There is No Dust in My House: On Writing About Myself and Other People
November 4, 2015 § 22 Comments
By Lori Jakiela
Years ago when I was a young journalist, my editor put me on The Love Story beat. It’s easier to write about other people than yourself. Other people hold value. You know your own value is not much until you make it so. My job was to interview people about how they fell in love then churn out sentimental stories their friends and relatives could laminate and stick on their refrigerators.
“Happy crap,” my editor, a displaced New Yorker with owl glasses and a bowl cut, called it.
One pair of blind professional bowlers aside, most of the interviews I did were forgettable. Except one – a sweet old couple married over 50 years.
He was a World War II veteran. She stayed home, raised their kids and volunteered at the church bingo. These were Norman Rockwell’s people.
“Ad fodder,” my editor would say. “Schlocky copy.”
The couple invited me to their house. They were sweet and funny, open and kind. Their house was full of family photos and antiques, afghans and doilies. The man swore and his wife said, “Lord, this man.” They gave me tea. They gave me sugar cookies from a fancy tin. I went back and wrote the story. My editor ran a big picture of the two of them holding hands. I felt good about it.
The day the story ran, I got a call in the newsroom. It was the wife. She was screaming and I had to pull the phone back. I tried to figure out what I’d done to make her so angry. I’d printed that her husband swore? I didn’t know. She told me. I described their living room with the line, “In a room filled with family photos and dusty antiques.”
“I can’t go to church,” the woman screamed. “I can’t go to card club. You’ve ruined me.”
She said, “There is no dust in my house.”
I was 22 years old.
I didn’t know dust meant anything.
I tried to figure out how to run a correction, how to make the woman feel better. “There is no dust in Mrs. X’s house. The Times regrets the error.”
But there was dust.
But maybe I didn’t have to mention it.
“There’s you and me, and there are other people,” the poet Bei Dao said, a warning against both a writer’s self-indulgence and carelessness with other people’s stories. In her essay “What the Little Old Ladies Feel,” about how she came to write her memoir Fun Home, Alison Bechdel wrote, “No matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there’s something inherently hostile in the act.” In that same essay, Bechdel refers to Faulkner’s famous line: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
I believe Bei Dao. I believe Bechdel and Faulkner. But how, as a writer who deals in true stories, should I navigate that?
Three memoirs in, I still don’t know.
In 2004, I started an adoption search. My daughter was born with a birth defect I’d been born with and I realized, with the startling clarity that comes with any emergency, that I had no medical history to offer my children.
I was also grieving. My mother died less than a year before, my father five years before that. Through my search, I was trying to get more than a medical history. I was trying to replace the parents I lost, trying to find a way around grief.
It’s as irrational as it sounds. I was navigating by desperation. I was navigating by hope.
I never got the medical history I hoped for. My dead parents stayed dead and the emptiness never changed. My experience with my birth mother was not a happy reunion. Still, I connected with members of my birth family and became close to one of my brothers.
There’s more to the story — which I detail in my third memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe – but those facts are a start.
At the time we met, my brother knew I was a writer. He’d read my first book and then my second. He liked the books and passed them to friends and relatives as evidence of something. That I wasn’t a crackhead, maybe.
That books made me respectable, like a coffee table.
That a writer was someone who could be trusted.
“It wasn’t like you were just some nutball off the street,” he said.
Everyone is impressed that we write until we write about them.
“A man must live according to his nature,” Thoreau said.
To know your own true nature, to accept that, is a good and terrible thing. Serial killers do it I guess. So do writers.
When we first met over wings and beers, my brother said, “You have to promise me you won’t ever write about this,” and I said, “I can’t promise that, but I promise to give you a heads-up if I do.”
I knew even then I would write about it. I don’t think it would have been possible for me not to do so. I write when I’m confused, when I’d like the world to line up. I write to discover my place. I write to connect with other people who might be confused and lost like me.
