“The stories we tell about ourselves may not be true, but they are all we have.”
I am interested in our relations with these stories we tell about ourselves, stories that may or may not be true. Let me select three cases.
(a) I have a story about myself which I sincerely believe to be true, in fact which I believe to be the story of me, but which some ideal, omniscient, God-like observer who is entirely independent of me and to whose mind I have no access knows not to be true, or at least not to be the whole truth.
(b) I have a story I tell about myself, one in which I wholeheartedly believe but which certain well-placed observers (my parents, my spouse, my children) know to be flawed, probably self-serving, perhaps even to a degree delusional. (This is a not uncommon state of affairs.)
(c) I have a story about myself in the way that we all have stories about ourselves: I concede that it may not be true by the standards of (a) or even (b); nevertheless, it is “mine”, it is all I have, and therefore I give it my allegiance. “It’s all I have, it’s the best I can do.”
The Monthly October 2014
Extract from The Good Story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, by JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, to be published by Harvill Secker in May 2015. Copyright © JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz 2014
I told him the story of my life, most of it, a version of it, and he told me his, and in the telling both storytellers came to believe that their stories were true. I’m the person I’m describing, I thought, I really am! I knew that I was editing the story as I told it, but not to hide anything or to protect myself – I believed that I wanted Woodrow to know everything about me, no lies and no secrets that mattered. But I was telling my story to a man, not another woman, and therefore edited it accordingly. And I was revealing what I knew of myself to a black African, not a white American. .. and not to a neo-Marxist fugitive under indictment by her own government for acts of civil disobedience and suspicion of terrorism. I had no choice but to alter, delete, revise, and invent whole chapters of my story. Just as, for the same reasons, I am doing here, telling it to you. Russell Banks The Darling
Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeing. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them too: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes. He allows the reader to be a voyeur with him, to eavesdrop with him, to rifle desk drawers, to take what doesn’t belong to him. The feeling is not entirely pleasurable. The act of snooping carries with it a certain discomfort and unease; one would not like to have this happen to oneself. When we are dead we want to be remembered on our own terms, not on those of someone who has our most intimate, unconsidered, embarrassing letters in hand and proposes to read out loud from them to the world. Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes