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73 Truths We Could Live With robin hemley Although my mother, Elaine Gottlieb, was a writer and wrote occasionally about me, she never wanted me to write about her. Until she told me so, I never imagined the possibility that she would forbid me. She was a short story writer and sometime novelist who, in her youth, had been one of the most promising writers of her generation, appearing in The Best American Short Stories: 1946, and counting among her ardent supporters John Crowe Ransom of The Kenyon Review. But her career waned over time: marriage to my father, his press, their translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work, my brother, my sister, me—we all chipped away at her time and energy and eventually her promise. I grew up as a character in my mother’s short stories—I even suggested one story to her. When I was eleven, I dreamed of a lizard doing yoga and told my mother she should write a story about it. She did, in her own fashion. She wrote a story about an eleven-year-old boy who, among other things, imagines a lizard doing yoga. The story , “The Lizard” was dedicated to me, published in The Southern Review and reprinted in The O. Henry Prize collection. We were allies then. Still, I felt uncomfortable when I’d occasionally read a short story in which a thinly veiled me was one of the characters and I’d read about some awful trait of mine that my mother had taken note of. A kind of literary scolding. There were many. When I complained, she’d say, “Honey, it’s fiction. No one’s going to know it’s you.” But 74 Hemley of course, that itself was the fiction. I knew it was me and knew that my mother was recording for posterity my more unpleasant traits. When I started writing stories of my own, my mother was fine with that. Oh, she had twinges of jealousy, but they were overridden by pride. Her own stories were published less and less frequently as literary tastes inevitably changed and she could no longer be described as “promising.” But we continued to support one another, and I helped her publish her last short story, a beautiful piece called “The Dance at the End of the War,” about her time at Black Mountain College studying with painter Robert Motherwell. All was fine until I decided to write a memoir about my older sister Nola, a diagnosed schizophrenic who had died of a prescription drug overdose at the age of twenty-five, when I was fifteen. My mother was horrified that I wanted to write about our family as nonfiction . “Why can’t you fictionalize it?” she asked. Funny, but what she considered fiction was closer to memoir with the names simply changed. I didn’t want to change the names. The tension this caused I simply incorporated into the book about my sister, Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, which was in some ways less about my sister than about this very topic: what we have permission to write about and what we don’t. As I come from a family of writers, I decided to use the various texts my family produced to triangulate the truth of my sister and my family’s life. I brought in an autobiography my sister wrote in the last year of her life, some court documents, a short story by my mother that was essentially a story à clef (to coin a term) about my sister and myself, and a short story I wrote about the night before my sister died. This story had appeared in my debut story collection. My goal was to show that fiction or nonfiction didn’t matter—the pain contained in either could be equally visceral and real. When my mother complained on the phone that she would have to become a hermit after I completed my book, I would go to my study and record the conversation nearly verbatim. I suppose there was an inherent brattiness in such a move, but I felt it was justified, even crucial. My mother disagreed. 75 Truths We Could Live With With her psychically looking over my shoulder as I wrote, I nonetheless wrote without showing her a word. I hardly showed it to anyone . I knew that I needed to write it to myself first and then I could let it out...


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