by Cassandra Pybus
© all rights reserved
Browsing the Sunday newspapers in London recently my eye was caught by a profile on Gitta Sereny by the novelist Will Self, a writer I look upon as an intelligent barometer of turn-of-the-century morality. I was intrigued by the mixture of awe and revulsion which coloured his take on Sereny. Self was asking about her latest controversial book, Cries Unheard,concerning Mary Bell, a woman who murdered two small boys when she was herself a child, thirty years ago. The book has caused an uproar in England, partly because of the outraged response of the victim’s families, who were alerted by advance media reports. In the resulting media frenzy, the whereabouts of Mary Bell and her young daughter – who had known nothing of her mother’s past – were publicly revealed. Self writes that the debacle “could only destroy what rehabilitation Bell had achieved, wreck her daughter’s life and wrench open the wounds inflicted on the families of the murdered boys”. Sereny can rightly protest that this is hardly her fault; it is what happens once a book, however well-intentioned, falls into the clumsy maws of the mass media. “There has not been a day… when I have not asked myself whether writing this book was the right thing to do”, Sereny wrote in her introduction, “for Mary Bell from whom, with great difficulty, agonisingly for her, I extracted her life; for the family of the children she killed and for her own family, above all her child who is now her life…”
What Self finds chilling is Sereny’s tacit admission that her book did harm Mary Bell, not so much the media beatup as the actual process of Bell exposing her life to a writer. As Sereny says “she should have done this with someone qualified because it needed to go on much longer and… I had reached the [here she pauses, as if aware of the enormity of what she is saying]… my purpose was fulfilled”, she lamely concludes.
To what extent does the writer have a responsibility here, Self wants to know. As I do. In that intense time she spent with Bell, what purpose was Sereny fulfilling? A different purpose for each participant, most certainly. Sereny was the detached investigative writer. Mary Bell, I suspect, thought the relationship was of another order. “After a few months I was finished”, Sereny says, “apart from checking the facts”. Will Self is right, this is a chilling admission. It is also a statement of writerly sensibility; writers are always moving on, using up and discarding the last object of fascination. Sereny protests that Mary Bell still has her interest, but a writer’s detached interest is not what this damaged woman needs, nor was it ever what she needed.
There are all kinds of writerly moral dilemmas revealed here, just as there were when the first book of this genre, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood,came out to astound us some thirty years ago. Recently George Plimpton’s book on Truman Capote reignited the debate around that book when it was alleged that Capote, said to have been in love with Perry Smith, one of the murderers, had gained intimacy with Perry and his pal in order to get the story, and then not lifted a finger to save them from the electric chair. At the time I remember Capote protesting that there was nothing he could do about the executions. It was equally true that he was saying that once he had the story his mission was fulfilled: the non-fiction novel was born and a couple of psychotic misfits got to ride old sparky. As they were always going to do.
In her book The Murderer and the JournalistJanet Malcolm, doyenne of investigative journalism, has a fairly brutal take on the moral position of this genre: “The story of subject and writer is the Scheherazarde story with a bad ending, in almost no case does the subject…manage to save himself”. A writer in this genre Malcolm says, “unless he is too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows what he does is morally indefensible.” Well, yes.
For myself I do not believe in writing books about immediate traumatic events; too much raw pain, too much potential damage. As a writer of investigative contemporary history, however, I have learnt to be alert to the moral responsibility of writing a book which impinges on the lives of strangers who are inevitably touched and pained by the events in my narrative, even when the central characters are long since dead and gone.
Take the Orr case.
