- The Memoirist as Ventriloquist
Memoirists are often challenged to give voice to voiceless past generations, to draw forth the testimony of silent images or phantom witnesses to a different time or place. My memoir, Recovering Ruth, drew upon the 1848 journal of Ruth Douglass, the new bride of a Michigan mining engineer; it was the only surviving evidence of her life. Her voice, or at least her words from the journal, often appeared on my pages, in much the same way I intend to use my mother's telegram to my father announcing my birth or passages from my grandmother's newspaper column in my family memoir. Writing about my own life I might easily put words in a character's mouth—I know my father's voice well enough to mimic it pretty accurately [End Page 127] in a recreated conversation—but I used only exact quotes to recreate Ruth Douglass's voice. I felt that I couldn't invent scenes for someone who died 150 years ago.
I researched the book by traveling everywhere in the Midwest that Ruth had visited in 1848. I hoped to inhabit her past by a kind of intuitive osmosis, just as Richard Holmes had done in Footsteps by drawing upon Robert Louis Stevenson's Cévennes journal, just as Ivan Doig had done in Winter Brothers, guided by James Swan's Puget Sound diaries. One morning, after occupying many empty spaces and repeatedly proving to myself that the past was gone, I ambushed myself with this question: How would Ruth respond if I declared that I know all there is to know about her? Spontaneously, without preparation, I wrote "her" answer in my journal:
But, Bob [She could call me that because I call her Ruth], but, Bob, you know almost nothing at all about me. You have some information on the names of members of my family and some dates from public records and tombstones, but you aren't really certain even now of the date of my death (if you could remember it) or how long my son Edgerton lived. You don't know what I did up to the moment I married C. C. (and you just typed C. C. in place of Columbus because I never called him Columbus in my journal, as you do, only C. C. or Mr. Douglass, and you don't know for certain whether those names were formalities or endearments).
This act of spirit ventriloquism stops here, rather than concludes, and thankfully doesn't have a complimentary close and signature (Respectfully, Mrs. Douglass? Sincerely, Ruth? Fondly, R?). But I'm no longer alarmed or dismayed by having (rather transparently) assumed her identity. At the time, I [End Page 128] needed "Ruth's" message. "She" raised all the issues I hadn't been able to confront.
To write memoir you may sometimes have to impersonate the dead, perform imaginative acts of transfiguration, occupy the space of the vanished. You may have to not merely gaze at a photograph, but step inside it, turn around, and look back out, so that the photograph can tell you who the people in the photograph are. In order to hear the voices of the vanished—and you have to hear their voices—you may have to become a ventriloquist.
Hearing voices gives you intimacy with your subject. Once, about to telephone a descendant of Ruth Douglass's husband, I found myself rehearsing explanations of my connection to a woman dead for a century and a half. The first introductory remark I considered was absurd but also honest. I thought I might say, "Hi, I'm a friend of Ruth Douglass." I still think it was the truth.
Robert Root has written three books on nonfiction, Working at Writing: Columnists and Critics Composing, E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist, and, with Michael Steinberg, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. He is interview/roundtable editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction and taught composition and nonfiction at Central Michigan University. He is a widely published essayist and author of the memoir Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale.