So, Biographies Are Wild

Let me start with this: I have never been a particularly avid reader of biographies. Prior to Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, I can’t recall the last one I read. But all of a sudden, my participation in the Women’s Lives Club’s year of women’s biographies means my bookshelf is raining life stories. (I think I’m going to need a bigger bookshelf.) As a newbie to the world of biographies, I thought I would share my somewhat disorganised thoughts on the topic. More specifically, I wanted to reflect on the immediate intrusiveness I’ve felt in this process. For reasons I’ll attempt to make clear, this sudden immersion into the worlds of other people, as told by different other people, has made me far more distrustful of the form than I ever expected.

To put it bluntly, it seems to involve the total invasion of a person’s existence. Imagine having your story appropriated by someone else. I’d never really considered how insidious that could be. To lose control of the narrative of your own life seems a frightening prospect.

As supplementary reading to the book club, our fearless leader Rachel Syme suggested Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun. In it, Heilbrun references Roland Barthes’ view of biography as offensive because it entails, as Barthes puts it, “a counterfeit integration of the subject.” Heilbrun concurs, suggesting that, “In choosing among biographers and biographies, we choose among counterfeit integrations.”

The biography I’m currently reading for the Women’s Lives Club, The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm, opens on an essay from Ted Hughes that was written as the foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, and in it he says, “I never saw her show her real self to anybody– except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life”. Less than a page in and I was already thrown off-kilter by those words. “Her real self”. It made me think about my “real self”, the idea that anybody has a “real self”, one true identity from which any deviation is just that: a digression from the authentic person. Why can we not be understood as more than one thing? We are more than one “real self”, aren’t we? But can a biography account for that?

As I continued reading the Malcolm biography of Plath and Hughes, it began to feel as though it was Plath’s curse that – after five biographies, and endless academic discussion – she would always have her story claimed by other people. The world seems to want to project their own readings of Plath’s actions onto her, from her first biographer Al Alvarez, whose own experience of attempting suicide seemed to be projected onto Plath’s, to the devoted fans who view her as the tortured artist or feminist martyr that they so deeply identify with.

What is striking about the Sylvia Plath narrative is that, as a result of the many retellings of her story, perspective proves its own pertinence in the biographical form – which Malcolm takes pains to highlight.

Now, autobiographies I get. They are rather less problematic in nature. It is a person’s account of their own life, their view being inherently relevant given that they are at the centre of the story being told. Whether it is an authentic retelling is less important, I would argue, than that this is their perspective and their perspective holds significance by virtue of belonging to them: the person whose story you, the reader, sought to read about. The anecdotes that are included and omitted are selected by the person of interest, who, typically, is choosing to edit their life into a flattering self-portrait. In many ways, the distortion of memory makes everything a fiction. We rearrange life into tidy narratives. We dispense of the clutter. We edit. But it’s far less complicated when we only edit ourselves because, simply, we edit our own stories to our own interests. There’s nothing outwardly deceptive about it because that assumption must exist in the mind of the audience anyway.

Biography, on the other hand, is messier. It’s another person’s editing. And their motives are going to be less clear-cut. Ultimately, we can assume that a biographer is going to write a life in such a way that supplies the reader with all the anecdotal evidence that will lead them on the path to the biographer’s own overall view of the person. Sometimes flattering, sometimes not. Sometimes accurate, sometimes not.

Even if my best friend – and bear in mind that when I say “best friend”, think Ann Perkins/Leslie Knope levels of closeness here – were to write the story of my life, it would only be a biography of the facets she knew. That’s more than most (and rarely are biographers that close to their subject anyway), but I still wouldn’t want this one iteration of my life to be confused for the truth of my life, my “real self”. I mean, until only recently said best friend was oblivious to my deep love for The Sound of Music (crucial to any biography about me, in my opinion) and, likewise, it was three years into our friendship before I discovered that she had grown up a dancer. She went to ballet! How cultured. What I’m saying is, we know sides of a person at best. Heilbrun (p.51) puts it beautifully:

Let any woman imagine for a moment a biography of herself based upon those records she has left, those memories fresh in the minds of surviving friends, those letters that chanced to be kept, those impressions made, perhaps, on the biographer who was casually met in the subject’s later years. What secrets, what virtues, what passions, what discipline, what quarrels would, on the subject’s death, be lost forever? How much would have vanished or been distorted or changed, even in our memories? We tell ourselves stories of our past, make fictions or stories of it, and these narrations become past the past, the only part of our lives that is not submerged.

We know only the parts of a person that they choose to show us. Even those fragments of another person’s identity are only ours by interpretation. You could edit the details of a life a hundred ways and lead a reader to a hundred different conclusions about the subject.

There seems to be an expectation that biographies are an external, impartial, objective retelling of a person’s life. But this approach seems to, in my view, hold little value and be misleading as hell. Why pretend it’s anything but a subjective account? We only see sides of a person. No one can fully know another. How can a biography be anything more than one person’s truth? One person, i.e. not the subject of the biography, but the biographer.

For a biographer to carry weight, in most instances anyway – and certainly in those where competing biographies exist (i.e. Sylvia Plath) – it seems to me that you must also endorse the biographer. Even if you do not hold an existing interest in them, you are trusting them to supply the life of their subject with meaning to you. I haven’t got into the specifics of the Malcolm biography of Plath but certainly in her case, she thrusts herself into the spotlight as much as Plath and Hughes. It seems to be a more overt, perhaps even more honest, approach to the biographers’ authority. Chernow’s biography, by contrast, navigates subjectivity with more subtlety; there is the occasional passing of judgment on Hamilton’s rare mistakes, or of admiration for particular achievements. Chernow is, however, critical of the Democratic-Republican account of Hamilton for its omissions, or of manipulating the narrative to their own end, further drawing attention to the inherently problematic nature of biography. History is told by whoever is there to tell it.

Janet Malcolm, in her aforementioned meta-biography of Plath and Hughes, describes a sinister image of the biographer as “like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” Where biography has impacted upon the immediate family and friends of the subject, as in the case of Plath and Hughes, the dark overtones of the process are troubling. Where Alexander Hamilton read like a fairytale, having gifted its subject with the legacy he always dreamed of, the multiple biographies of Sylvia Plath feel like something of a nightmare, in many ways, designed to exploit controversy and tragedy.

I am looking forward to the rest of the biographies we’ll be reading this year, most of which, I would imagine, are more closely aligned with Chernow’s subtle authority as biographer over Malcolm’s overt presence, but I certainly proceed with caution. The goal of the group is really to uncover the often untold stories of a diverse range of women, and that aspect of it has me incredibly excited. I’m just a little more wary than I expected to be about the people guiding me into these worlds.

I don’t want to get too Mulder about the situation but TRUST NO ONE. (The truth probably isn’t out there, only some version of it.)


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