Why, knowing something of the pain attached to this particular story of sexual harassment and intellectual outrage did I write a book about it? As Professor Alan Gilbert observed at the launch ofGross Moral Turpitude,the Orr case is “a modern tragedy of unrelieved sadness”. Yet we all know that tragedy is the most powerful narrative force of all, since it is in conflict and suffering, in human failure and unhappiness, we most perceive the frailty of the human condition. A powerful story of tragic conflict is irresistible. Add to that the spice of sex and intrigue and you have the ingredients of classic drama. This much was clearly apparent to the American and Australian film producers who took the bare bones of the popular myth about Orr – radical professor destroyed by vengeful, disturbed girl student – and fictionalized it as a sex and violence thriller, a piece of prurient trash which was a total failure at the box office, I am pleased to report. It was knowledge of this impending film, the offensive screenplay of which I had been shown, which impelled me to write Gross Moral Turpitude rather than “leave well enough alone” as I had been repeated advised.
While I claim integrity and genuine open-minded inquiry in my construction of the Orr narrative, I would have to say that the writer in me could not resist the dramatic lure inherent in a story about sex, intrigue and betrayal. Moreover, in previously unseen archival material I encountered an absolutely riveting tale about intellectual chicanery, while the detective work of uncovering the false trails laid over the intervening years was ready made for the storyteller. And that is how I saw myself: a storyteller.
The imperative for a writer like me is narrative. In constructing the narrative what is of uppermost concern is not the moral responsibility for the tale, rather it is the integrity of the sentences; the way the words are placed on the page. One of the first things that you discover as a writer is that the process of forming and shaping inevitably renders what you write different from what you expected, or even intended. I think it was E M Forster who said “how do I know what I think until I have seen what I have written”. It is not that the process of writing reduces the authenticity of the tale, rather it refines and focuses it. Nevertheless, as we struggle to make sentences with the right cadence, in a solipsistic engagement with the computer, writers are prone to a certain myopia about the pain we may be about to inflict.
Maybe what is necessary for the investigative non-fiction writer is kind of internal monitor – something like a spell check – which can prompt you to ask yourself : What will be the impact of this when it is in the public domain?In the case of Gross Moral Turpitudemy monitor was somewhat underdeveloped. I had not appreciated the full impact of my having plunged into the heart of this long simmering trauma. It all happened forty years ago, I told myself, failing to see that it was still very much alive in the hearts and minds of some people.
I now have to face up to the unpalatable fact there are those who believe I have profoundly wronged their dead loved ones. In this matter the children of Sydney Orr present me with a particularly intense moral burden, since I have told the world that the father who died when they were very young, was a morally corrupt liar and a fraud. Equally, Suzanne Kemp, the young woman in the case, had to endure a public exposure of the somewhat sordid details of her sexual encounters. In order to refute the accepted wisdom that she had framed Orr, I felt it necessary to bring into the light a malicious subterranean story, put about by the Orrites, of an incestuous relationship with her father. If that were not damage enough, she has had to re-run the terrible media intrusions of her youth, with every media outlet in the country wanting to interview her when my book came out. I feel badly about it and I can understand that she has no thanks for me.
Whether I liked it or not, my book, which I saw as a terrific story, wrapped up between covers and sold to the public, became part of a forty year process of grief or shame or anger, and I was expected to become part of that process too. I was not going to be permitted to slip away, even though my head was already in the steamy, spicy atmosphere of 19th century Sarawak by the time the manuscript was in the post. When Gross Moral Turpitudewas published lots of people came out of the woodwork to tell me their part of the story, as if I would be incomplete without these memories. Even these six years later I still get phone calls and letters about the Orr case. How do I tell these bitter, angry, people that this was just a story to me. I am long since finished with it.
Dynastic intrigue within the White Rajahs of Sarawak looked a pretty safe bet as an antidote to the emotional upheavals of the previous book. Now I hear from Brooke descendants that the surviving members of the family are horrified by revelation that the swashbuckling Rajah James Brooke was a pedophile. Of course, everyone in the know was well aware of that at the time, nevertheless generations of compliant historians have drawn a veil over James Brook’s sexual transgressions, preferring to see his life long bachelorhood as the result of a supposed war wound to his private parts, and his fondness for village boys and midshipmen a sign of his boyish exuberance. They conveniently ignore the love letters to boys, the blackmail letters from boys, and the lunatic decision to declare one of his live-in boy lovers, Reuben Walker, as his illegitimate son.
