we steal stories

as janet malcolm writes in the silent woman, her MASTERPIECE of biographical criticism, the biographer is “like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the loot and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.”

i’ve been thinking about life-writing in terms of stealing quite a lot in the fortnight since andrew o’hagan spoke at the conference a colleague and i organized up in oxford on life-writing and celebrity. o’hagan’s question was whether our stories actually belong to us. it is a question to which i would answer wistfully but firmly: no.

(a discussion that i will primarily illustrate with random photos from sarah jessica parker’s instagram, because i’ve recently become obsessed with celebrity instagrams and because ❤ …)

i’m in the midst of winding down a PhD whose principle point seems to be that celebrities matter because they are people. real people.

they need to be real to be as effective as they are- if we are to care and their stories are going to matter to us- even if that realness is opaquely manufactured (their realness is perhaps even better if it is not entirely convincing).

coexistent with this, we need to be at liberty to pretend they are not real people to enjoy them to the fullest.

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intellectually, we know they are real. imaginatively, we can do with them what we want.

we can allow ourselves to think of them as them and us as a we. as though we weren’t all just us.

this is why it is so jarring to see a celebrity in the flesh: it is the collision of the celebrity’s humanity and the fiction of him or her that we have assembled.

it is jarring because, in that assemblage, their humanity is one of the first things to go.

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in celebrity stories, the celebrity is like a paperdoll whose narrative we try on and, in this process, they are immediately an other- not us.

[you guys, i don't even know, but OHMYGOD, right?]

[you guys, i don’t even know, but OHMYGOD, right? you want to put that story on, no? and, fyi, this is a gift of the internet more generally, not SJP’s instagram]

this in spite of their humanity being essential to their unreality and its being thrown into high relief around plot points like birth, marriage, death, etc.

the things that happen to all of us when we are alive- celebrities model the high and low of that: everything from how to cope heroically with unexpected, tragic family deaths to the everyday experience of walking in 3″ heels whilst balancing three trenta orange mocha frappuccinos in a cardboard drink holder made from recycleables and walking two small dogs.

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all of this exists in extreme tension: they are real and unreal, we know this and pretend we don’t, they are us and we are them, we steal their stories and do not imagine someone might steal ours- though, secretly, we may hope they do.

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the thing about our lives, our stories, is that we like to think they belong to us.

but look how quickly this breaks down… for me to write a story about my childhood, i must write about my mother and father and grandparents and aunt. already, from birth, my story involves stories they likely consider theirs.

which is where it would perhaps be useful to step away from malcolm and o’hagan’s burglary metaphor, because- in family relationships, etc.- this doesn’t point to stealing so much as connection. we are all so linked that it is nearly impossible to tell one’s story without impinging on the stories of other people. (can you even imagine that plot? i am sitting in a dark room thinking only about myself in my present moment alone with myself.)

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i may have stolen jackie’s story but, in doing so, jackie’s story has become inextricably wound up with the story of my life, as well as the stories of all of my friends and family who have spent the last 20 years hearing me bang on about her. jackie and i are so tangled up by now that while obviously her story remains distinct, everyone else’s story about me is likely to involve her.

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i have written about this before but to pull a more recent, daily life example: yesterday, i telephoned a nun who used to be caroline kennedy’s sunday school teacher. in the two years since i interviewed her, she has become a friend. we send letters to one another across the atlantic and she is one of two people in the world authorized to call me by my first name.

i called her and she said she was just sitting down to write a letter to a friend and was planning on telling that friend about my project.

caroline kennedy does not know that i know the nun who used to be her sunday school teacher. it had never before occurred to me that the nun has told people i do not know about me, though it makes total sense that she might have done. and so there are people i do not know who know what i am doing and they have been informed by caroline kennedy’s former sunday school teacher that i am writing about caroline kennedy’s mom.

our stories are like ripples in water. we can no sooner rein them in than pull back the pebble in the millisecond before it hits.

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we tell ourselves stories in order to live, joan didion writes. we also tell stories to make sense of the disorder of living, the messiness.

stories make the messiness make sense. but, because they are based on life, these stories we tell about life are also messy, a characteristic we often overlook because we prefer they streamline and simplify life rather than emphasize its incoherence.

we are, i think, all far more complicated than we like to admit, which means we are far more complex than any one biography could ever capture. (cue my ongoing and depressing assertion that we can never know anyone.) still, we like to believe we can read a book about someone’s life and feel we know them, that we know what they were really like and that we have approximated, across the expanse of time and pages and pictures and footnotes, the experience of what it was like to know them.

we like to think people can be known. it suggests that we, in turn, are knowable.

to achieve this, we prefer to see other people’s stories told with a simplicity and certainty that we would find deeply insulting were it used to tell our own.

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we assume we are complicatedly knowable, and that our stories belong to us and are ours to share.

because we assume that they belong to us, we are often all too casual in bandying them about and also in our consumption of the stories of others.

this is not entirely our fault, as it’s a reality usually obscured. as malcolm writes, “the voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.” similarly, the exuberance of gossip suggests we are simply having fun rather than- as lord mcgregor famously said in his early 90s condemnation of press coverage of the prince and princess of wales- dabbling our fingers in the stuff of other people’s souls.

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we are all of us stealing stories every day, to such a degree that we do so unconsciously (did you notice that the image above is the first i’ve used that actually depicts sarah jessica parker?). stealing stories is a fundamental process of everyday life.

the difficulty lies in the fact that we do not realize how fundamental it is nor do we realize how it feels until it happens to us, at which point we may realize that it feels horribly wrong and, quite possibly, inhumane.

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steve kandell has an amazing article on his family’s 9/11 experience and the 9/11 museum. go HERE, then come back to me.

this is the paragraph that has stuck with me for over a year:

Everyone should have a museum dedicated to the worst day of their life and be forced to attend it with a bunch of tourists from Denmark. Annotated divorce papers blown up and mounted, interactive exhibits detailing how your mom’s last round of chemo didn’t take, souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with your best friend’s last words before the car crash. And you should have to see for yourself how little your pain matters to a family of five who need to get some food before the kids melt down. Or maybe worse, watch it be co-opted by people who want, for whatever reason, to feel that connection so acutely.

this is a dynamic i think about all of the time when writing about jackie: the wrenching away of a story, the shift from personal to public, a private experience collectively owned.

the assassination of jfk was a national tragedy. it was a watershed event in television broadcasting. it was an astonishingly personal experience for millions of people. it was a snuff film. it was HISTORY.

it was also the worst day of jacqueline kennedy onassis’s life.


you would think we would emphasize that a bit more, particularly the biographers. but we do not. we see it as history, film, text, national story, personal memory. she is in it, of course, but it is not about her. even in books explicitly about her, still she feels ancillary. we are forever trying to shunt her off to the side.

she saw this. the week after her husband’s murder, in recounting to the historian teddy white how everyone aboard air force one wanted her to clean herself up before attending johnson’s swearing in, she says to white: “HISTORY! i thought, no one really wants me there.”

it isn’t just history. we try to clean her up still through the language we use to discuss that day. in the cognitive detachment and emotional sanitization that comes with our use of the word assassination, we politicize and dehumanize a murder.

she tried to control the extent of the story’s damage, granting interviews, authorizing a book- a doomed project because, as the author william manchester finally figured out, all she wanted was a blank page for the day of 22 november 1963. but that isn’t how history is written. it is not how stories are told.

and so there have been loads and loads of articles and profiles and books and movies, a pile to which i am, obviously, contributing because i do think her story is important and stories must be retold for each generation, and it is through the retelling that they are kept alive. but it is not something i do without some misgivings. because it is a story- hers and mine and countless other people’s- and i am painfully aware of how very little control any of us have.

we tell ourselves stories in order to live. we may be in them but they are not ours. like logs thrown on the fire, they illuminate and they burn beyond our control. we tell ourselves stories in order to feel alive and this is perhaps their most lifelike characteristic: like us, the stories are trying to survive.

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