Macauley family marker and grave of William Macauley, Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, NY, photo by Rose
Does a biographer ever tell anyone’s story but his own? For that matter, does anyone? Can you ever, really, tell a story that isn’t yours to begin with?
You think you can, of course, and you do all the time: what you saw, what you heard, what the kids got up to while you were out, what your mother was like when she was a little girl, what obviously went down in your friend’s marriage over the last few years, what must have happened to that poor child, that old man you sat next to and so on and so forth but I wonder if you can honestly give an account of another life that doesn’t bear a striking resemblance to your own. I doubt it, frankly. Which is probably bad news for Hitler’s biographer but there you are. There you are. Not to mention fiction which is worse; fiction is just telling your story with the names changed. At least with biography you can try and pass off your personal version of history as someone else’s.
The truth, however, is you can’t: you can’t get out of you. You can’t stand outside your own atmosphere; you can never remove yourself from your own planet of self and its orbit and be somewhere beyond it, looking back at the rest of us and you and the universe from an external and therefore purely imaginary, unobstructed, viewpoint. You can’t see you (or me) from outside you. And no, a mirror doesn’t really count; there’s the factor of reversal first of all which you’ve surely noticed, and a time lag as well which you may not have taken into account. The world is a mirror that reflects what you know, what you are today and also some of what you were and used to be. You may not be quite as awful these days, true, or as shameless or unkind as you used to be, or whoever it is your self-righteous indignation is focused on in the mirror of the world around you at the moment; you may have moved on, evolved, realized, become more conscious. But oh my dear Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle, you’ve been looking at yourself even if you want to pretend you don’t recognize the face looking back at you. It’s through a glass darkly you’re seeing the rest of us but the darkness is yours. You are a prisoner of your own narration. Your casa is indeed mine and vice versa, and that goes for your loves and desires and fears and hopes and dreams.
So why bother? Why try breaking out, why try to escape? Because we are so caught up in the dream of who we think we are, the tale we’ve constructed out of the past and the fantasy and the pain and the fear, that we don’t know how to stop. We’ve become so attached to this old rhyme we keep telling everyone, to total strangers just so we can hear it again, that we don’t even realize what we’re doing, convincing others of a history that isn’t even true. Looking for witnesses to corroborate and validate our flawed version of ourselves, seeking an audience to applaud our account, to weep for our maudlin melodrama or cheer our noble, tragic efforts.
And then, once in a while, we begin to suspect we might have it wrong, or more likely we find ourselves falling into someone else’s dream, someone else’s made-up story, and suddenly we think, wait, that doesn’t sound quite true, that isn’t the way it was at all, I don’t believe what you’re saying, let me tell you how it was, let me tell you your story, for you. Sure, it will be filtered through me, I don’t live in your world, I live in mine but I’m willing to give it a try. I’m willing to try and see you. And maybe in the process there’s a chance you’ll see me.
Sometimes I listen to people who are in so much pain from their stories I just want to stop them talking. Stop telling the old lies, I want to tell them. Let me tell you about you instead, I want to say; let me tell you my version of you, the truth I see of you, of how great and smart and beautiful you really are if you would simply wake up, stop beating that dead horse, let go of that old albatross around your neck, stop dwelling in that old dream, stop living in that made-up past, wake up.