featured photo
 

More Jill Johnston
Flash Reviews
Go Home

The Johnston Letter, Volume 5, Number 3
Fictions of the Self in the Making

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 1993, 2010 Jill Johnston

(The life and work of Jill Johnston, who passed away in September, will be celebrated Saturday, January 29 at 1 p.m. at Judson Memorial Church in New York, 55 Washingtown Square South.)

I've read somewhere that women transform themselves, or set themselves on some path of achievement, only after an awakening. I don't know if this is so true anymore. I'm sure it was generally true before the early 1970s. Before then I had two awakenings myself, both of them pertaining to the vocation of writing. Quite inconveniently, my first coincided with marriage and motherhood, causing a conflict of interest and a burden of responsibility that was simply untenable at the time without extraordinary support.

This was in 1957-58. My "calling" was to nothing more romantic than writing criticism. It was a powerful summons nonetheless, and I was undeterred in its pursuit for seven years (plying my trade in the Village Voice and Art News). In the end my awakening helped to cost me my new family.

The conflict between personal achievement and family responsibility also contributed to my second awakening. Now it was the mid-'60s, when waking up was a kind of epidemic, highly communicable and often fatal. It was nearly fatal for me. But since I survived, another career as a writer hoved into view. This time my awakening was of an interior nature. I actually discovered just then that things were going on inside me, that I had a whole life of thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, rooted in a past that had been conducting itself autonomously, disconnected from my surface life.

The subterranean thoughts that erupted at that moment consisted mostly of fantasies, centering on my long-dead father, whom I had never met, and who had never been married to my mother or even lived with her. Until his death when I was 21, he had always been described to me by my mother as already dead. My new introspection gave me for the first time the striking and novel idea that I had a story.

Until then, evidently, I thought only the world and other people had histories. Or else I thought histories were done deals, full of dead facts, not accounts that people had actually made up (and continue to make up, ever casting the same sets of facts into different accounts) or that I could make up myself. I had been given some facts. Nobody had made a "story" out of them. Somehow I sensed I had a mission here. And I became strongly motivated to write about myself instead of others, or rather the work of others. I converted my criticism for the newspaper into a personal anecdotal column, and by 1969 I had signed my first book contract with the working title of "Autobiography."


I've read somewhere that the "woman's quest for her own story" has been the subject of much literature in the past two decades. When I signed up to write my autobiography, I was sure I already had a story. Then it grew clear that I didn't know how to tell it, and that my "quest" would become the search for a method. Gradually I realized, in the course of three unsuccessful attempts (between '69 and '80) to fulfill three different book contracts, that the story and the means of telling it are one and the same. "History," Jacques Lacan said, "is not the past," or "is the past insofar as it is historicized in the present." Yet we may be missing essential facts from the past, making the creation of context difficult or impossible. In 1969, for instance, I had lots of facts about my life but I had yet to learn I was a woman, i.e., a member of a (disadvantaged) caste within a political system. This lack of a political vision meant that I didn't know how to assess the circumstances of my birth, much less the consequences of my father's abandonment or my mother's lie. Nor could I appreciate the crucial conflict I had experienced between family and career. Raised in an all-female family, with a mother who had a career, then sent to all-female schools, clearly once I entered the world of men through marriage, the domain of the father, I was going to find myself in a place I didn't understand. But in order to understand my lack of understanding I would first need to learn that women themselves did not have stories or were not supposed to have them. That minorities and outsiders in general lack stories.

The quest for a story is the quest for a life. The search itself is the subject of a new kind of literature, what might be called a "plebeian autobiography." This is a most significant cultural development, promising more fatal awakenings than has hitherto been imagined possible, especially once the form is canonized.


I've read that Roland Barthes called biography "a novel that dare not speak its name," and that the stories we tell ourselves about the past become the past. Eventually that is what I discovered for myself. Recently a friend wrote to me about his dead father, saying that at 30 he thought he was really beginning to understand him. Now he says at 65, he's finding ever new aspects: that is, the facts he remembers are the same, but his present-day interpretations are different. His interpretation of the same event is different today from what it was in 1985, 1975, 1960, 1955, etcetera.

I wrote back saying how essential the facts are to me, as close as I can get them and maintain them -- the birth, death and marriage dates, recent and ancestral; the names, places, vocations, career moves, travels, family upheavals, illnesses, anniversaries, celebrations, the feelings, the words both uttered and heard, books read, events in their minutiae as well as broad outlines, and so on. With the facts, we can endlessly move them around, make them do things, act on them, and pitch them in different contexts.

As we remake the past, we alter the way we see ourselves in the present and the way we cast ourselves into the future. This is not the concept of the traditional autobiography, usually the prerogative of the famous or powerful, who look back at a life of accomplishment and tell a straight chronological and "factual" story. In 1989 in this publication a certain reviewer of Tobias Wolff's memoir "This Boy's Life" asked rhetorically: "Isn't it premature (if not presumptuous) for a young writer with three slim volumes (of fiction) under his belt to lapse into his anecdotage? Aren't memoirs, after all, the domain of elders... who are persuaded that a summing up is in order?" The judgment the question was playing off was that the life can't be written, it must be lived first, then written about -- provided it meets certain standards of achievement and propriety. Of course when we write the life, we are making it up (not the facts but the ways of seeing and organizing them), and this is a political act of self-recognition.


I've read somewhere that a certain man -- a writer on men's issues -- saw the task of life as exchanging an unconscious myth with a conscious autobiography. He saw himself undoing the ways he had been taught to believe a man should be. I don't believe he thought this meant annulling his power, the one attribute on his list that, as a man, he might continue to take for granted. For a woman, a conscious autobiography means facing not only her past as a "female impersonator" -- the realization that every accouterment of her sex has been culturally determined -- but also the ways in which she has been and continues to be victimized in that role, even when she no longer looks or acts or dresses or for that matter feels the part.

The efflorescence of autobiography in our time, plebian by nature, is probably due to the tremendous outbreak of victim consciousness in America, arising from the political consensus developed by the civil rights and women's movements. The traditional autobiography has hardly ever been a medium for victims. On the contrary, it's been a repository for winners, those born that way or those who made it against the odds. Their subject is what had been done; the past is sealed in some achievement. In the new plebe autobiography, writing and self-creation are synonymous. Like Maya Angelou, the writer may create more than one autobiography, establishing a profession where none really exists. Reality is being construed, rather than merely reflected. Scribe ergo sum.


I've read somewhere that Kathe Kollwitz, when old, found familial ties growing slacker. She wrote that for her the last third of her life there remained only her work as an artist. Possibly when I am really old I will find familial ties growing slacker. But in the last third of my life, these ties have tightened around me like the ropes of a racing sloop. I often feel in fact as if I'm in a race -- against time. I have family business of a variety that is supposed to occur at a much earlier age. Anyway, it's hard to imagine, like Kollwitz, a life of work not informed by family. To me, life and work are one body, and family is what shapes the life. Family would be overpowering my life, as it does everybody's, even if I remained oblivious to it. But family, the immediate extension of self is obviously critical to any writer writing about the life that has occurred already.

Most regular people writing their lives are not products of any intact patriarchal family, or else they have come to realize that what seemed ordinary in their backgrounds actually had strange and unassimilable factors. The autobiographies of Geoffrey and Tobias Wollf -- "The Duke of Deception" and "This Boy's Life" -- told of a family sundered and a father who was a scam artist on a grand scale. Like the Wollfs, Richard Rhodes, author of "A Hole in the World" and one of two brothers abused as children, sought identity in a early disturbed history, long before achievement takes over as subject.

To establish the normality of every peculiar situation, to help show in fact, that every situation is peculiar, to institute the centrality of every person, every kind of family, to celebrate difference, is the direction of the plebe autobiography. The woman-headed family, for instance, widespread as it is now, is still considered deviant. My postponed family business, focusing as it does on my two children, four grandchildren and female partner, has much to do with my struggle to embody an authority that was missing in my early history. My mother and grandmother were good caretakers, but they never assumed the authority of their absent fathers and husbands, could never step into the vacuum. Their lives lacked self-definition. They didn't have stories -- or their stories were never constellated.


I've read Monique Wittig, the French feminist, who has said, "A text by a minority writer is efficient only if it succeeds in making the minority point of view universal, only if it is an important literary text. 'Remembrance of Things Past' is a monument of French literature even though homosexuality is the theme of the book." I would amend the first part of the comment to read, "A text by a minority writer only succeeds if it becomes an important literary text." Then we could say that the stigmatized subject (any minority) has been overlooked, forgiven, in being subsumed under the category of (great) literature. Wittig's comment about Proust bears this out. Proust's work "is a monument of French literature even though homosexuality is the theme." But Proust became a "monument" decades ago, long before the homosexuality in his text was decoded or widely recognized.

