If creative nonfictionists build a persona, can persona-building also become a source of conflict and dynamism in writing? Can building a less-than-reliable persona be a deliberate strategy, much like the use of unreliable narrators in fiction, such as Nabokov's Humbert Humbert? Or does any kind of unreliability in the narrator undermine the entire premise of creative nonfiction? In this five part TriQuarterly series, five writers of nonfiction and one writer of fiction brainstorm creative ways for writers to make themselves unreliable narrators—with playful, conflicted, and imaginative results.
Time: Late August
Place: Hudson Valley Writers’ Center
Event: A weeklong workshop in “writing the memoir”
Players: Seven writers and me, the teacher
A woman writer in her sixties is the last of seven students to share her work. Her title: “The Psychopaths among Us: A Case Study.”
I present her writing here in the style she adopted, a very clipped textbook shorthand, articles dropped from nouns, and minimal development. I can’t imitate her reading voice, but its tone, hectoring and shrill, is somewhere between Donald Trump and The Nanny’s Fran Drescher.
Introduction: Father is put into sanatorium by wife and daughter. Wife and daughter are mother and older sister of author. Author and husband, away in Canada for long weekend, are unaware that mother and sister are institutionalizing father. This is done behind author’s back for author would never have agreed. Father is not sick.
Action: Author and husband hire lawyer to represent father’s interest. To no avail. Before father can be rescued, father dies in sanatorium.
Action. Author and husband tell story to psychiatrist. Psychiatrist confirms mother and sister are psychopaths.
Author inference: Psychopaths are everywhere in contemporary society: CEO, politician, con man, poser, young man with an AR-15 in movie theater.
Action: Write a memoir–slash–case study about prevalence of psychopaths in author’s family and in world at large. Goal of book is to be used in college classes as authoritative guide on psychopaths.
Action: Illustrate twenty-two traits of the psychopath with stories from author’s childhood.
Psychopathic Trait #1 (manipulation): Incident. Author and sister, as young girls, are last two left on school bus, going home. Bus driver receives emergency phone call. He is needed at hospital after wife’s accident. Bus driver stops bus and orders author and sister off. Sister refuses. Sister stares down bus driver and tells him she will kill him if he does not drive her and author home. Bus driver caves in from sister’s manipulation.
Psychopathic Trait #2 (conspiracy): Incident. Mother hears bus tale from author’s sister and believes nothing is wrong with sister’s action. In fact, mother approves and says she would have threatened same way as well. This proves mother and sister are conspirators.
Psychopathic Traits #3–#22. More of same.
Using DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), author will prove that mother and sister are psychopaths. Their actions represent millions of others and author’s work adds to growing wealth of case studies on the psychopaths among us.
“Thank you for listening,” she says, and stops.
I ask the woman, “Have you shown this material to an agent or editor?”
“Yes,” she says. “It was a memoir, and they all rejected it.”
“So you rewrote it?”
“Yes,” she says. “I hope in this version the book has more authority as a case study.”
I ask the group members for their input. They pull no punches.
To the person, they say, it’s off-putting. Worse, it’s hearsay. You just told this to a doctor who you say confirmed it. How? Without examining them? It’s scurrilous, baseless. You need more than one professional to diagnose them as psychopathic. Psychologists, not laypeople, write case studies.
Another comments, Isn’t it the mark of trust to hear a writer acknowledge or accept conflicting interpretations, to include in a memoir, for example, different perspectives on the same event?
Still another remarks, You can’t be all right and your mother and sister all wrong. You have to be reliable if you want us to believe you—the only thing you’ve convinced me of is that I don’t trust you based on what you’ve written.
I want to stand up and applaud these comments. The problem with the work revolves around the word reliable, the memoirist’s albatross. She can’t present us with this sort of subjective study and expect us to believe her. It’s absurd.
For her part, the woman listens politely to our complaints and disbeliefs for ten minutes, defends herself a bit, then gathers her pages and leaves abruptly. She must catch a train.
Once she’s gone, our collective jaw drops even farther. The first participant to speak says that what just happened is like a scene from a Hitchcock film: “It’s as if a woman,” he says, “who, disguising herself as a writer, tried to manipulate us into believing her accusations against her family members were true because she’s the psychopath.”
I agree, feeling drawn to the mystery. Not only could she be the crazy one, but what if, I wonder, her mother and sister did what she says they did—committed the husband/father to an institution and, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, pocketbooked the spoils for themselves? Maybe the whole family is nuts.
Suddenly, I get it. I tell the group that since there’s no consciousness in the writing, she is revealing herself to us as unhinged; she has merely confused us, not oriented us to her cause.