I included a brief exploration of James Brooke’s relationships with boys in White Rajah: A Dynastic Intrigue,to illustrate the poignancy of this broken old man whose boys always grew up and left him, who tried to legitimise his relationship with the stable boy Reuben by declaring him to be his long lost son. In so doing he set in train a family tragedy which saw the anti-hero of my book, Charles Brooke, become the second Rajah in a will which also bequeathed him all his uncle’s ruinous debts and forced him to provide for several of his uncle’s boys. To discharge his obligations and still hold onto his beloved Sarawak, Charles Brooke was driven to the expedience of taking an English heiress as his wife, discarding his Malay wife and so, inevitably and tragically, casting-off his first born son, Esca. It’s all of one piece: a poignant tale of disappointment, conflict and betrayal spanning three generations.
When I stumbled upon the story of Esca, the skeleton in the closet, the usurped first son, I presumed that his descendants would be delighted to have legitimacy and status conferred upon them. When my book was published in the US and Canada in 1997 I was disconcerted to be sent emails and letters from elderly grandchildren of Esca Brooke who were angry and hurt at my revelation that he had lived as the dependant of a rich businessman, unable to make a life for himself. For at least some of his grandchildren, this revelation was a matter of personal humiliation which mitigated any pride I may have been able to foster by declaring their grandfather to have been a legitimate Malay Rajah. So retreating to the first half of the 19th century in faraway places did not alleviate the problem of inflicting pain on strangers. There is no safe place, it would appear, from which harm will be done.
These issues of writerly responsibility are critical ones right now when the literary culture seems to be turning away from its long love affair with the novel and rushing into an eager embrace with non-fiction of the no-holds-barred variety: investigative reportage of the kind I have been discussing, biography, and pre-eminently, autobiography. A good example of the last genre is Katherine Harrison’s taut and explosive bestseller, The Kiss, an account of her seduction and sexual subjugation at the age of nineteen by the father she had not known as a child, who was, incidentally, married with a second family and a minister of religion. There are other autobiographies like this, though perhaps not as well done. It is quite clear that writing such books is an important act of catharsis for the authors, part of a healing process I can have no doubt. What purpose does it serve the reading public whose appetite for such stories is voracious? Anything more than titillation? I think not.
The Kissis a sexy read; saturated with longing, guilt and transgressive passion. I refused to even look at the book for some time, but eventually I read it, standing rooted to the spot in the closed reserve of a university library in a curious state of compelled horror and admiration. I am glad I read it, however distasteful I found it’s naked solipsism, because it has caused me to ponder the moral issues involved of baring one’s soul and the inner secrets of one’s intimate life to the world at large. Is this a legitimate literary genre, I ask, or is it on the same level as the American performance artist who invites her audience to watch her masturbate on stage? I would do well not to be too intellectually squeamish about this. At the turn of the century we now inhabit a culture which is relentless in its examination of the sexual impulses in the human engine. It is no longer something we can turn away from, if indeed it ever was.
While my own venture into autobiography, Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree,is series of candid reflections about my life – at times very intimate and confessional – my intention was to use my experience as emblematic of a particular moment; the sort of thing that Joan Didion does absolutely brilliantly in her essay “The White Album”. The book takes its title from an account of my loss of innocence, when my first lover ran off with my best friend, who subsequently killed herself. It was a cathartic piece for me and it took me nearly thirty years to find the words to write it. I did have another purpose. I was interested in the loss of innocence outside my own body, represented by the assault on the body of the child of a neighbour who went missing the same day my lover did. These two matters were linked in my mind because for a brief period my departed lover was a suspect in that terrible murder. As I write:
Monday morning the police came around to see me. Just routine, they were talking to everyone in the street.
Had I seen anything? Could I shed any light?
I was in no good shape to be talking to them, red-eyed and dishevelled. I had nothing to tell them.
What about your… um, boyfriend?
I said Duncan had left on Saturday. Two days later they were back again, more insistent this time and with a great deal more knowledge about myself and my …um boyfriend. They were very interested in Duncan. I couldn’t for my life see why.
Their interest became clear to me when I saw the newspaper next morning and read in numb horror that the police suspect was a young man in his early twenties, described as being well groomed with blond hair.
They thought that Duncan had done this horrendous thing.
Next time the police called I understood what they were asking me.
These many years later I can recognise this experience as my brutal rite of passage from innocence into knowledge; a soul-searing moment that changed my understanding of the world forever.
My trusting, bliss-filled love affair was shattered and now I had to contemplate the possibility that the man with whom I had explored the dizzying reaches of sexual pleasure could be capable of raping a three year old child, systematically mutilating him with a razorblade and stuffing wads of newspaper down his throat to stifle his screams.
A week before I had not known such things were possible. Now the unspeakable had come right to me; had climbed into bed with me.
Did the monstrous lie in the deep recesses of sexuality in any one of us?
Was this our original sin?
For me that day was the day I learned, and in a way contemporary Australia learned, more than we ever wanted to know about pain and terror and depravity. A loss of innocence in more ways than one. Simon Brook was at the heart of that story and I couldn’t leave him out. The use of the Brook murder deeply worried me. I wondered if I should write to the child’s parents to say that I knew that I was plundering their own terrible story and that I wasn’t doing so as mere literary device. I decided against it because it would be needlessly cruel to rekindle all their pain. There was no reason to presume they would read the book. They did read the book. About a year after it was published I received a remarkable letter from the boy’s father which began “perhaps you don’t welcome strangers claiming powerful bonds of recognition”. I will not otherwise divulge his communication except to say that he told me he had found the piece personally important. Naturally I did welcome his letter and was deeply touched by his generosity.
That hideous murder was in the public domain, so in one respect any writer was free to cannibalise the Brook’s story. The same cannot be said for those whose stories are inextricably entwined in a writer’s own life. The moral issues associated with cannibalising the lives of one’s nearest and dearest are infinitely more ticklish, I discovered when I attempted to write about the Vietnam war, as a way of exploring a disturbing irony which finds me, anti-war activist, married to a Vietnam Veteran for whom the experience has been so traumatic that it is the one thing he will not share with me.
My interest in the Vietnam War had been rekindled a few years ago when I stumbled upon a file of transcripts of the prosecutions of draft resisters, some of whom were my friends, in theQuadrantarchives It made me very angry and it drove me back to the most brilliant book to come out of that terrible war, Michael Herr’s, Dispatches,which exposed the vileness of its sanctioned savagery and its awful hypocrisy. Herr’s real genius was to take readers into the pity and terror of boys whose lives had been fractured irrevocably by the decision to send them into horrors of Vietnam; boys full of bravado and bullshit, brutalised and brutalising, facing unpredictable death and scared out of their wits. I remembered having seen these young men in America after the war, when I was researching my PhD. On various campuses, as well as in the streets of the cities, maimed and ruined men with a dark bitterness no GI Bill could erase. These many years later I found I wanted to write about it.
In particular I want to write about the astounding revelation in 1985 that the man I was about to marry had been on active service in Vietnam. One night, in a slip of the tongue loosened by wine and sexual languor, he had revealed this to me. He never repeated it. After years of my cajoling this memory remains secured in a compartment of Michael’s soul that he has locked against me. Desperate to understand, I was forced into the subterfuge of researching his experiences in the archives of the War Memorial and in military documents requested through FOI. What I learned from my clandestine research was transmuted into what I thought was a really good piece of writing. Then I gave it to Michael to read. What followed was a painful series of negotiations about what I would be permitted to say. As far as he was concerned that past was over and he was determined it be left that way. My response was to argue the past was never over, that it is out of the past we remake our future. It did me no good. Nor did the tears and histrionics as I asserted my claim that his life and his scarred memory was now my life as well. In the end he conceded that I could say something. Very little. Nearly all of what I had written was dragged into the trash. Self-censorship is a cruel thing for an autobiographer. Necessary though. It was always going to be Michael’s call. How could it be otherwise?
