If creative nonfictionists build a persona, can persona-building also become a source of conflict and dynamism in writing? Can building a less-than-reliable persona be a deliberate strategy, much like the use of unreliable narrators in fiction, such as Nabokov's Humbert Humbert? Or does any kind of unreliability in the narrator undermine the entire premise of creative nonfiction? In this five part TriQuarterly series, five writers of nonfiction and one writer of fiction brainstorm creative ways for writers to make themselves unreliable narrators—with playful, conflicted, and imaginative results.
I wanted to approach this subject of an unreliable narrator in creative nonfiction by talking about some very personal memoirs I’ve been writing about my father. My father drives me crazy. Bat-shit crazy. I’ve spent years diagnosing him. He is a remarkable mix of merry narcissist and controlling obsessive compulsive. In other words, he thinks the whole world revolves around him (or as my wife likes to put it, “the day begins when he opens his eyes”), and he wants to control every minute aspect of it, often years in advance. And like most high-functioning narcissists, he would scoff at the idea that there’s the slightest thing wrong with him.
For my entire childhood, my dad came down to dinner—at 6 p.m. every night precisely—with a memo that he took out of his breast pocket and spread open beside his fork on the table. It was a numbered list of topics—the precise outline of our dinner-table conversation. We would work down the list. At some point, my mom and sister and I, in our joking serious way, disallowed his numbered outline. No more notes at the dinner table, we said. A few nights later, I became conscious of the same sudden shifts in our conversation, so the night after that I spied on him before dinner—he was memorizing his list as he performed his intricate predinner toilette in the bathroom. He thought this was hysterical—we couldn’t very well forbid what he had in his head, could we?—and of course, he found my inexplicable fury all the more amusing.
He had a little routine he often did at dinner. For all the other things that drive me crazy about him, my father is mostly not a racist person, but you wouldn’t know it from this routine. It was the story of an immigrant Asian family whose first son had gotten into Princeton, Brown, Yale, Stanford, and MIT, but not Harvard. “Hahvard numbah one,” my dad would say, supposedly imitating the immigrant parents. “Hahvahd numbah one.” It was a routine, and we were meant to laugh at the single-minded determination of the immigrants, at the bad accent, but no one was more single-minded and determined than my father, and the message was clear: Harvard was number one. I remember distinctly knowing in fifth grade that I (also a firstborn son) would go to Harvard . . . Everything I did, beginning then, was done with that goal in mind. High school theater was to be one of the extracurriculars on my college application, but the biggest production in my high school was always the musical. So my father insisted that I take private voice lessons. We had screaming, running-around-the house fights about this. Because not only did I not have any interest, but, as kind Mrs. McAdams, who sat next to me on our piano bench once a week, would surely tell you, I’m very nearly tone deaf. To this day, I can’t carry a tune.
Somehow, having the biggest nonsinging part in the school musical three years in a row was still enough to get me admitted. I suspect, though, that I’m one of the few people in the world who is ashamed of having gone to Harvard.
I could go on and on about my dad. In fact, as you may sense, I want very much to go and on. But I suspect I’ve already lost a fair number of you. You’re looking at me and you’re thinking, OK, Mr. Clay Benjamin, you really need to get over your daddy issues. You’re a grown-ass man, with kids of your own, it’s time now. And anyway, nothing you’ve described is really that bad—he didn’t beat you or lock you in the basement, or worse. He paid for four years of Ivy League college, for crying out loud. And you know, there’s worse things than having ‘Harvard undergrad’ on your CV, no matter what deep psychological issues you may have about it.
You know what? You’re right. To put it now, in the terms of this panel—I’d say that I’ve made myself unreliable. At some very fundamental level, I’m guessing that by this point you don’t trust my portrayal of my father. Now that I’ve gone on about these perceived slights, you may not trust my portrayal of him very much.
If this were fiction—God, if this were only fiction—I’d go with that unreliability. In fact, if it were successful, that would be a significant part of the pleasure of reading the piece. That you got that this narrator was unreliable—you, the reader, and me, Clay, the author, but not this character I’ve created, would end up on the same page. But in nonfiction the author and the character, of course, are the same—or at least, it’s my theory that they need to end up being the same.
If this were fiction, I might continue to rant and rave—I’d make myself into something resembling the self-consumed misanthrope of Notes from the Underground. (I suspect Dostoyevsky had some pretty serious daddy issues himself.)
But we’re talking about nonfiction here, and in the kind I’m trying to write, you would conclude that this writer is too blind about himself to be able to enlighten you, the reader. So what’s the memoirist to do? It seems to me there’s a particular jujitsu of memoir writing whereby the author acknowledges his own unreliability, acknowledges that yes, he’s not to be trusted on some of this stuff, and that admission somehow makes him more trustworthy. Yes, I would like very much at the age of forty-five to be over my daddy issues, and yes, by any objective measures in the catalog of fatherly abuses, his are slight, and anyway, there are plenty of extenuating circumstances. Fifth grade was, perhaps not so coincidentally, not just the year I knew I would go to Harvard; it was also the year my mom began her ten-year, ultimately losing battle with breast cancer. Can you imagine how hard that must have been for my father, the literal chaos of cancer, for someone as controlling and narcissistic as he is?
Have I regained any of your trust by acknowledging the ways in which I’m not really to be trusted?
But, and here’s the thing about my particular father, he really does drive me bat-shit crazy, still, and partly because nothing he’s done is so egregious, and partly because of his particular brand of successful, grinning, controlling narcissism and his endlessly reasonable-sounding tidal wave of lawyer’s logic, it took me a very long time, to, as the therapists say, realize that my feelings are valid. That’s a part of my story, convincing you of my justifiable anger, making you feel that rage, at the same time that I have enough distance on it to say, wow, OK, I can see I’m being kind of ridiculous, and that ridiculousness is a big part of what I’m writing about here, too.
In my book of stories, anger at my father animated several of the stories largely because it was unconscious. People who knew me said, “Oh, that story’s about your father,” and I’d say, “No, this story’s about an obsessive basketball player, and my father never picked up a basketball in his life; in fact he had outright mocking disdain for competitive athletics.” And my friends would say, “Yeah, OK, duh, but that story’s about you and your dad,” and to some shockingly large degree, it caught me off guard. That kind of blind spot would be fatal, I think, to the memoir I’ve been writing. Acknowledging that I’ve had that blind spot, that for much of my life I really was not to be trusted on the subject of my father, and acknowledging that still, tomorrow, by any objective measure, my rage may seem disproportionate—well, I hope and believe that acknowledgement enables you to cut me a little slack. Don’t you trust me, just a little bit more, when I acknowledge my own lack of trustworthiness?
I want to end with one last thought. It seems to me that the demands of the form, or at least this demand, as I interpret it, requires additional rigor as a writer and I want to say as a person. And though I’m wary of the writing-as-therapy way of conceiving of memoir, it seems to hold considerable promise in that regard as well, by forcing us to confront these less evolved versions of ourselves.