WHITE CAT-BLACK CAT
The Question of Truth:
What is the truth about my life?
I once served on a jury. After the prosecutor had made his case (it was a drug case), the judge charged us with such words: “Each of you must look into yourselves and discover what you—and no one else—think is true.” You and no one else: those five words stopped me dead in my tracks. For the first time in my life, I—a kid brought up in a world of diplomats—was being asked to speak my truth, only my truth, and to tailor it to no one.
In approaching the writing of my memoir, I took the memoirist’s vow—“to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” I cleaved to a demand from a judge on high to speak the truth, but what was the truth about my life?
I suppose the search for truth was especially knotty—and keen—in my case, because I was the daughter of a C.I.A. covert operations officer. During my mostly-ordinary childhood, odd things sometimes occurred. I have an eerie memory, for instance, of a night when I was seven, when I heard rustling, and then Chinese whispers, deep in the dark. I tiptoed down the hall toward my father’s study, and peeping in, saw my two parents, in their Japanese yukata-bathrobes, serving tea, and speaking in hushed voices, to a hunched-over Chinese man—a man, I would learn decades later, my parents were hiding from danger. The moment carried both mystery and a sense of peril. I didn’t give it an explanation as a girl. It was just a fact of my life. Yet what was going on was fuzzy, and the scene stationed itself as a puzzle in my memory. The truth, itself, was murky…
…There I was, innocently growing up abroad, receiving impressions and having reactions, fighting my way in the chimp hierarchies of my various schools in Taiwan, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States—and all the while, secrets were wafting in the air, and murmuring underneath the surface of things. Secrets were trickling like the chilly stream water running under the slates of the cold cellar where William Wordsworth stored his apples at his Lake District cottage. Teasing the truth from a childhood laid on a bed of secrets is particularly tricky, but then again, perhaps each family has secrets trickling in underground brooks…
Patricia Hampl, the Minnnesota memoirist, wisely says the recipe for her trade—for anyone signing on—is, (to make free with her portions,) one dollop memory and one dollop imagination. But perhaps it would be more apt to say memoir writing is a welter of imagination and fish. Because memoir writing, as many have put it in so many words, is life-re-imagined. Because memory, and so, truth, is basically a fish wriggling out of your grasp.
This is the question: Which truth is the truth? To me, identifying the truth was often like gazing at an Escher painting. First it looked this way: like a school of fish. Then it looked like something entirely different: like a flock of birds. I might recall the feral cats I saw on walks by the North Sea. A particular day, I might remember one cat; the next, a different one might spring to mind.
Another way to see it, per Lillian Hellman: truth is “pentimento:” painting after painting, truth after truth, life after life, layered one on top of the other, each vague but shining from behind the most recently laid-down covering of paint. If we could paint a canvas for each of the ways our lives have seemed to us, we could fill, every one of us, a National Gallery of Art.
Truth is knotty. It is resistant as a burl on a tree, with multiple swirls of growth building up hardness and sheen.
In these next twelve posts, I will reflect on the various preoccupying concerns (and partial answers) that arose for me, and that arise for many a memoirist who sets out to locate the truth for his or her record of the past.