What then do these ethical dilemmas imply for the hot pursuit of the recently dead known as biography? The voyeuristic business of hunting around in dark corners of a dead person’s life, reading their private diaries and personal correspondence, talking to disaffected friends and clandestine lovers; spending thousands of hours in the archives in delicious anticipation of the hitherto unseen clue, is an activity chockablock with moral dilemmas, all the more troublesome for the writer since publishers regard biography as gold-plated. The public appetite seems inexhaustible.
According to Freud “Anyone who writes biograpy is committed to lies concealments, hypocrisy, flattery and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth does not exist and if it did we could not use it.” The great man penned these dismissive words in his “Autobigraphical Study”, just before he destroyed his personal papers in a pre-emptive strike against any biographical enterprise in his name. Neither his words of warning nor his symbolic auto da fe proved any real deterrent against those who sought to write the Life of Sigmund Freud,for the very good reason that a desire for truth about a person is not what powers the interest in biography. Rather the appetite for biography is about a desire to vicariously experience lives more various, more excessive, more creative, more damaged, more fulfilling than one’s own.
Gore Vidal, no admirer of Freud, takes a similarly dim view of biographers, “the hacks of academe” as he contemptuously calls them, reserving for literary biographers his most lofty scorn. In a scarifying essay in The New York Review of Booksa decade ago, Vidal warned that the writer as the performing self had reached the absurdity where the self was threatening to become the sole artefact – to be written about by unimaginative hacks who tended to erase in the process whatever the subject may have written. And there was plenty of academic and journalistic lowlife slavering to write biographies, Vidal pointed out, so long as the writer supplied the raw material: “a gaudy descent into drink, drugs, sex, and terminal name-dropping.” In this case the Great Gore’s outrage was triggered by a biography of his old friend Tennessee Williams. Yet it has always been thus in America. I am reminded of Baudelaire’s disgust at the posthumous memoir of Edgar Allen Poe: “Is there no ordinance in America to keep the dogs out of the cemeteries?”
In her abrasive introduction to The Silent Women Janet Malcolm takes a similar tack to Vidal, without his contemptuous disapproval. Her unflattering definition renders biography as the medium through which the secrets of the dead are taken from them and dumped into full view for the sole purpose of titillating a voracious public; a voyeuristic collusion between the writer and the reader, “tiptoeing down the corridor together to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole”. While the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and archival references may legitimise this voyeurism and take it out of the realm of the tawdry, at its core biography remains tawdry, Malcolm would have us understand, before she proceeds to tantalise the voyeur in us with her examination of the entrails of the tragic Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes marriage.
Malcolm is in agreement with Baudelaire about the dogs in the graveyard, the difference being that she relishes the absence of legal restraint which can permit this most grisly of exhumation. Compelling though her prose can be, I am not prepared to go all the way with Malcolm on this. Sure, biographers are cannibals and voyeurs. All writers are these things, yet they are much more. And while there is no such thing as biographical truth, it has to be said that the close examination of a life can illuminate much about the creative process, or social mores, or the mechanics of power. Our culture has been enriched by such biographies. Equally, I could never make a case for biography as a high art form, as Drusilla Modjeska seemed able to do when she and I shared a recent panel discussion on the subject. I align myself with Ian Hamilton, biographer of Robert Lowell, and the man who could be said to have ruined the biography game for the rest of the punters with his abortive biography of the still-living and highly litigious J D Salinger.