In doing this I write about people I know.
Maybe at some point, drunk or sad, I promised my brother something else. I don’t remember it that way, but he does.
I finished the manuscript that became a book 10 years after my brother and I first met. It took me that long to find a shape for my story, to figure out what my adoption search might mean and why I hoped other people might care about it.
In 2014, after I’d gotten a contract for my book, I started talking with my brother about it.
“So there’s this book I’ve been working on,” I said. “I want you to read it. I think you need to read it.”
What I didn’t say was, “I want your blessing.”
What I didn’t say was, “Forgive me.”
His response, over and over, was the same.
He said he didn’t need to read it.
It was fine.
“Do what makes you you,” he said.
He said, “I’m okay with whatever.”
He said, “Go Steelers!” his way to get around talking about anything else.
I wanted to believe it would be that simple.
When my book came out in August, I gave my brother a copy and asked him again to read it. I asked for forgiveness, and this time I said it. There was, I knew, no taking anything back.
I didn’t want to take anything back.
I wanted my brother to understand that silence wasn’t an option. I wanted him to understand that I needed – for reasons I didn’t understand until I did — to write this book.
An adopted person is always someone else’s secret.
I say that in my memoir.
I was tired of secrets.
My brother didn’t understand.
He didn’t understand why I’d reveal secrets, even ones that, to me, weren’t secrets but facts I’d taken from my own redacted adoption records. Adoptees’ records are called Non-Identifying Reports.
He wanted to know why I wrote about things I wasn’t entitled to write about.
That’s the word he used, “entitled.”
What stories am I entitled to tell and what stories are off limits? What story do I, as a person without a legitimate history, have a right to tell?
Answer: all of it.
If there is dust in a house, does a writer mention the dust or not?
It depends on whether the dust matters and how much. It depends on what dust has to do with a bigger truth.
“Write one true sentence,” Hemingway said. “And then write another one.”
The truth always hurts someone.
“I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong,” Alison Bechdel wrote. “I probably will do it again.”
My brother didn’t understand why I’d reveal family secrets, but for me, the word family is loaded. If I were to draw a line around family, it would circle my husband, my children, my dead parents, and me.
When I say my friends are family, I believe that in spirit, but it’s not true.
When I say my brother is family, I believe that in spirit, but it’s not true. We were not raised together. We don’t have the same loyalties, the same secrets. His mother is not my mother. His mother wishes she would have aborted me, wishes I were not alive, her words, in message after message.
When my brother said, “We’re family,” there was a subtext of omerta.
Family means pact.
Family means, “We don’t talk about things.” Family means, “You don’t talk about things.”
To get in, I must shut up.
My brother’s family’s secrets must become my secrets, even secrets about me.
“Go Steelers,” my brother would say.
I hope family will never come to mean silence for me. But already when my son or daughter remembers something that doesn’t match my memory of it, I find myself correcting things.
“It wasn’t like that,” I say.
I say, “You’re remembering wrong.”
I wrote about other family members in my book, too – members of my adopted family, extended family, my father and mother, my husband and children. Each story, each moment I wrote I considered carefully in revision. I asked, “Do I need this?”
I take only what I need. This is what I believe so I can do what I do.
Did I need to mention dust in that love story years ago?
Did I need to tell the truth about my adoption story?
My brother and I haven’t spoken lately.
It’s something I’m learning to accept.
Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoirs Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books), Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette) and The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press), as well as the poetry collection Spot the Terrorist (Turning Point). Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Rumpus, Brevity and more. Her essays have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, and she received the 2015 City of Asylum Pittsburgh Prize, which sent her to Brussels, Belgium on a month-long writing residency. She has also received a Golden Quill Award from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, was a working-scholar at The Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and was the winner of the first-ever Pittsburgh Literary Death Match. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and their children. A former flight attendant and journalist, she teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and is a co-director of Chautauqua Institution’s Summer Writing Festival.