Around 1969, I found out that men ran the world, and that I was a member of quite a few minorities. My writing had been developing idiosyncratically, in a hermetic, personal, free-associative manner. Now I had to incorporate political exposition and diatribe. In my own view, politics definitely cramped my style. Between '69 and '75 or so I was split between the personal, the literary and the political, trying to crossbreed them in convincing new forms. I also had my hand a creating the "universality" of the "minority point of view" in "Lesbian Nation," a personal and political tract but not a unified text.

In my next book venture, my second attempt at writing an autobiography, I opted for literature, aiming to write to write the third unreadable book of the century -- following "Finnegans Wake" and "The Making of Americans." After all, Gertrude Stein's monumentality was due largely to how she obscured her homosexuality by saying effectively nothing in a prolific and outstanding way.

My sexual orientation by now was no secret but my origins still were. Under contract with Random House in 1974-75 to write a book called "My Father in America," I delivered 430 pages in a single paragraph, all lower case, minimally punctuated. The book was jammed with appropriations (uncredited quotations) and studded with non-sequitur, that smashing device for evasion, digression, obscuration, escape. At the end my editor was outraged that he couldn't find my father in it. Nor much of anything else, I wager.


I've read Carolyn Heilbrun on Dorothy Sayers. She wrote that Sayers believed her son's "illegitimate" birth to be sinful, and was afraid she might be found out. She also suggested that in her "sinfulness" Sayers's true destiny as a woman was revealed. What does this mean? My mother was eight years younger than Sayers, who was born in 1883, and she too was afraid, indeed in mortal fear, of the consequences of having a child out of wedlock. Living independently, outside the bonds of marriage, my mother was freer than other women to pursue her interests. Yet she found single motherhood very difficult. Living in fear, with a secret, under protection of a cover-up, in time she would regard me as integral to the problem of her choice, identifying me with her transgression. She had had to lie and present false credentials, and she could never take me into her confidence. She could never tell me the truth about my father. Her complicated conformity -- to the social order she had defied in having me -- set her against me. And I, having no knowledge of the social order that guided her, naturally colluded in her judgment.

Here, I came to believe, was the essence of my story. The facts had accreted in a way that pointed to psychological and political truths. I had been stillborn, legally speaking, without male ancestry or inheritance rights. I was my mother's walking secret. I belonged to a huge unrecognized minority with untold stories. If I were going to exist (bring a story to light), it would only be by exposing my mother and the scheme of the fathers, by (re)creating my own "past."

In my mother's "sinfulness" lay my own true destiny. Here was an autobiography "that dare not speak its name," one with great novelistic potential. And I didn't have to make anything up, in the sense that fiction writers invent facts. I seemed ideally "dead" as a candidate for the new autobiography, in which the quest for a life is itself the subject. Where should such a story begin? For me, it began on paper. And in the 1980s, when finally I had the method and a language, I called the second volume of my autobiography in progress "Paper Daughter."


I've read Clive James's "Unreliable Memoirs," in which he says that his ideal autobiography had been Alfieri, the 19th century Italian dramatist and poet, whose description of a duel he once fought in Hyde Park is mainly concerned with how he ran backward to safety. After 1975 I was definitely doing that, though it never seemed necessarily ideal. As I understand it now, though, a war was over, and the losers -- the backlash against the women's movement already apparent to some of us -- had to jump ship and swim for their lives, or go down in a whoosh and bubbles of martyrdom. It was not hard for me to choose. Instinctively I struck out for shore, not having the least idea what I would find there.

Cut adrift by my newspaper, at first I found no writing assignment at all. To the right of me, the establishment said no, they would not support me any longer in my outrages; to the left of me, the radicals whose causes I adopted and championed said no, they would not rescue me from the establishment.

While my writing career hung in the balance, and the world was changing, my mother, from whom I had long been estranged, was getting ready to die. Evidently my renewed acquaintance with her reminded me of my conservative upbringing, because at length I sat down before a blank page and shaped a sentence, then another and another, as if I were writing a primer.

The pieces I wrote then were perhaps as close as writing can get to the still life. An excess of speed had turned into repose. I had reoriented myself to syntax and common usage. This was important for my autobiographical project because the improprieties of style to which I had become accustomed had not proven the best vehicle for getting my story across. In general, during the late '70s I was in revolt against my immediate past as an iconoclast. Nothing illustrated this better than my disowning a 1976 Canadian-made film about myself. Seeing myself cavorting on screen like a child with no cause, no responsibility, no particular intelligence, I threatened the filmmakers with a libel suit if they tried to show it anywhere.