Unlike Malcolm, who sees herself as one of the graveyard dogs, a carrion feeder pawing over decomposing remains to satisfy public curiosity, Hamilton allows himself moral qualms about his purpose as a biographer. Speaking of his misgivings, he owns to a distaste for the “necessary element of sleaze…wounds reopened, emotions guessed at or played with, so I could tell my tale”. Such are his qualms about those who might be pained or damaged in the process of extracting his tale, Hamilton has ruefully decided that he will probably not venture down the path of biography again. Before his bruising legal battle with Salinger, which finally cured him of a lifelong infatuation with the author of Catcher in the Rye,Hamilton had found that even writing anauthorisedbiography of the shamelessly self-exposing Robert Lowell had bruising unforseen consequences for the biographer, not to mention Lowell’s various wives and friends.
I understand exactly the misgivings that Hamilton confesses in this regard. I also appreciate the dilemma he faced when these misgivings began to kick in. He had several years of intensive research and travel, a publishers advance and financial assistance expended, a contract to fulfil and publishers expectations to meet; all potent considerations to be weighed in the balance against a mounting distaste for “the necessary element of sleaze”. As Hamilton found, it is damn near impossible for a writer to pull-out when one has already waded into the middle of the biographical swamp.
Almost two years into the research for a book on the poet and polemicist, James McAuley, I found myself confronting similar misgivings to those of Hamilton as it became uncomfortably clear to me that this book was going to be more problematic than I had anticipated. I was determined not to engage in a process of peeping through the keyhole for glimpses of his intimate life, and had proposed a political biography of the public man. However, the deeper I waded into research about his public life the more I became aware that the stance of public man had its genesis in the profoundly troubled inner life of the private man.
I had already approached McAuley’s widow seeking access to his New Guinea diaries, which I knew had been read by several previous researchers. It was at least a year before I had a response to say that none of McAuley’s personal papers would be available to me, nor to any other researcher. Last year they were deposited in the Mitchell Library under a ten year embargo. At a writer’s festival in 1998 I was informed by McAuley’s literary agent that the family did not look favourably on the idea of my writing a book about their husband and father. As I explained in a letter to Michael McAuley – to which I had no reply – my problem was that I had expended over eighty thousand dollars of an Australian Research Council grant and I doubted that the ARC would accept my failure to produce the proposed book on the grounds that the McAuley family did not wish it. A member of the ARC Humanities panel confirmed that point for me, expressing some surprise that the view of the family should come into consideration in a scholarly political biography of a public man who died a quarter of a century past.
I pressed on with the task, determined to get it completed as quickly as possible so I could transfer my literary energy and curiosity to a less troublesome subject. Throughout the process I presented papers to a wide variety of audiences – predominantly academic – in Australia, as well as the US, Canada and Europe. In every case the feedback was consistent in pushing me to investigate the strong undercurrent of sexual anxiety which appeared to feed McAuley’s ideology, as well as his poetry. I knew they were right about this; it was an insistent line of interpretation that I had been resisting from the outset. I knew this line of interpretation could not fail to cause distress to the family and I remained very conscious of the fact that McAuley’s widow lived in the same small town as myself. I also knew it was likely to enrage his Cold War compatriots who interpret any attempt to read McAuley’s anti-communism in terms of social-sexual anxiety as a slur on the holy crusade against Stalin for which they were all now congratulating themselves.
In all intellectual honesty I could not avoid it.
