Thursday, January 31, 2013

Life Stories

At age 37 Jack Nicholson found out that the person he thought was his sister was actually his mother and his imagined parents were his grandparents. Could this somehow account for his being a rabid Laker fan? No, but it’s enough to re-write one’s narrative.

A friend once told me she was convinced that she was a surviving twin. Another way to re-imagine a life. We all have constructed our own neat story which is probably two-thirds fact and the other third surmise, conjecture and myth. Then there is the fourth third which may be the material withheld, otherwise known as family secrets.

Another friend was shocked to learn, around age 70, that his mother did not die from pancreatic cancer just after his birth, as he had been told. In fact, she had post-partum depression and committed suicide by defenestration. His whole life he had been concerned about a family history of cancer which did not exist.

Yet another old friend whom I have been closely in touch with since kindergarten was recently told that he has or had a half brother. It seems that his father, a no-nonsense health professional, had a liaison with his nurse and fathered a boy around the time of my friend’s birth. Stop the music! News like this could signal re-visiting childhood remembrances particularly since his father died when my friend was in his early teens and his mother a few years later. An older brother and sister chose not to reveal the full story during their lifetime. It certainly suggests another dimension to the family dynamic.

Some of us may not wish to know what really happened. What really happened, might  never be more than yet another version with material added or subtracted.. An artist immerses himself in the possibilities; it is his soft clay to be sculpted, sometimes beyond recognition. If we are to believe that we must knock off those early voices to find our true self than so be it.

There was a book in the 60s, If You Meet the Buddha On the Road, Kill Him, which argued that the preferred route toward self-realization was through self-discovery. Nobody can furnish the answers, however wise or authoritative. It occurs to me that the notion of individuation may be a Western value and not hold up universally. 

A similar theme is expressed by Colm Toibin in his new book with the arresting title, New Ways to Kill Your Mother. The act of murder is, of course, metaphorical as is mother, father, or homeland. The point is that a writer, and perhaps anyone, must free himself from those interjected voices that stifled, censored or even deadened his own creative impulse. Toibin is an Irish writer citing the flight of other Irish writers who had to relocate in order to liberate themselves from the grip of the Church or rigidity of family. Philip Roth’s advice was to write as if your parent’s are dead.

Most of us are not going to write at all but we may walk around with the documentary movie in our head waiting for Spielberg or Ang Lee to come along.  The chronicle, as we know it, is all lined up which explains how we got to be whoever we think we are. As we get older we repeat it so often it moves from semi-fable to fact. My guess is that the text is more open than we’ve ever dreamed.    

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