I've recently been reading Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty (2004). It's a memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the poet and author of Autobiography of a Face (1994). I blogged about Grealy's book this time last year ("Worlds of Unknowing")--it's a really interesting (but intense) memoir.
Patchett's memoir is a book a colleague recently mentioned to me. I won't say she "recommended" it, because quite frankly, she didn't. I told her I was teaching Grealy's memoir in a class this semester, and she asked me if I had read Patchett's book. I hadn't.
What I did know was that Grealy's family was extremely angry when Patchett's book was released, and I had read Suellen Grealy's expression of this anger and grief. When I mentioned that to my colleague, she said, "They were angry with good reason. That book did unnecessary things."
Patchett wrote the book quickly, after Lucy Grealy died of a heroin overdose in 2002. As Suellen Grealy points out, in order to do this, she had to obtain the rights to publish Lucy's letters. Patchett did this in the immediate aftermath of her friend's funeral, a move that many would attribute to a writer's need to cope with grief via art, but that others (including the Grealy family) would eventually come to see as ambitious and self-serving on Patchett's part.
In addition to feeling that Patchett's account of their sister's life did Lucy Grealy a serious disservice, members of the Grealy family felt that their grief was overlooked in a rush to capitalize on Lucy Grealy's life and tragic death. They are largely absent from Patchett's account of Grealy's life; Patchett's own family, however, is mentioned in connection with Grealy and her friendship on multiple occasions--it is Patchett's mother, for example, who tells her to save all of Lucy's letters, because the two of them will be famous someday.
Patchett's book makes me uncomfortable. That's the only way I can express it. It seems to me to be in somewhat poor taste, given the speed with which it was written and the timing of its publication, but it's more than that.
It reminds me of Hemingway's account of his "friendship" with Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast and of Truman Capote's literary manuevers with his own "friends."
My mom used to remind me, when I was growing up, of a social convention that has apparently fallen by the wayside in contemporary American culture, "Don't speak ill of the dead." She wouldn't tolerate gossip or snarky comments about the deceased, and if someone seemed to be about to stray into that dangerous discursive territory (or if she was at risk of doing it herself), she'd quietly taper off and leave it alone.
My dad behaved very similarly: the sense seemed to be, the person had had a life, and s/he may not have lived or behaved in a way that the rest of us approved of, but given that the person had died, it was no longer fair to comment on or criticize the terms on which the person had lived that life. The implication was, it was disrespectful to only savor the bad memories, and I think, that it was dirty pool.
Perhaps the person might have changed, might have done things to redeem him- or herself, had s/he lived. My mom would say, "Would you want to be remembered for the bad things you'd done? No. Of course not."
In this age of the tell-all book and the made-for-TV movie, such comments seem naive, I know.
Patchett's memoir doesn't simply remember the bad moments of Grealy's life. I think it does a more insidious thing: it purports to memorialize Lucy Grealy's strength and her personality, but it does so by means of what used to be known as "left-handed compliments" (my apologies to the lefties out there).
When Patchett seems to be praising Grealy, a closer look reveals that her compliments aren't necessarily flattering--in many cases, they're definitely double-sided (at best). The memoir is subtitled "A Friendship," but I don't think it actually is the memoir of a friendship: instead, it memorializes what a good friend Ann Patchett (allegedly) was to Lucy Grealy.
That distinction is key, in my opinion. Much of Patchett's account seems designed to cause the reader to sigh and marvel at Ann's devotion, Ann's patience, Ann's understanding. Because Lucy is represented as narcissistic and overwhelmingly needy, insensitive and insecure.
And maybe she was all of those things. And maybe Patchett has earned her crown in heaven for putting up with all of that. But I think that, if that's the case, Patchett made her own choices and glorifying that aspect of their "friendship" does a serious disservice to Grealy's memory.
Grealy can't tell her side of the story. Patchett seems to suggest that, even if she were alive, Grealy wouldn't tell it--she'd be too self-involved with her own life and artistry to consider it worth telling.
As I said, it reminds me of Hemingway's depictions of F. Scott Fitzgerald: near the end of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recounts an elliptical conversation that he and Scott Fitzgerald (allegedly) had about... the size of their penises.
What better testimony to the bond of male friendship, right? Except that Hemingway depicts Scott Fitzgerald as extremely worried: his wife, Zelda, had recently had an affair (according to Hemingway) and allegedly dropped hints that Scott Fitzgerald might not measure up. So of course, Fitzgerald asks his good buddy "Hem," for his advice.
Hemingway checks and reassures Fitzgerald he has nothing to worry about, then gives him some advice about pillow-usage and other manly strategies for self-aggrandizement.
Hemingway similarly represents a scene in which he overhears Gertrude Stein (who was a lesbian) begging another woman for... we never know what, exactly. Or do we?
For me, this is the mark of a tacky tell-all and the mark of a bad friend. If these episodes really occurred (and I'm by no means convinced that they did), why would a friend feel compelled to recount them to the public at large?
Patchett does similar things--insinuations are made about Grealy's sex life (in particular, her promiscuity) and its motivations, episodes of sobbing self-doubt are recounted in unnecessary detail and at some length.
Why? To publish what you think you know about another person's sex life and to do so after that person has died, is 1) to invade a region of intimacy that you have no business invading (and that you may not know as well as you think you do), and 2) to violate the terms of friendship itself.
If Grealy wanted to broadcast details--even if she did so throughout her entire life--that was her prerogative. It is not, in my opinion, Patchett's, and to presume to do so in the wake of her friend's death is not at all beautiful, even if it all just happens to be true.