Biographies: The Truth? The Whole Truth?

Alice Steinbach

August 18, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

This probably isn't going to happen but, just for fun, let's say someone wants to write the story of your life. A biography, in other words. Now let's also say that you are dead when this biographer comes around looking for a way to resurrect who you were, how you lived and what you thought.

But since you are not available -- remember, you are dead -- the biographer will have to rely on other sources for the book's material: family, ex-spouses, friends, enemies, relatives not named in your will, every schoolteacher you ever had, classmates who knew you 40 years ago, bosses who liked you and bosses who didn't . . . well, you get the picture.

The next step in chasing down the "truth" about you would probably be to cut to the paper chase: letters, any published material, diaries, medical records, unpaid parking tickets, old report cards and college board scores, your first-grade essay, postcards from camp, etc., etc.

Now, here's the question: If you take all this and add it up, would it really convey a true sense of who you were to the reader who never had the pleasure of meeting you in the flesh?

The art of producing a biography has got to be one of the most difficult of all writing tasks. Re-creating a person's life has always seemed like risky business, demanding, as it does, a knowledge not only of the subject's outer life but inner life as well. How, for instance, can you ever understand why one person grows up loving to be the center of attention and another craves solitude? Or why someone finds meaning in religion and another in science?

I thought about the elusive nature of capturing the "truth" of a person, biographically speaking, when I came across two recent news items. One has to do with Diane Wood Middlebrook's soon-to-be- released biography of the poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974, the other with Edmund Morris' book on Ronald Reagan, scheduled for publication next year.

The Sexton book set off a furor when it became known that one of Sexton's psychiatrists gave the book's writer 300 audiotapes of his private therapy sessions with the poet. The tapes were given to Middlebrook, the biographer, with the permission of Sexton's literary executor -- her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton.

Most of the controversy centers on whether or not the psychiatrist committed a breach of medical ethics, and it has resulted in strong opinions expressed on both sides of the issue. But there is also another interesting question raised by the audiotapes -- one that demonstrates vividly, I think, the delicate intersection between thinking you "know" someone and really knowing that person.

In the preface to her book, Middlebrook, who had been working (( on the manuscript for five years when she received the tapes, writes of how the tapes altered her entire approach to her subject: ". . . listening to them [the audiotapes] changed my view of Anne Sexton very much. I abandoned the book I had been writing and started over."

Here's my question: What if Middlebrook had never had access to the tapes and let the first book stand? Does it mean the first book would have been "wrong" in its presentation of Anne Sexton?

For what it's worth, here's my answer: No, the first book wouldn't be wrong. Nor would a third book which presented yet another view. You could compare it to looking at a globe: You only get to see the entire map of the world when you spin it around and study all the angles.

Sometimes, though, seeing the whole picture is not enough. Which brings us to the case of Edmund Morris. Handpicked in 1985 to write Ronald Reagan's biography, Morris was given almost unlimited access to his subject. Yet, in September 1990 -- five years into the project -- Morris admitted at a conference attended by fellow historians that he found Reagan "the most mysterious man I have ever confronted. It is impossible to understand him."

Biographer Morris -- whose talk was reprinted in a University of Virginia newsletter -- added that he felt "despair" about his inability to penetrate the Reagan armor until he "found out that everybody else who had ever known him, including his wife, [was] equally bewildered."

So where does that leave those of us who love to read biographies? Still reading them, I hope.

But with a better understanding, perhaps, that the life contained in a biography is as complex and elusive and open to various interpretations as a life in the real world.

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