I've read that Henry James said, "The way to affirm one's self, sur la fin, is to strike as many notes, deep, full and rapid, as one can." In his old age, he felt that all of life was in his pocket, as it were, and he could try "everything, do everything, render everything -- be an artist." I hardly feel that all my life is in my pocket. But I like the idea of striking "as many notes, deep, full and rapid," as one can. Implicit in the thought must be the assumption of having a good many notes to strike.

It's true that age brings deepening perspectives and the sense of a big palette. It should also bring, I believe, an increasing sense of the dimensions of what can never be known. When we're young, we think we know everything, and we're constantly surprised by the unimaginable. When we're older, we know we don't know much, and we're no longer surprised by new information. A certain boredom overtakes us. Convinced at last that that we can't know very much, we become less avid to learn things, more occupied going deeper into what we feel we already know. If we can't fit things into what we know, we forget them.

If we are striking many notes, they might be heard as one blended resonant deep cord. Struck therein should be the key note of compassion. In the New Age '70s, in 1976 to be precise, during the time of my mother's dying, I was brought by some devotee of some guru to a reader of chakras -- those points along the spine designated by yogis as centers of power. This reader told me that my "third" chakra ? the one that corresponds in some way with the heart ? was pretty faint and that I was accustomed to drawing the energy up from that point into my head and astral region for intellectual purposes.

It was a fancy, and I suppose tactful way of telling me I was still rather a merciless person. I took the reading to heart, dwelled on it, somehow let it act on me, giving my mother's death and my family issues a meaning they might never otherwise have had for me.


I read everywhere these days that the modern nuclear family is in disarray. This being true, it is also under reconstruction, and not, so far as I can tell, with any one design or blueprint to the exclusion of others. Our time is a pluralistic and experimental one. In my own case, the notion of recreating the past through autobiography is inextricably tied up in family. Once I realized I was not alone (I did have relatives out there), a refugee from a broken family, blown forever into bits, I could imagine reassembling these parts of myself.

My mother's death planted the foundation of a new house. She had grown up in a large, coherent American family, coherent at least on her mother's side. (Her father had broken off from his side, becoming embedded in her mother's.) Then, with her own independence and a child who embarrassed her, she set the stage for a family inconceivable in her time. I am writing now of a family in the making, the product of a woman (myself) who once supplanted family with her own career of writing, for the reason that the traditional marriage she made in 1958 flew contrary to the only model of family she knew: a daughter, a mother, a grandmother, and a mother's extended family, which by then was without a visible patriarch.

It's clear to see that women should not have to choose between family and career, that like men they should be free to have both. As women write (or otherwise construct, as in therapies) themselves into existence, reconstituting their own histories, just as clearly they will be inventing new families, reflecting their axial position in the creation process. Some of these new families may not look traditional, with a Mom and a Dad and the kids and all, but if the woman has succeeded in defining herself, the morphology will be decidedly different. The relationship of the parents to each other is likely to be that of siblings and friends rather than parent (husband) and child (wife), as traditionally understood. And the children are more likely to be recognized as people than treated as property or objects.

For myself, the Dad remains a shadowy figure in my writing as in life. My plebe autobiography in progress has not encompassed him yet. He's in the works, though, and I've long considered him essential to understanding myself.


Nowhere have I read that autobiography might someday, perhaps soon, constitute a literary genre as persuasive as fiction has been. But even while fiction (and poetry) remain the standard for creative accomplishment in writing, a revolution is taking place, a form is under development, a challenge to the pre-eminence of fiction as the creative test for a writer. As the form grows, attracting more and more practitioners, I have to suppose that it will finally be recognized apart from the traditional autobiography. Change is at the heart of the new autobiography. It is never too late to be what you might have been.

As we write ourselves into existence, the class, race and sexual political structures of society inevitably change. The notion of who has rights, whose voice can be heard, whose individuality is worthy, comes under revision. Ideally, all will be heard and respected. The shame of difference will evaporate. Change will be as fundamental to our daily diet as bread. And as this happens the culture will expand. We associate culture with the achievers, the "stars," not with people who live down the street. "Once the landscape is detailed and historicized," Carolyn Steedman writes in "Landscape for a Good Woman" (a narratively spare but interpretively rich English plebe autobiography that came out here in 1987), "the urgent need becomes to find a way of theorizing the result of such difference and particularity, not in order to find a description that can be universally applied (the point is not to say that all working class childhoods are the same, nor that experience of them produces unique psychic structures), but so that the people in exile, the inhabitants of the long streets, may start to use the autobiographical 'I,' and tell the stories of their life."


This essay was originally published in the New York Times Book Review on April 25, 1993. While Jill was working on it, she called it "Write First, Then Live." Also published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

More Jill Johnston
Flash Reviews

Go Home