I was scrolling through Facebook one day when I came upon some photos my former neighbor had posted—photos of classic cars that he’d owned in the small town where we both lived when we were teenagers and then young men. In one of the photos, my parents’ house is clearly visible, my father’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 parked in our front yard. It’s always a bit of a shock to see a visual representation of some part of our past lives. Often, as in this case, we come upon it accidentally. We look at a photograph, and then suddenly realize that the background contains something of who we once were: someone we remember, but not quite; someone we carry with us, even though we can never again fully be that person. The same is true for family members, especially those who are now gone. We see an image of the people they were—maybe we see something they once owned like a house or a car, or maybe we see the people themselves, and even though we ache to reconstitute their lives, we know we’re doomed to fail. Those of us who write memoir or personal essays know well the feeling of almost being able to reach back through time to touch our family members again, only to have a hollow feeling when we’ve put them on the page because the only time they were ever wholly who they were is gone forever. Still, we face this challenge each time we write our stories. We keep trying to accurately represent the people we once knew.
But there are obstacles in our way, and chief among them is what we carry with us from our pasts into our attempts to make our family members come to life again on the page. Maybe we’re writing about family members who hurt us deeply, and we let that injury color our portraits. Maybe we embrace nostalgia and want to only see how sweet our lives were with our families. Either extreme is self-serving. The first tinges our portraits with anger and resentment; the second allows us to make our lives what we wish they could have been. Both blind us to the truth about the people we’re supposed to know the best. Both are a betrayal to the people we so desperately want to resurrect and represent.
A memoirist works best when he or she practices empathy. The ability to portray what it must be like to live inside someone else’s skin leads to honesty. No longer are we driven by our own agendas—to make less or more of someone than he or she really was. Empathy means inhabiting a character from the inside. From there, it’s impossible to serve a self-centered agenda. Instead, our obligation is to the characters themselves. It’s our task to see their lives as fully as we can by shifting the perspective from our own to theirs.
Consider what Rebecca McClanahan does in this portrait of her great-aunt, Bessie, who has come to live with the author’s family. For the teenaged Rebecca, it’s miserable to have to share a bedroom with Bessie, a large woman who pours “her powdered breasts into a stiff brassiere,” whose ill-fitting dentures make an annoying clacking noise, who plucks stray whiskers from her chin, who has no eyebrows and has to pencil them in. The young Rebecca watches all this from her bed each morning: “Old maid, I’d hiss beneath the covers. Then when she was gone, swishing down the hall, I’d crawl from bed and dress for school, where girls with real eyebrows were gathering in the halls.” Ah, the arrogance and ignorance of the young who live in the now with no thought of the fates that await them. Such is the case for the young Rebecca who’s eager to escape her aged aunt for the vitality of girls her own age, girls with real eyebrows. Only the adult Rebecca admits something that the young Rebecca probably never would have. The young Rebecca volunteered each Sunday to dress Bessie for church. In this passage, the adult Rebecca speculates on why Bessie permitted it, and the answer appears once the writer allows herself to write from the interior of her great-aunt: “Looking back, I wonder why she let me use her. Maybe she liked the attention. Maybe the feel of young hands was so comforting that she bore the humiliation.” This shift in perspective—this looking away from the self—invites not only the writer’s empathy, but ours as well. The adult Rebecca understands Bessie’s loneliness and her desire for human contact, and we understand it as well. We understand what it’s like to be this woman who has never married and who now must rely on the kindness of others. Not only do we understand it, we feel it. We can’t help but empathize. All of this is possible only because the writer released herself from looking at Bessie from the outside and instead shifted the perspective to the inside.
Sometimes we have to take the “me” out of “memoir” to portray family members with more honesty, complexity, and integrity.