For this kind of nonfiction to work, there has to be an “I” who is not “I,” a narrator who is both author and character, a narrator in whom we see the split or, at least, a tear. The author steadies us while the character grows untrustworthy. The nonfictional self—to be reliable—must have an “other.” This “other” can be a persona, for example a case-study author, but somehow we have to know that in order for it to be nonfiction.
And yet I’m haunted by another question (which I feel in the moment and unpack much later): Why does the woman seek our approval? Does she believe we hold the power to legitimize her claim? What is our role in making or breaking her reliability?
Let me come at this from a bit of my own psychopathology.
Regardless of our arguments over what is and is not fiction or nonfiction, or foundering in that David Shields–like meander between the two, there is a place in the authorial universe where the writing is true because the act of writing it down—forget the audience’s response—makes it true. Indeed, regard for an audience is seldom the first step.
Take these instances of “what’s true is what’s written down”—the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the number-one best-selling book during the fall/winter 2012–13 season: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Near-Death Experience and Journey into the Afterlife.
Sorry to bring bad tidings, but these “sacred” texts are works of fiction. They are written by questionably sane people whose authority is derived from the extreme hallucinatory state in which each writes or speaks and whose testimony is believed largely because the author has transcribed a supposedly divine source.
But there’s more to reliable truth than this shamanic inscription. There is proclamation, saying it over and over and over.
It’s not skillful storytelling that sets these purportedly holy texts apart. It’s the chain of tradition that selects as true those stories that are replayed the most. Why is this important? It’s the way in which fiction, via repetition and modification, becomes believed, believable, and truth gets reshaped, even misshaped.
Here’s a few links in that chain.
Our culture proclaims and replays a billion times the so-called miracles of the New Testament, which, in turn, allows the Texas Board of Education to put into the curriculum guidelines on teaching intelligent design. The US Constitution proclaims and we replay the rights of gun ownership, which, in turn, ensures that Congress cannot ban assault weapons.
It’s called precedent. And this is the key to the alleged “truth” of institutions.
Because our culture so often promulgates myth over evidence-based knowing, precedent over fact, doctrine over reason, the result is such grand prevarications as Too Big to Fail, corporate farming, infallible popes, enhanced interrogation—whatever the metanarratives and their meta-narrators conspire to transmit.
Those who assent to these myths convince or brainwash others of the self-interest of the ruling class, one which decrees that a society be organized, its commandments encoded, its children disciplined, its myths replayed—that in terms of language and literature, the stories we inherit must be the stories we tell.
Take Hammurabi’s Code. No one would have assented to his laws had there been an impartial examination of its pronouncements—especially by doctors, who, if they operate on a patient and the patient dies, so says the code, will have their hands cut off. No one defied the code because it was tantamount to defying Hammurabi himself. He was right because he wrote it down and he enlisted an army to enforce it.
Reliability doesn’t require proof—only enough assent to subordinate those who object.
In sum, there’s truth by inscription; there’s truth by proclamation; and there’s truth by lasting. Centuries of proclamations for a Christian heaven and hell have been shown to be true because they’ve been proclaimed long enough and wide enough and been believed by people from all walks of life. True, such thinking is circumlocutious. But it’s one that works nevertheless.
My point is, the woman writing of psychopaths in her family is following reliability’s proven path. Use the case-study form, sculpt her tale with more passion than fact, hybridize memoir and psychology, and broadcast it to listeners—not once but, she hopes, a hundred times. In this way, reliability is socially determined, and it functions, for better or worse, via its viral potency.
This is why she enlisted us. She realized that the person with the loudest voice and the widest platform from which to proclaim is more likely to be believed than someone with less voice and platform. Call it the Bill O’Reilly factor.
Controversial claims that raise our ire add to her legitimacy.
I can’t stress enough the persuasive power of such disputed testimony and its repetition with our understanding of what it means to be reliable.
In an age consumed with more media talk than written analysis, more instant messaging than reflection, when video is supplanting text, and when mediated reality is more actual than regular reality (whatever that is), being heard enough times legitimizes your claim, your belief, your story.
And once you’ve gone viral, you earn perhaps the biggest prize: the author is relieved of having to prove her claim; she can rest or hide in the approval of her followers. It doesn’t matter if she believes what she’s written or if we question it or if the evidence is sketchy—not as long as her audience believes her. Audiences will believe anything.
Finally, it’s more than a little strange that here I am, as much ridiculing the woman’s claim as I am repeating it—spreading it, so to speak—so that you, this audience, are strung together as listeners, some of you a touch more sympathetic toward, others more rigidly critical of, her cause.
How pithy this irony is, how easily the masses are led, how easily complicit I become.
That’s what she meant when she said, as I do now, Thank you for listening.