In trying to tell the whole, complicated, often contradictory, story of, say, your tragic and difficult father, you sometimes come up against the question of how far you should go. You should go as far as you possibly can, I believe, clearly set out as much for the reader’s consideration as possible, never leave them hanging for information they need to decide for themselves.
I seem to have only one other rule for myself: do no harm to any loved one involved who might one day read the pages.
This rule is not absolute. I have described my only uncle, for example, with little apparent sympathy. I wondered if these pages might offend his son, so I ran them by him. He gave me a hearty thumbs up for the accurate portrait. My cousin was the person I was concerned about possibly hurting in that case. My uncle, being dead, is not going to be offended.
Eli, years ago, exacted my promise to wait until everyone in the stories he told me was dead before writing about them. At this point everyone in Eli’s stories is dead. Still, there are people alive who might be offended by certain true things I might report.
Nothing, I see now, hurts with more force than true things set in a harsh light. I weigh this as I try to tell the truest story I am able to tell, lit from as many angles as I can. Every specific detail I can supply is necessary to make my father’s story as true to life as I can make it.
There is a character or two I am unable to include in this story of my father, which I regret, because their relationship would shed tremendous light on the old man’s struggle to be a good man, in the teeth of his often overwhelming anger. I must, sadly, tell the story around these characters. But the vast majority of the crucial characters are fair game, and unoffendable, being dead. As long as I give the most nuanced version of events I can, I don’t feel like I’m being unfair to anyone’s memory.
This rule about doing no harm, clearly, almost never applies to people who’ve forfeited my good will by raging at me. In those cases, fairness to myself overwhelms any duty I might once have felt toward them. While some people may have no problem being the recipients of snarls, particularly if followed by even a mumbled apology, no matter how pointedly defensive, I am not one of these.
If someone comes at me too enraged to speak, particularly if my transgression has been minor (nothing, of course, is minor to the aggrieved), and then is not amendable to reason, they lose the right to complain if I’m compelled to set out every crucial detail of the conflict, so that someone else can understand the entire reason their actions were so hurtful.
“Oh stop with the fucking hurtfulness!” said the skeleton. “You know, most people eat a lot more shit in life than you do. You should grow up, Hurt Boy.”
My sister and I were never allowed to make our case, state our feelings, receive an apology when we were unfairly attacked or roughly treated. We were finessed, misdirected, blamed again, shouted down by our wildly emotional parents: the brilliant prosecutor father, our brilliant poetic mother.
Our basic right to be heard was almost never honored. I understand this happened to you too, dad, in an equally brutal, far less intellectual way, as it also happened to mom. It happens, in some form, to many, many people, the bulk of whom never complain– but there are always consequences to being mistreated this way. It manifested in you as a need to be right at all costs, to dominate, to feel somehow powerful, even as a despairing certainty of your own powerlessness gnawed at your soul.
It manifests in me as a need to not paper over my feelings. I have the good fortune, which doubles as a handy curse, to have acquired the patience to find the words I need. This ability now serves my need to express exactly what it is I find myself grappling with.
I go as far as I feel I need to go to explain things properly to myself and to the reader, our way in the darkness illuminated by words, feeling their way along, trying to get to the bottom of the matter somehow. How far I will go is limited only by my ability to describe the thing I am looking for, with the caveat about weighing what I discover to make sure I’m not hurting loved ones.