Saturday, October 20, 2012

Everyman Memoirs & Did Lillian Hellman Lie?

A cheap notebook and you're off!

Everybody in my family writes memoirs.  They dash them off and self-publish them at Kinko's.  

My aunt, a brilliant woman who retired to the Midwest after years of political and administrative work, wrote gracefully but edited out anything emotional or distressing.  She wrote a vivid account of her rise from feed-sack dresses in the Depression to earning her Ph.D. in the '50s to wearing designer dresses as a consumer economist in Washington.  She did not, however, share details of her divorce, or what it was like to break the glass ceiling, and some of her best writing didn't make the final edit.  In her original "book" there is a dazzling description of her struggles to cure her son's nightmares:  she held up a mirror so he could see that no spiders were crawling inside his mouth.  

Hers is a book that could have been published.

I haven't reached the memoirs stage of life.  How to explain that seeing a radical English teacher heckle Betty Friedan in the early '70s led me to move from left to left-of-center Democrat, earn a degree in classics, and take a long-distance bicycle trip?

"If you don't remember something, make it up," a memoirist told a group of us at a conference. 

 Memoirists are held to a stern standard.  We read memoirs for truth, or the approximation of truth. We read them to learn about the writer's way of life, or our own way of life.  

When we learn someone has fictionalized memoirs, we are shocked.  

Lillian Hellman
Lillian Hellman was accused of that.  In her beautifully-written essay, "Julia," in Pentimento, which is surely an American classic, she writes dramatically of smuggling funds into Berlin in the 1930s so her childhood friend, Julia, can buy the freedom of 500 people from the Nazis in Austria.  Hellman's spare style underscores the drama, and this is one of her most moving, eloquent stories. 

According to her biographer, Alice Kessler-Harris,  it is probable that Hellman based Julia's story on the Resistance work in Austria of Muriel Gardner, an Amerian psychiatrist whom Hellman never met.  Mary McCarthy, Martha Gellhorn, and many others called Hellman a liar, not just for her portrait of Julia, but for her account of the McCarthy hearings in Scoundrel Time. It is, however, a complicated story.  McCarthy and Gellhorn hated Hellman, Hellman was suing McCarthy for calling her a liar on The Dick Cavett Show, and Gellhorn, not known for her honesty, was researching Hellman's life for McCarthy.

Hellman wrote often about her terrible memory. She said she felt truth was more important than facts. And in her introduction in 1978 to  
Three:  An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time (in one volume), she said;

"What a word is truth.  Slippery, tricky, unreliable.  I tried in these books to tell the truth.  I did not stick to facts.  But, of course, that is a shallow definition of the truth. "

The sad thing is that everything she wrote--even her well-researched Scoundrel Time--was called into question by her enemies.

Alice Kessler-Harris's biography, A Difficult Woman:  The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, is fascinating, and doubtless I will think more about Hellman as I continue to read it.

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