Good literature, at its best, lets us in to the real thoughts in a writer’s brain, offers us access to the imaginings a regular non-writer-person might never admit, even to the dog.
I have been saved by such literature, by the mere notion that those things I think sometimes, the things that might be dinner-party-don’ts, might in fact be shared by others. These books, those of Erica Jong and John Cheever and William Styron and James Baldwin and Jerzy Kosinski and Susanna Kaysen, have allowed me on many occasions to breathe sighs of great relief that all is not always what it seems, that the facades we often face are simply that, that I am not the only “crazy” one.
I have been thinking about this notion a lot as I attempt to create my own honest work of writing, to put together my own novel. I have been appreciating even more what it takes for an author to acknowledge their thoughts and feelings, even the seemingly unseemly dirty details of their lives, and been amazed at their perseverance despite the toll such admissions might take on their families, their husbands and wives, their children.
So it was with great interest a few weeks back that I came across a direct display of that toll right on my Facebook page. A number of months ago I had come across writer Molly Jong-Fast on Facebook and, seeing that we had some mutual friends, I did what any aspiring writer does these days: I friended her. To my great delight, she friended me back. I have, as of yet, been too wimpy to friend her mother, Erica Jong, as I am still getting my sea legs networking with writers whose work has greatly affected me, fearing…I don’t know what.
Well, on this particular day, April 20, Ms. Jong-Fast had written on her status that she “apologizes for her mother’s comments…” I had to look it up to see what she was apologizing for, given that Fear of Flying, the 1973 bestseller that belied women’s supposed frigidity, had likely long ago ceased to be an embarrassment. I found it relatively easily, the media world being what it is. Clearly, this reference was to some comments Ms. Jong had made about Oprah in a blog post about Kitty Kelley’s new book, comments that were pretty harmless if not at all PC.
Nonetheless, I could understand how a daughter might indeed want to separate herself from such comments, to ensure that her own “friends” and friends might see that the thoughts therein expressed did not reflect her own. As I read through the comments to the post, it got even more interesting. There in front of my face was another daughter of one of my favorite authors, Susan Cheever, who posted her own complaints of parental word-permissiveness.
Ms. Cheever noted: “And I apologize for MY mother’s and my father’s too…”
Among the other 10 or so comments were a number from Erica Jong herself, including one in response to Ms. Jong-Fast’s admission that “I love you Mom!” that said, “I love u too. We can disagree and still love.”
I shook my head. This was more than slightly surreal for me, a weird window into what it is like to make one’s feelings public through the written word, in all the many forms available to us writers these days.
Despite wanting to enter the conversation, I kept quiet. Who am I, after all, but a fly on the wall of these more well-known writers’ trials and tribulations and triumphs? It did warm me quite a bit to know that these women whose lives are so affected by their parents’ honest admissions are themselves writers, bound, if they are at all honest, to put their own progeny into a quite similar bind. It is not at all unlikely that their children will be likewise commenting on Facebook or whatever social media is popular in a few years, about the embarrassing thoughts of theirs that get shared.
I mulled the subject again last night as I ran the bake sale for an amazing under-attended event at my sons’ school last night featuring Alexandra Styron and Bliss Broyard discussing the memoirs they've written about their fathers. Ms. Styron bravely shared a passage of a book set to come out next year about the great William Styron, a writer who dared to take on the tough topics of slavery, the Holocaust and his own paralyzing depression, and who changed many lives in the process. Her story of her father, of course, intimately involves her and the affect the more frustrating aspects of being a brilliant writer had on her, on her family and, of course, on her father himself. I almost burst into tears about 15 times during her reading, one of the first she's made on the book, which even her mother hasn't read.
Ms. Broyard, daughter of book reviewer Anatole Broyard, likewise nearly brought me to tears talking as she did just as openly about her father and the "secret" they learned only on his deathbed, that he was actually part black, had abandoned sisters and family nearby for fear that he would be outed.
These women inspired me. I am humbled by the art that brings about, sadly, a sometime shame. But it is, I feel, for the greater good that great minds share even the darkest thoughts. I remember this as I write, and I hearken back to a much smaller me, dwarfed by the stack of books I brought weekly to the checkout at my public library in Tucson, Arizona, the stack that I hoped against hope the librarian would believe I could read in the time allotted. I could, and did. I am understanding of the toll it may take on the sons and daughters of those people, but those words cheered and consoled me and continue to nearly every day. Gold stars go out to writers and their families for all it takes to have the guts to share, and help.