Autobiography is fiction, and fiction is autobiography. Factual truth is irrelevant to autobiography. – Robert Elbaz
Before we get into my article here’s a short blog post from Jessica from March 2010 to set the scene:
Many meaningful memories meander through my mind, but as I jot them down, I fear they will subconsciously mutate, malfunction, morph into fiction rather than fact. Especially when I retrace the times that made me miserable, I frantically fight off fate's fundamental message to me, in fear that I may feel its familiar unfathomable fiery force again. If only there was a way to write these memories down, and maintain a fictitious distance from them, my memoir wouldn't make me miserable, it would make me motivated to tell others my story.
As a fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Browning (as she was still known at the time) wrote in her second autobiographical essay, ‘Glimpses into My Own Life and Literary Character’, “To be one's own chronicler is a task generally dictated by extreme vanity…” and I guess that’s the first obstacle any prospective autobiographer has to overcome: “Why would anyone be interested in your life?” If there’s one question I would ask anybody contemplating starting a memoir or a full-blown autobiography that would be it because it doesn’t matter what we’ve been through there will be someone out there whose story will completely eclipse ours. That doesn’t invalidate what we’ve experienced but it should make us question its greater worth. Of course it’s natural—healthy, even—for us to examine own lives and to spend some time (although maybe not too much time) mulling over our choices and there’s nothing inherently wrong in committing our conclusions to paper (because we forget so quickly) but, seriously, who else bar a few close family members cares what we did when we were wee?
The dedication to Jessica Bell’s memoir is:
For everyone except myself.
This struck me as odd and intriguing. Most writers no matter what they say write for themselves first and foremost—writing is all about self-expression after all—and if others appreciate it and, even better, are willing to pay to read what you’ve written then you’ve won a watch. Like Will Self said in this 2012 Guardian article:
I don't really write for readers. I think that's the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer. I mean, I've said in the past I write for myself. That's probably some kind of insane egotism but I actually think that's the only way to proceed—to write what you think you have to write. I write desperately trying to keep myself amused or engaged in what I'm doing and in the world.
Having known Jessica Bell for several years and having read most of her books the one thing I can say about her is that’s she’s serious about her writing and (mostly) her writing is serious (without being sombre) so I don’t buy for a minute that this memoir is something others badgered her into writing or she’s dashed off to make a quick euro; this was something she needed to do and now she’s done with it maybe others will be able to get something from it. As she said in this interview:
I definitely write for myself, and THEN try to figure out how to market it to readers. I’m a strong believer in the notion that if you do not write for yourself, your work will not be your best. Any creative endeavour has to come from an honest place in order for people to be able to relate to it. That’s my opinion anyway.
The writing was for her; the finished book is for us. It’s clearly a project she’s been struggling with for years. As she told Zoe Courtman in 2010, “I’m having difficulty with my memoir at the moment … I just don’t want to be in it.”
All intentions selfish or unselfish aside there’s a problem with autobiography, several problems really. Can a writer be honest when he writes? Dostoyevsky thought not. In Notes from Underground he maintains that “a true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie about himself.” Even if an author doesn’t deliberately set out to misrepresent the facts does not the written text nevertheless become an interpretation of the past as opposed to faithful recollection? The person writing about their experiences is not the person who went through them. But even let’s say an author can be honest, ought he to be honest (and, if so, how honest) and does he even want to be honest? (Despite what we were taught as children honesty is not always the best policy.) Autobiography is never merely a recording of what we did and where; it invariably involves commenting on, explaining, justifying or trying to excuse our life choices. Confession is more than mere disclosure. It seeks absolution or at very least understanding.
I was looking at a WikiHow site a while back; a post entitled How to Write an Autobiography, where I was rather surprised to find this subheading under ‘Crafting a Narrative’: “Create an overarching plot.” Novels have plots. Lives have chronologies. Both leave a lot to be desired. In Jessica’s case she boils thirty-five years down to less than 300 pages. In condensing a breadth of experience confabulation must arise. But is that necessarily a bad thing? She concentrates on telling a specific story and leaves out what she thinks isn’t pertinent. She hasn’t gone as far as novelising her life but in her opening ‘Note from the Author’ she nevertheless admits:
While all the events in this book are true, on some occasions I have been creative with the way they play out due to my inability to recall specific details. I have instead filled these gaps in memory with what I assume would be the most logical and fitting details in relation to the era and circumstances. […] In some cases I have compressed or merged events; in others I have made two or three people into one.
This reminded me immediately of another Australian writer. Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James would’ve been the first book by an Australian I read and probably the first memoir I ever read, too. He, likewise, admitted up front that his book played lip service to the truth:
Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people’s feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point. […] I am also well aware that all attempts to put oneself in a bad light are doomed to be frustrated. The ego arranges the bad light to its own satisfaction. But on that point it is only necessary to remember Santayana’s devastating comment on Rousseau’s Confessions [regarded by some as the starting point of modern autobiography], which he said demonstrated, in equal measure, candour and ignorance of self.
All I can say from a personal point of view is that I’ve never written a book I’ve intended to and I’m pretty sure that’ll be the case with most authors; we’re never as in control as we like to think we are. The real issue with life writing is truthfulness. Not truthiness. Can you be truthful without telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Well, of course you can. In her 1979 article ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ Ursula Le Guin wrote, “[F]antasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true.” Imagination and truth are not so incompatible. Far from it. In her memoir Jessica imagines (literally fantasises, from the Greek phantazesthai which means "picture to oneself") how things might’ve happened and she admits she may have got more than a few details wrong but her intent clearly was to head in the right direction; to be truthful. As Janina Bauman puts it in her essay ‘Memory and Imagination: Truth in Autobiography’: “[I]magination helped by a sense of probability: it could have been so.”
According to Denis Ledoux, who runs a website called The Memoir Network, “People read memoirs to learn to be better or happier or more contributory people.” It’s a thought. I’m not sure it’s as simple as that or maybe it’s simpler still; maybe it’s plain nosiness. What I do have to agree with is what Jennifer S. Wilkov had to say in her article for The Huffington Post, ‘No One Wants to Read Your Diary’:
While your personal life story may be an unbelievable one, how you craft it, how you tell it, and how you share the development of the main character—meaning you—is of utmost importance.The reason why many memoirs don’t get picked up by major publishers is because they fall short of this important distinction: no one wants to read your diary; they want to read your story.
At first I wondered if this was the hurdle where Jessica’s book might fail because from the off she uses the classic ‘Dear Diary’ format. Okay she doesn’t say, “Dear Diary,” she goes with, “Dear Reflection,” and it’s hard to draw any distinction at first but there is one, a significant one because her reflection talks back. It’s a contrivance, a literary device; it never happened. It works though. Her reflection is often scathing, accusatory, rude, challenging and insulting but on occasion she provides the voice of reason.
Here’s another problem though. Readers, not authors, are the ones who supply meanings. I’ve lived a very different life to Jessica and her family and so the problem she faced—indeed the problem every author faces—was how to minimise the… let’s just go with ‘damage’… the damage a reader could do whilst struggling to relate to the characters and events on the page. In Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, psychologists Michael White and David Epston maintain, “Since we cannot know objective reality, all knowing requires an act of interpretation.” What right do I have to validate a text when the experience was never mine to begin with? All I can possibly be left with is an idea of what Jessica went through. Let me give you an example. Both Jessica and I are depressives. In her book she mentions depression a few times assuming that’s all we need to understand. But if you’ve never been depressed-with-a-capital-d you really have no idea and her experiences of depression are markedly different to mine; for one I’ve never felt suicidal. In the mid-nineties she says she was plagued with “constant thoughts of suicide”—“[t]he only thing that prevented me from taking suicide one hundred per cent seriously was music,” she writes—although in this article from 2014, ‘But That’s Not “Real” Depression’, she opens with, “Sometimes I get told that I’m not ‘really’ depressed because I am not suicidal…” so one can only assume that her symptoms have changed over the years as did mine; people think about autism as a spectrum so why not depression? Either that or she remembers adolescence as being worse than it was. I suspect it’s the former because when describing a bout of separation anxiety in the 2000s she realises:
