It was my cousin on the phone. The call I yearned for, and dreaded.
Yearned with that vulnerability of memoirists when praise is heard not simply for one’s book but also as a response to an unspoken plea: love me.
Dreaded because she had made it clear that she had hated my earlier memoir: “I nearly died when I read it.”
And this is what every memoirist fears: that our books will hurt someone so deeply that the wound will be fatal.
Love and death were the stakes in this phone call, seemingly so ordinary.
“I read your new book,” she began, “and you got it right. But there’s one thing you got wrong.”
I held my breath.
“Uncle Bennie didn’t die from choking on a peanut. It was peanut butter.”
Is this what worry and need come to: nut or butter?
And does it matter?
It would have mattered a lot while I was writing White Matter, a memoir of my family’s two lobotomies. Before I began to write the scene, I imagined my Uncle Bennie walking into the nursing home’s dining room, pausing for his lobotomized twirling that he often did, then sitting down to a bowl of shelled peanuts. I saw his chubby fingers scoop up a mouthful. I tried to feel what it must have been like when one nut jammed in his throat, those seconds of unbelieving panic. I heard the awk gak sounds of his choking, felt my own hand around the glass of water that arrived too late.
No, I wasn’t there. But I wanted my reader to be there.
If I’m going to accommodate my cousin’s version, the scene has to shift. There’s a problem though; I can’t make it work. I tried to imagine my mouth completely filled with peanut butter, the stuff so sticky that I can’t get my jaw to open.
Uncomfortable, but not slipping like lava down my throat, congesting the airway. No, peanut butter won’t do for blockage.
Not so, says my husband, with whom I discuss this later. He says, “I can imagine taking a big tablespoon of peanut butter and trying to swallow it whole. That could make a person choke.” And he’s right to suggest that because my Uncle Bennie was known—at least in my memory, and in a scene I wrote for the book—to gulp his food.
“Chew, Bennie,”—a line I gave an aunt. “It won’t go down that way.”
How am I going to tell my cousin that there may well be a number of accuracies, but only one that fits the story?
I’m not going to try. About that earlier “hated” book, another aunt tried to explain to her that while the book is written in the first person and is described as a memoir, it didn’t mean that “I” was I, this flesh and blood person she has known since birth. Every memoirist is his own avatar, and while I don’t like mystification—it aggrandizes and leaves people out—the construction of the shape-shifter formerly known as I is one of the fundamental acts of memoir.
There’s another fundamental act that can be problematic for the writer and reader of memoir: the necessity of writing scenes. When Virginia Woolf wrote “I find that scene making is my natural way of marking the past,” she was referring not to her fiction but to her memoir, “A Sketch of the Past.” She doesn’t, however, address the falsifications that may be needed to make a memoir credible in its own reality. When I described another family member at dinner in New York, I set the scene at Keen’s Steak House, a likely restaurant because it’s where he would take me when he came to town, and also an imaginatively right choice because its wood-paneled atmosphere conferred the dignity I wanted him to have, and also gave him a plausible place to linger before having to go back home with bad news.
In my mind, I say to my cousin that I—the writer “I”—can attempt to write the truth in all good faith, but then the story takes over in all its compelling detail and insists on an adjacent truth. Then the writer experiences that truth so convincingly while writing that she thinks it is the truth. And of course, it may be. That’s the tension for us memoirists;
we work with shared perceptions of an event but then, in the act of writing, we become the only person experiencing it.
In our conversation, neither my cousin nor I insist on rightness. In life, we’ve decided it’s best not to make scenes. We’ve learned to be wary of one another, not to go places where wounds might open again. Besides, lowering the stakes feels good. It takes the reception of one’s memoir to the level of everyday life. “It wasn’t a peanut. It was peanut butter.” I still don’t know why, but that cracks me up every time. And so the nervous memoirist, having yearned and dreaded, sits down at the table and has a good laugh. And tries not to choke on what is, after all, a difference of opinion.
Besides, it turns out that a peanut isn’t quite itself either. I just looked it up. Wikipedia says the peanut is not a nut but a legume; “however, for culinary purposes and in common English language usage, peanuts are usually referred to as nuts.” In other words, even the most ordinary object, previously known as one thing, can turn out to be as slippery as memoir and, as in memoir, we use what works.