion would be as close as the push of a button.
Everyone has a past, and it’s a very personal decision to reveal — or not reveal — the more unsavory bits to our children. It’s possible for most people to smooth out the rough edges of their histories, to edit out indiscretions or sanitize their mistakes. After all, some things are none of our kids’ business, right? They don’t need to know every single detail about their parents. On the day our son was born, a friend with teenagers gave my husband the following piece of advice: “If he ever asks you if you did drugs . . . lie.” But for memoirists, the stories we’ve told of our own lives are set in stone. And while certainly some memoirs might whitewash the past, and others might omit unsavory details, the kind of memoir I wanted to write required being hard on myself publicly. I lifted up rocks and peered into the darkness. In my attempt to find the Emersonian thread of the universal in my story, I laid myself bare in the most unflattering light.
I’ve often wondered whether I would have written that memoir — one of seven books to my name, but the only one I would bodily throw myself in front of my son to prevent him from reading — if the timing had been different, if the idea for it had taken root in me only after he had been born. It’s a book I’m proud of, and the artist in me would like to think that I would have written it no matter what. But the mother in me isn’t so sure. I might have stopped myself, for fear of what he might think some day. Certainly, it would have been a very different book, bearing the marks of time, maturity, experience. After all, one can’t write with abandon if one is worrying about the consequences. And to have children is to always, always worry about the consequences.
From the time my son was an infant, I became aware that he hadn’t asked for a mother who is a writer. Up until then, the people in my life — parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, friends — had felt like fair game. If I was going to be hardest on myself, then, well, they were grown-ups; they could handle it. But if I was going to write about my son, I was going to have to be very, very careful. And as any writer will tell you, careful has no place in making art. My atavistic desire to protect my child (against myself!) was at odds with my creative desire to write from an internal landscape that now included him, one which had been forever altered by his birth.
Every memoirist makes her own set of rules to write and to live by, and in these 12 years, the strictest rule to which I have adhered has been this: Before I have written anything about my son, I have asked myself whether I could imagine him turning to me some day, and saying, I wish you hadn’t told that story about me. But of course the boy I know today has not yet grown into the man he will someday become. Right now, he likes the fact that he sometimes appears in my work. He has read my most recent memoir, “Devotion,” though in truth I think he’s skimmed it for his own name. He thinks it’s cool when I mention him in an interview. (He would enjoy being written about in this essay, though I have no intention of showing it to him.) But he may not always feel this way, and so I can’t possibly know; all I can do is try to protect his privacy while not censoring myself to the point of muteness. Certainly I can imagine him saying, I wish you hadn’t told that story about yourself. But as a writer, my inner life is my only instrument. I understand the world only by my attempts to shape my experience on the page. Then, and only then, do I know what I think, feel, believe. Without these attempts (the word essay derives from “attempt”) I am lost.
Later that day, I drove my son to his piano lesson and as I sat waiting in the driveway of his teacher’s house, I tuned in to “This American Life.” I leaned back in the driver’s seat and listened to my younger self quietly, forcefully reading her sad, painful story. In the distance, through an open window, the sound of my son playing the opening strains of “Für Elise.” It was a strange and powerful moment, one in which I felt my past and present fall one on top of the other to form something like a complete picture. I closed my eyes and choked back tears. And I thought what I always think in such a moment: I’ll have to write about this.
Dani Shapiro’s next book, “Still Writing,” will be published in 2013.