On Having the Last Word
It’s a very strange thing, writing about the people in one’s own life. The very first essay I ever wrote, which was published in The New York Times Magazine, was about a rift between my non-religious mother and my father’s religious family. In the piece, I wrote about the moment when my mother chose to let me know that she no longer kept kosher. I was about fifteen years old–struggling mightily against the strict rules of my observant father–when one day my mother took me to lunch at a local Saks Fifth Avenue lunch counter in suburban New Jersey, and calmly, with no explanation or fanfare, ordered a bacon cheeseburger. I think it’s impossible to get any less kosher than that. She didn’t say a word. Nor did I. But in that gesture she let me know that she knew. That she had also struggled and rebelled against the rules of Orthodox Judaism. And so–many years later–when I wrote that essay about the rift, I told the story of the bacon cheeseburger.
When the essay came out, my mother called me.
Did you have to make it a bacon cheeseburger? she asked.
Well, it was a bacon cheeseburger, I responded. How could I possibly omit such a perfect detail?
Several years later, I wrote my first memoir Slow Motion. It was the story of my rebellion, of my parents car accident, my father’s death. My mother’s long, arduous recovery after breaking eighty bones. I told the story of my family as I understood it. I wrote about aunts, uncles, parents, cousins my half-sister. Mostly, I wrote about my own complex, interior life, and my struggle to become a whole person. Many of my family members were less-than-happy with Slow Motion. One aunt–my mother’s sister–was angry at a description of her which was, I admit, somewhat pointed. An uncle–my mother’s brother–called to tell me that I had misspelled his third wife’s name, and asked me to correct it in future editions. My mother felt that people read the book in order to understand her, and though she never quite said this, I think she felt that I’d had the last word. This was further complicated by the fact that my mother had wanted to be a writer. She had spent years writing unfinished things: drafts of screenplays, stage plays, children’s books, letters to the editor, op-eds, poems, stories. She drove once a week from our house in New Jersey into Manhattan, where she took writing workshops. As a little girl, I used to fall asleep most nights to the sound of thunderous typing on the other side of the wall that separated my bedroom from my mother’s study.
As I’ve grown older–and in the years since my mother’s death–I have become increasingly aware of the responsibility of having the last word. Had she become a writer–had she ever found her own voice–she might have written a very different story than mine. There is both power and privilege in being a writer. How to deal with difficult relationships? No family chooses to have a writer in its midst, after all. Doctors, yes. Attorneys, insurance brokers, teachers. But writers? Not so much. I could have simply chosen to not write about my family, but it was, in many ways, at the heart of most stories I wanted to tell. I was as careful as I could be, in the years my mother and my other relatives were alive, to protect their feelings. But it would have been a distortion of my own self not to have written about them at all. As a friend of mine who has written beautifully and extensively about her own family once said: We don’t choose our stories. Our stories choose us, and if we don’t write them, if we ignore them, we are somehow diminished.
But at the same time, I don”t feel that being a writer gives any of us the right to just let it rip. To disregard the feelings of the people surrounding us. So I take care. Perhaps not as much as some people would like, but as much as I can and still not be diminished. And there you have it: the terrible, impossible, fundamental calculus that is at the heart of every memoirist’s life. To find your voice is to tell your truth. And there will be a different version of that truth for each and every one of us.