In 1969 I spent most of my summer days in a karate dojo in the East Village in New York City. We worked out, read Black Belt magazine, went to tournaments, ate at the Japanese kitchen nearby, and watched the movie Rashomon.
The classic Kurosawa film, Rashomon, depicts different people giving differing accounts of a hideous murder. When a jury tries to piece together what happened, there are vastly contradictory stories. All of the stories told in flashback are both true and false. Each witness tells what he honestly believes happened. But Kurosawa layered over the truth with the false in that “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.” Each person who testifies at the trial brings his beliefs and his subjective perception is revealed in his ability to recall.
So it is with our stories, especially in memoir. The family is always there, even twenty, thirty, forty years later.
“Do you remember when we went to the church fair and I dropped the Jell-O bowl? I was mortified because everyone laughed at me.”
“Huh? No, everyone rushed to help you pick it up.”
We remember what is important to us. When I write a story even if it’s about you, I am at the center of the story; it comes from my memory files and my perspective. Does it make it “more true” if the writer is emotionally closer or views the event from the distance of years or as an “objective” observer of an event?
Perspective: a point of view; an attitude. A two-dimensional drawing showing the appearance of height, width, depth. This idea first opened up to me when my seventh grade art teacher taught us line perspective, that disappearing point on the horizon. Then he showed us a box asking students to describe it. Because each side was a different color, there were six different descriptions. “It’s all how YOU see it.” Visual perspective.
My mom went back to work as a substitute teacher when we were in seventh grade. I remember that year as the year of freedom—coming home, being on my own. Is it a lie if my sister says how lonely it was because the house was empty? Emotional perspective.
Where does the story start and stop? I wrote about a hurricane we were when we were very young and my sister nodded in agreement until I got to the end of my story.
“But that’s not how it happened. You didn’t finish.” She has her perspective. For the purpose of my story, when the wind and rain died down, that was the end of the story. For her, what happened after the storm was key.
How do memoirists deal with sharing their story with the main characters? When do you share the manuscript? First draft? Final draft? When the book is in print? What to respond if you get ‘flack’ about your version of the story? Or worse yet, “You didn’t tell the truth.”
When I wrote my memoir Thinking of Miller Place, I told each of my sisters I would eliminate anything they requested. There were no requests. Other authors have said, “This is my story. No changes possible.” “This is my perspective. I will entertain yours too.” “Well that’s my story. Why not tell me yours?”
Family stories get richer each time we take them out and turn them over, tell, retell, and add and subtract.