The Difference Between Possessing and Publishing a Story
June 20, 2018 § 26 Comments
by Jan Priddy
I was afraid of my grandfather when I was little. He had suffered a series of debilitating strokes beginning the year I was born. By the time I knew him one hand was held up and curled inward and his speech was unclear.
My mother hated her father, so it was easy to believe the bad things she said about him when I was a child.
My grandmother was one reason I was supposed to distrust my grandfather. She had an abortion because they had agreed not to have children when they married. The second time she became pregnant, she ignored her promise and kept the baby. She kept the next pregnancy too. That was my mother. My mother told me this, but she would not have liked me telling the world.
Do I have a right to tell this story? Is it mine to tell? Just because I am a writer? Because I am family? I was once told about the affair of a friend’s husband. I repeated that story. It was true, after all, but it got back to the wife and was embarrassing and painful for everyone. These are not my stories. They happened long ago to other people, to people I love.
My mother is dead, my aunt, and my grandparents. All of the generations before and contemporary to them are now gone. No cousins are alive. I tell that story about my grandmother’s abortion now, but I never told it while my mother was alive. My mother never told me until her own mother was gone.
Mostly she kept silent, but there were snippets of memory my mother would tell over and over. My grandfather had an affair, she said, maybe with the piano teacher. He bored his daughters by insisting they listen to him sing opera. He made them visit his home during holidays after their parents divorced. He was selfish and mean.
Eventually, I knit together stories she told with new information and what I could find in history. Yes, my grandmother threw out her husband, likely for infidelity. He agreed to her terms for their divorce (she got the paid-for house and everything in it but refused alimony). Did he pay child support or was my grandmother able to support herself, her two children, and a large house with her office job? In the Great Depression? There is no one who can tell me.
What I do know is that my grandfather repeatedly attempted to reconcile with his former wife. He saw his daughters frequently and tried to interest them in his own enthusiasms, including opera. He lived alone for many years and never in his life said a word against my grandmother. He attended his daughters’ weddings hundreds of miles away. He made an effort to keep in touch. Eventually, my grandmother remarried—to a man who insisted she marry him or he would not see her anymore. It was only after that, my grandfather remarried another strong-willed and intelligent woman. He never knew of his younger daughter’s animus.
My mother’s stories made my grandfather a villain. Her stories were true to her. She never lied. Her stories were factual.
Were they accurate? Were they fair?
I have always respected Mary Karr for giving her first memoir to family members to read before it was published. Since hers is the story of a traumatic childhood, her sister and mother have prominent roles. She acknowledges in the first pages of Liars’ Club that their versions of events are different from hers. Mary McCarthy also acknowledged, in her memoir, that she might have things wrong.
Telling the story of another person opens doors to distortion. When we have only second-hand information, it is more challenging still. We speculate about motivation while missing key elements that bent behavior in what otherwise appears irrational or unkind or a little too good to be true. We miss small acts of kindness altogether. Small acts of cruelty.
We create of our experiences a story we understand, one that feels like truth to us, and one we are willing to hear. A story that justifies our resentment and anger or our love and remorse. We want to be the hero of our own tale. Thus we tilt our view of events and reveal just what places our version in its best light. We are not always aware of our errors. Even so, a reader may find more truth than was intended.
This is inevitable, and while a memoir must feel authoritative, I do not trust authors who seem too certain, too eager to blame. I have argued continuously with some memoirs, identifying what might be self-serving bias in the telling.
The stories we tell have enormous power to teach others about our mistakes and our manner of clawing our way back to life. It would be hubris to assume that we may easily tell stories about other, especially second-hand stories, accurately and fairly, just because we can.
Am I allowed to tell everything I know, merely because I want to? I inspect my motivations, the impact of my story on others, the potential for good or harm. Whom do I serve by telling, other than myself?
Two poets I know will read but never publish particular poems out of respect for the feelings of family members who would be hurt by their words. There are stories about loved ones I choose not share. Some stories are wounding, and too many of us already bleed.
When I kissed my grandfather’s cheek, I remember his white whiskers were scratchy on my face.
My grandfather did not harm me when I was a little girl. I am sorry I never lingered near his chair and rarely had patience as he struggled to get words out clearly. I was his only granddaughter and know enough of his story to understand he was not a monster, but a complicated and difficult man.
My mother could never forgive her father, but I can forgive them both.
Jan Priddy’s work is forthcoming in Brevity magazine and Liminal Stories. She has BFAs in studio arts, and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She lives in her grandfather’s house and walks the beach each day.