My solution to my moral qualms on this score – which on reflection was less than satisfactory – was stylistic. I wrote the book covering McAuley’s public life between 1942 and his death in 1976 in a detached and scholarly manner, what one critic has conceded to be “dry fairmindedness”. At the very end of the book I added a postscript, stylistically quite different from the other chapters in that it is written in overtly subjective voice: tentative, speculative and candid. Here I talked about McAuley’s protean style and the difficulty I had in getting a fix on the man. I explained that in my reading of McAuley, his way of dealing with what he hated and feared in himself was to externalise his guilt on to the malevolent, preternatural force which he had acknowledged in New Guinea in 1949: the Devil. Hence the title I gave the book, The Devil and James McAuley.In the last eight pages I pose the question that had nagged me from the very beginning: what was it so terrified McAuley? I was greatly puzzled about the nocturnal fear that could make a young man wake up screaming and drive him to beat his body against the furniture. Night after night. For years. To suggest this tormented man could be disturbed by ambivalent sexuality is an entirely unremarkable speculation, almost old-fashioned in its reticence, as Chris Wallace-Crabbe indicated when he called my postscript “quaint” and wryly noted that I had been adroit in giving myself little space to explore it. Just so. The Devil and James McAuley is as circumspect as I felt I could honestly be without destroying the integrity of my interpretation.
Hostile critics have pointed to the “thin evidentiary basis” for my speculation that McAuley’s fear was a response to transgressive desire, as if one can produce factual evidence for something as slippery as desire. They then proceeded to attack me for having cast a slur on the man. In this era of identity politics it is very difficult to talk about homosexual desire or homoerotic relationships without appearing to have made a definitive characterisation, but I must insist that having established that McAuley was a contradictory and complex man, my intention was not to render him simple and transparent. My speculation was merely that McAuley was terrified by his sexual urges, especially the homoerotic, and he displaced his terror onto the Devil and his Communist agents. Such speculation could only be controversial to those old Cold War warriors looking for a sword to smite me with.
That said, I don’t resile from responsibility for putting into the public domain information about McAuley’s personal life which will pain his family.
Jim McAuley relished covert activity, in politics and his personal life. Digging around in the residue of that life it was inevitable that I would find out about secrets which made a mockery of the moral code he so loudly and publicly professed. Nevertheless I used only such secrets as I felt necessary to my support my view that McAuley was a man driven by guilt and self-loathing. Quite a bit has been left unsaid. Too much is left unsaid for McAuley’s ex-student Peter Pierce, who notes in his review that “there is nothing so game enough nor so legally imprudent as to amount to a revelation…one would have expected she would have had more to say about the adulterous McAuley who is bought to book late in the piece…no names are supplied”. I wonder why Professor Pierce expects that I should make such injurious revelations. No doubt he accepts Janet Malcolm’s dictum that the biographer’s business is not to place limits on voyeurism but to satisfy the reader’s curiosity; to dig up all the “malevolent secrets” of the dead and put them on display.
I can’t agree with Malcolm that this is the necessary job of the biographer. I believe the writer has an ethical responsibility to consider the human frailty of those who would be exposed and hurt by the secrets of the dead. Yet at the same time my writerly integrity is bound up in the veracity of the tale I am able to construct out of the vagaries of memory and the treacherous detritus left behind. Since we can never know the truth, it is fundamentally important that what I write makes psychological and moral sense of the material available to me and that my story does say something meaningful about the human condition.
These twin horns of ethical responsibility present me with a disconcerting and diasagreeable dilemma.
For my next project I prefer to leave the graveyard to the dogs.
Dr Cassandra Pybus is one of Austrlia’s most distinguished non-fiction writers. She is the author of seven books and her latest book is a controversial study of the poet and polemicist James McAuley, The Devil and James McAuley.Cassandra can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Raymond Foye (ed), The Unknown Poe: An anothology of Fugitive Writings,City Lights, 1980.
Ian Hamilton, “A Biographer’s Misgivings”, Walking Possession,Bloomsbury, 1994
Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer,Random House, 1990and The Silent Woman,Picador, 1994
George Plimpton, Truman Capote,Picador, 1999
Gitta Sereny, Cries Unheard
Will Self, “A Life of Crime”,The Independent on Sunday,9 May 1999
Gore Vidal, “Tennessee Williams” reprinted inUnited States: Essays 1952-1992, Andre Deutsch, 1993