It wasn’t my usual depression in which I felt worthless, and it definitely didn’t make me want to commit suicide.This sadness was manic.Like I was going through this torturous thing, can’t you see, can’t you see, and why isn’t anyone trying to help me find a solution? Why isn’t anyone trying to help me get back to him?Imagine giving a homeless person a house, a night to sleep in a warm bed, and shower, and then saying, “Sorry, man, just kidding, you’re stuck in the cold for life.” The world had betrayed me. It teased me into submission and then pulled the ground from under my feet. [bold mine]
One reviewer compared Jessica’s memoir to the work of Maya Angelou. If that’s not setting a writer up for a fall I’m not sure what is but there is a case to be answered. What distinguishes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from what went before it is that Angelou records experience not as history, but as experience she recognizes as changing in time. In what way does Jessica do that? In that we’re presented with a portrait of someone called ‘Jessica Bell’ which is then worked on throughout the book. At the start it’s only a pencil sketch. The child we meet in the beginning is little more than an outline which gradually gets coloured it. At times the picture gets messy and needs painting over. At university she experimented with her look (and, she says, inadvertently her personality) so much so that sometimes other students failed to recognize her; later drink, bad relationship choices, mental health issues and loss distort the picture. A chapter ends; we get a breather and begin again. Eventually the Jessica we’ve come to know over the years—as much as any of us knows anyone we’ve only met online—starts to appear.
In the Smithsonian magazine I read that “Dickens began his autobiography in 1847, when he was [also] 35, but abandoned it and, overcome with memories of his deprivations, a few years later was inspired to write the autobiographical David Copperfield, fictionalizing his early miseries…” Jessica has already done this, ransacked her past to create her fictions. In her novella The Book, for example, she describes an incident where a five-year-old girl who’s soiled herself fears being trapped in the school toilets overnight. Reading that again and knowing that little girl was Jessica and not someone she dreamt up changes everything. And yet, to my mind, the novella’s version is more powerful because it’s written in the voice of a child and it’s not an adult remembering something that happened thirty years earlier. See what you think.
From the memoir:
Why did you run away? Why didn’t you just tell Mrs Wallace in the playground?
Because I didn’t want the other kids to see!
But now you’re stuck in here. That was stupid. What are you going to do?
I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do!
You’re an idiot. You’re stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
I wailed and wailed, holding my yellow-and-white striped Miki House Club dress away from my legs—my saturated knickers still hooked around my ankles. I was so afraid of stepping out of the cubicle in case another kid came in. I had to get cleaned up. But how? I couldn’t possibly go outside without a pair of knickers on. Everyone would see my chishy as my dress was short.
Call for help.
I don’t want to.
There’s no other way.
But they’ll see me, and they’ll laugh at me.
Do you want to be locked in here all night?
Then stop being such a wuss and call for help!
“Help!” I cried at the top of my lungs. Only once. But no-one came for what seemed like hours.
I lift my Mickey Mouse skirt and pull down on the flicky-thread of my undies. But it squishes between my legs when I sit on the torlet seat.It smells like a baby accident and a hospital in here and my heart goes all bumpy in my chest. I can smell that stinky liquid stuff that my mummy uses to make clothes white, and it always makes her rub her head after, and I have to bring her some Tic Tacs.I can’t tell any bodies I did this. I can’t! They will all laugh at me and I don’t like it when bodies laugh at me. When bodies laugh my belly goes all feeling not nice and tears come out of my eyes. Mrs Haydon will come a-looking for me any minute, wondering why I’m not back to get my school bag off my hook. The home-time bell just runged. I’m going to be in so much trouble.
According to Blake Morrison, writing in The Guardian, “The confessional memoir is disreputable. Critics tend to dismiss it as the equivalent of a selfie, a look-at-me snapshot, a glorified ego trip. Narcissism, they say, is inscribed in the very word ‘memoir’: me-moi.” In the article he proposes seven reasons why people confess on paper: spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, confession as an apology or self-justification, confession as a desire to shock, confession as the desire to redefine what’s shocking, confession as performance and showmanship, an effort to set the record straight or, finally, as catharsis, cleansing, or purgation. That last one comes closest to what I think Jessica intended here but if the book truly is, as she says, for everyone except herself is it meant to be a teaching aid? Learn from me. Don’t make the same mistakes as me. If you have made mistakes or are in the process of making mistakes that doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
Life is all about choices. So they say. It’s not entirely true. Maya Angelou didn’t choose to be black. Anne Frank didn’t choose to be Jewish. Jessica Bell didn’t choose to be raised by rock musicians. They could’ve been fundamentalist Christians like my parents. Or wolves. Normal is what you’re used to. It doesn’t really exist except as a good idea. As the cliché goes: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what if life hands you shit? Shit has its uses too If only for throwing at fans or decorating your cell with.
Jessica did not always make the wisest of choices. She turned to drink, was promiscuous and experimented sexually; she refused to learn from past mistakes. She wasn’t born black in the Deep South in the 1920s or Jewish in Nazi Germany but then most of us weren’t. There are some things in life we can’t control and there’re others we lose control of. Depression is not a life choice, alcoholism is an illness and bullying might not quite be up there with racism but when you realise half our kids get bullied at some time and one in five gets bullied every day you start to appreciate how serious it is.
Does Jessica provide any answers? Not really. The closest she gets to a Rosa Parks moment is snogging another girl in the middle of the dancefloor during the End of Year 10 Formal and all that does is solidify the negative impression most people had of her. The girls did not get nominated for homecoming queens. This was the Australia in the 1990s, not the set of Faking It. I was interested to read this in a 2011 interview:
Not every woman in this world lives without regret, knows exactly what they want, and has the courage to put every essence of their being into achieving their dreams. Not every woman is inspirational to others. Not every woman can leave their comfort zone to better their future. But, so what? Does that mean a less strong-minded woman doesn't have an interesting story to tell? Definitely not.
What Jessica does do is survive. She could just as easily have died under anaesthetic in 2001 or stepped off a cliff in 2002. She has her scars (and her battle scars) but she’s still here to tell her tale to the best of her ability. Not without some luck. But here’s the thing about luck: you need to make the most of it, the good kind anyway, and it rarely waves a flag yelling, “This way! This way! Here’s where you go right and not left.” Jessica had to hang on until 2005 for her moment and, oddly, this is where the book starts to peter out and she doesn’t go on to explain how successful (it’s a relative term, I know) she’s become but then most of the people who’ll be attracted to this book will have some knowledge of her and we know for all her failings the one thing Jessica has never been afraid of is hard work. I asked her about why the ending doesn't focus on her writing career and this is what she came back with:
It's an entirely different story, unrelated to my childhood and teenhood and love life and music, and would be the length of an entirely new book. I intend to write about it. I have two other memoir project ideas at the moment:
- The building of my career as a writer and entrepreneur beginning 2005.
- The (rather humorous and quite devastating) story of running the café-bar in Ithaca.
I did start to go into more detail about these things as I was writing Dear Reflection, but I soon realized that, not only would it completely destroy the thematic thread and focus of the book, but the texts focussing on these areas would have ended up longer than the current book. These stories didn't belong in Dear Reflection. They are not related to my psychological struggle. They are related to the side of my personality that is highly confident, ambitious, and has an overactive drive to succeed. And because that side of me is completely different to the side I write about in Dear Reflection, it needs its own book.
Think of it this way: Why do horoscopes separate career and love predictions? Because there is no way to predict the future of one path in tandem with the other. They are separate elements of one's life, and though they can co-exist, and influence each other, the narrative and outcome of each element is always going to differ, and therefore trigger different human responses.
She makes a good point and to that end it might’ve been better had she ended this memoir in 2005 with her standing at the door to a new life. Just a thought. I suppose one could think of the last section as a teaser trailer.
If you want to know what Jessica’s achieved in recent year check out her bio here. If you want to know why you might want to read her memoir you should look at this blog post, again from 2010.
If you want to know what Jessica’s achieved in recent year check out her bio here. If you want to know why you might want to read her memoir you should look at this blog post, again from 2010.
I’ll leave you with the book trailer.