Having established the portrayal of emotional truth as the purview of my memoir, we go back now to those layers of paintings, those versions of our lives brushed in one on top of the other, that keep shining out of the frame. I’ve made my qualified vow to the truth, but which emotional truth ought I to tell?
My childhood, spent criss-crossing the globe, was a rich, exotic lark, deliciously happy.
My childhood was a field of grief, rent by constant moves, brittle secrets, losses, self-doubt, and friction.
In order to tell you the truth of my childhood, which story do I tell? What do I show you, or present to you on this platter, my book? The triumphant, happy, hearty story—the American success story? Or the bogged-down, sad, troubled one a Frenchwoman might write?
As I composed my memoir, I could not be happy with either the chirpy, hearty, wasn’t-I-happy story, nor did I want to serve you up the memoir of a victim—because neither was true. I was both pitiful and confident. Both ecstasy and sadness were commonplace in my life, positive and negative experiences waxed and waned, every which way, all over town. I groped for balance. Life, to me, has always been a mix of happy and sad. I cleave to a belief in rendering a proportionate mixture of trouble and triumph. Now then, trying to be as objective as I can be: If you looked at a movie of my childhood, you might say, “This is the story of a sensitive, shy kid who grew up to be, for the most part, strong and happy, with many struggles along the way.” But that is just me, talking. You might say, “Wow, what a cool, lucky childhood,” or “I wouldn’t have gone through that for the world.”
Beyond the happy-sad dichotomy, there are so many stories I could have told that would be a version of the truth:
The shy, lonely, grieving girl
The valiant girl with the spy glass, who could sail any sea
The girl who ended up on a U.S. Air Force psychiatric ward
My brave, inspirational mother
My terrified mother
My war with my mother
My perfect father
My father the tortured spy
A life within secrets
My childhood that zig-zagged across the globe
The people I have loved
My crazy schools
Itinerance and its consequences
Cultures I have known
One girl’s story of what it means to be American
Truth is multiple. Each story is a layer (and each of these, to a degree, shows through the paint in my memoir). I think of each of these slants, each of these books, and the many more I could conceivably write, as “The Lives of SMT.” As the essayist Philip Lopate has written, in each essay he writes, he selects and exaggerates a certain part of himself in order to carve it in relief. At the hypothetical end of his life, if you were to read the entire body of his work (assuming it was complete), as it built up, in layers on his canvas, you might only then have a near-full sense of the man.
So there you sit before the thicket of memories, a ramble of wooded habitats stretched to the horizon. Some of the forests are barbed, some lush and deciduous, some sparse and piny, set in thin air. In which do you set your story?
To use another metaphor, attempting memoir is like breaking yourself open and having to put yourself together again. How do you like your eggs? Hard-boiled? Scrambled? Over easy? Poached? With Hollandaise sauce at the Ritz?