by Laura Bogart
As a memoirist who traffics in the petty savageries of family, I was eager to see Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell. The film’s plot may be driven by the question of Polley’s paternity, but it gets its narrative heft from posing a darker, more cavernous question, one that haunts any artist who relies on her own life as source material. How do we keep the “true” in “based on a true story” while digging in toeholds for our audiences, letting them climb inside our experiences and set up camp?
Polley juxtaposes interviews and voiceovers with grainy footage of her mother—flirting with a backstage Romeo who comes to see her on tour; hushing someone who’s caught her on the phone—that illustrates the moments being described. Polley seems lucky enough to have that history frozen in the amber of eight millimeter. Very few us get to say, “This happened exactly as I’m presenting it to you. Nothing in my telling is corrupt.” Until, of course, she pulls the rabbit from her hat: these “home movies” were cast with doppelgangers, fully scripted, and staged for maximum impact.
The friend I saw the film with was pissed off by the reveal. He said that everything he’d become invested in as the truth simply wasn’t—it was an interpretation, a kind of fiction. I countered with “the writer’s toolbox,” and how, to get the most powerful, universal piece, we use elements from fiction—establishing stakes and through-lines and shucking anything that doesn’t fulfill them; dramatizing events to serve a certain theme; turning the self into “the narrator” who can hover above and flit down into other characters’ perspectives. Even if those “characters” are the people who raised you.
My friend’s assessment—an interpretation, a kind of fiction—has haunted me. I’ve built a byline excavating my damage; my back catalog is filled with images of my black eyes, of doors he broke down. Still, it is not my damage alone. Not just my broken nose. Not just my broken heart. But I have armored myself, armed myself, with what my father never had, what my mother was afraid of. I have words. And I use my words the way my father used his fists: I beat down. I dominate. My words unleash a gale-force fury against people who can never fight me back, not on equal footing.
Everything I’ve written about my family—my father’s rages, my mother’s fear—has been filed, rightfully, under non-fiction. I have the scars and the (slightly) crooked nose to prove it. The violence inflicted and the violence endured resides on my skin and underneath it. But memory is not a hard drive, a soulless repository of fact. It’s a watercolor stain just before it dries—messy yet delicate, unwieldy yet malleable.
At times, I look at the father I’ve rendered on the page—a man who smacks his daughter in the face for yawning when he tutors her in multiplication tables—and it’s unfathomable to imagine that man carrying that girl up to her bed, whooping, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Supergirl!” Yet he did.
He was as mercurial as a late summer sky: a promise of beneficent warmth or a smothering of heat that could only be relieved by a storm. When I was a child, I could not control him. When I write, I am Prospero: his thunder comes at my command. I gather his lightning into a box labeled with a million pitches: “pop culture,” “cinema,” “politics,” “phobias,” or “the novelty of female aggression,” and I pull out the flashes—memories of a particular beating or a tenderness that shattered me in equal measure—that illuminate a connection between my life and something far larger, something that other people can enter into, can rally around.
I wonder if my essays aren’t, in fact, like Polley’s “home movies”: facsimiles just grainy and faded enough to feel authentic. I wonder if the father who takes his belt off and teaches me to throw a punch, who calls me Supergirl and Pretty Girl and tells me he can’t believe how stupid I am, everyone knows that anything multiplied by zero is zero, hasn’t been cast straight out of the Brandoesque Academy for Nuanced Brutes. Sometimes, he was just a nondescript suburban dad. He wore loafers and mowed the lawn; he made pancakes for dinner and listened to Simon & Garfunkel on road trips. There is no drama in this.
I wonder if, every time I write, I whet my axe on the woodpile of my mother’s failures. If what I choose to remember of her—sponging foundation and brushing blush over my bruises and ruing the fairness of my skin; crying his name and never mine whenever I’d get between them—doesn’t illustrate anything but the fathomless chasm of my bitterness at so deep, so constant a betrayal.
I wonder if that something far larger, something other people could enter into and rally around is only me—a girl whose secrets were stones in her throat, a child so desperate to be heard.
There was no specific moment when I decided that I’d put my name to my life story. No radioactive spider bite or rescue pod rocketed from Krypton frames my origin as a non-fiction writer. At some point, funneling everything into fiction alone felt like telling my friends’ parents that I’d tripped on the pavement again.
But non-fiction workshops can, at times, feel like an atrocity Olympics: the gold medallist has the deepest scars, the most graphic nightmares. Yet the question that any good instructor will ask, the one that my instructors frequently did ask, is why. Why share this particular story? Why share it now?
I’m not sending dispatches from the eye of the hurricane. My father has not lifted his hands to me since I was thirteen years old. He’s worked all the steps, including the fourth step, the honest inventory, and the ninth step, making amends. He’s been sober for seventeen years. We’ve spent most of those years in various states of estrangement, though we have begun knitting ourselves whole. The work is slow, and occasionally we prick a finger, draw a little blood.
The truth is there is no tidy why. I can feign an unadulterated altruism, say that I write so that no other little girl should swallow stones; I write so that another survivor can spit his stone into the palm of his hand. But this isn’t the truth, not entirely.
Once, when a professor asked me that why, I sat mute, stirring embers in my mind. “It’s okay,” he joked, “if you write to get your pound of flesh.” Perhaps there is more truth in that than I’d care to admit; perhaps I write what I want to say when my mother asks why I never call her back, why I sound “so snippy” when I do pick up the phone.
Still, that isn’t entirely right, either. Yes, there’s that righteous thrill of testifying on your own behalf, of pointing your finger and slamming the gavel and saying “you sold me out, you wronged me.” It may be vindicating, even cathartic, but it will never smooth down my scars, and it will never blunt the edges of my dreams.
So why? Why turn my parents into players on the stage of my approximation, my interpretation? Archetype is an open hallway with naked walls, a place we ornament with our experiences. I enter my mother through her weaknesses, and I know I can’t repeat them. I enter my father through his extremes, and I see something of myself in the man I recreate on the page. I see his quick wit and his quicker temper. I see how his own father unmade him, and how, without vigilance, I could be undone as easily.
I am my broken heart and my boiled blood. I will never be as objective as a camera lens. Then again, neither is any home movie. We film weddings and birthday parties and Christmas mornings, days when the family is all smiles. We film our loved ones in their brightest lights, blowing out the candles, letting the flower girl hold the trains of their dresses, laughing and giving a thumbs up to the Xbox under the tree. We never ask ourselves why. There is a power in sentiment—whether it’s elation or rage, joy or grief—that is as stripped and clean as an unvarnished fact. A power that is as pure as truth.