Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

We had something dramatic happen in town a few weeks ago--something that directly affected only a few people, but took many more by surprise. The week that followed the news was full of "Well, I heard..." and while I occasionally participated, it made me feel like I needed a shower. Gossip: is it evil, pointless chattering or is it a sincere attempt to make sense of the world and our place in it? Or both, alternately or simultaneously, and depending on the spirit of the participants? In this case, most of the people I spoke with or overheard seemed to really be trying to piece together a puzzle, to make sense of a seemingly senseless event.

This leads to another question that's always been of great interest to me, as a person and especially as a writer: to whom does this story--or any story--belong? I've read a million examples of family members feeling betrayed by a writer's work. Do we have a "right" to tell the stories even if the privacy of those closest to us is invaded? I've read in both Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg's work, among others, about giving ourselves permission to tell the truth as we see it in whatever form it flows out of us--poetry, fiction, memoir--and consequences be damned. Tell the truest, realest story you can and take your comfort in that. Your first loyalty is to the story. Okay, yeah, but you don't have to share an apartment or a Thanksgiving dinner with the story except in the most figurative sense.

Even before the local drama, this subject had been on my mind as I read What Remains by Carole Radziwill. She was married to John Kennedy, Jr.'s cousin, Anthony Radziwill and she had a very close friendship with Carolyn, John's wife. Carole's husband died of cancer three weeks after John and Carolyn were killed in a plane crash.

In September of last year, when the book was released, I caught maybe thirty seconds of an interview on one of the morning news programs. I'm a chronic channel hopper when it comes to those shows--thirty seconds here, a minute there--so I'm not at all sure who was interviewing her, though I'm reasonably sure it was someone male. One of the questions she was asked had to do with how John and Carolyn would've felt about intimate details of their lives being made public. I don't even remember Radziwill's response because I was so busy making a snap judgment--she was taking advantage of her close relationship to John and Carolyn, she was capitalizing on her intimate knowledge to sell books.

Having since read the book--which I never expected to do, but was persuaded by an excerpt of it I stumbled across in a magazine--I can say I was wrong. The interviewer was wrong--unless the rest of the interview somehow redeemed the snippet I caught, somehow revealed the interviewer's depth of understanding of and respect for Carole's book. I doubt it, but hey, I've got to at least put the possibility out there.

The truth about this book, at least, is that the story within it is Carole's: unmistakably, intimately, Carole's personal story. The details she reveals of John and Carolyn's personal lives--and even Anthony's--are just enough to make the reader understand their places in Carole's life--to understand the depth and breadth of her loss, the holes left behind by the disappearance of these three people from her life.

Since it's a question Radziwill has no doubt faced (there's interview transcripts all over the Internet--I was too lazy to read, let alone link to, them all) I have to say that it's likely that if she'd been married to a Schmoe cousin and was close friends with Joe Schmoe and his wife Jane Doe she would never have gotten the book deal she got--especially with a major publisher willing to spring for so much promotional support. But that would've been our loss, you know? And, also, that truth is much more revealing about the nature of publishing and the "book business" than it is of Carole Radziwill's character or talent.

The story in What Remains included John, Carolyn and Anthony, but it was Carole's story and, to a lesser extent, the story of all of us who have faced a loss. There is an elemental way in which the story of one of us is the story of all of us: "No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main..."* It is our stories that help us map the landscape of our lives and the world.

*Ms. Tolman, if you're out there, aren't you proud of the way I worked that John Donne quote in there? And aren't you at least a little comforted by my (admittedly half-assed) attribution**? It's almost a footnote. (**Thanks, Nita!)


  1. it was great until you misspelled attribution :)

    thanks for this. i saw her on orca and was disgusted by her. i probably still won't read the book, but at least i won't curl my lip next time i see her ...

  2. HA! I'm laughing at Nita's comment---orca? That's the first time I have actually heard that one!

    But, seriously, another author on Orca that has raised controversy but I refuse to name also has made the issue of personal perceptions and truth a really big topic right now. But, I have been facinated for some time with perceptions and how one's own can really direct a life in a certain direction, while someone else might have an entirely different one and act completely different. It's really interesting to thanks for touching on that.

  3. Sometimes I wonder if perceptions are like assumptions, and as I have said somewhere else today, you know what they say about those. Your right if she was Joe schmo's wife she would not have probably gotten the book deal but that really to me at least does not mean that the story shouldn't be told. It in a way is yes gossip too, since the now departed cannot come back to defend or validate what she has said.

    (Sorry, if I seem a bit scattered here, pardon me, my meds are kicking in.)

    And your two parallels you drew with gossip, I think you are right in it being both. Good and evil if you will.

    Nita- if your counting spelling words, PLEEEASE don't count mine. I am the worlds worst speller. :)

  4. Nita--Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap! :) I usually go over everything once I'm done typing, but I had a 17-year-old breathing down my neck the whole time I was typing this one. He's soooooo grounded. I suppose I don't get any extra credit for my almost footnote now, huh?

    Thanks to everyone for your comments--It took all the willpower I had not to mention that other Orca author since his deal kind of ties in with some of what I was saying, but as previously mentioned, I had a 17-year-old hanging over me antsy for his computer time. Did I mention how grounded he was?

  5. O.K. I am going to ask because I just don't know, that exactly is Orca?

  6. Orca=Sweet Nita's way of referring to Oprah :)

  7. that is funny as HELL!

  8. I can't help it. A little gossip is good for the soul. It's like a good book; you just have to be careful how you use that information.

    (and yes, I am going to hell, wanna come?)

    p.s. I was wondering if "orca" would pop up in this post...

  9. James Lie! I had to say it!

  10. Just finished reading Carole's book and I thought it was very moving not exploitive of her relationships at all. There were four best friends and then in 21 days only one was left. No matter who the players its a moving story.

  11. I am from Johannesburg, South Africa and "celecbrity" is not big here. We tend to leave our stars and "royalty" well alone - they are after all normal humans like us plebbs. I have always felt that people in the public eye have a raw deal, especially in the US and UK and when I catch glimpses of stories, written and visual, it annoys me and scream in my head: 'Leave these people alone!'.

    Carol Radziwill proved to me in HER story how human she remained - and how human the people in her life were and are despite of famous names.

    It could easily have been my story and countless others, and I am certain it is. I have just finished reading What Remains and I was left heartbroken for her at 2am and heartbroken for me that I read the last word, but what an inspirational, honest and yet edited (I am sure for the protection of privacy of others - I applaude that) account of her story. No sugar coating on how she felt at the loss of intimacy with the man she loved and to admit stolen kisses etc. made me respect her even more. I know her story will certainly influence my future and present relationships with people. I wish someone had given me such a story to read and draw from from when I suffered losses - great losses - over the years.

  12. I just finished her book and I wanted to say thank you for writing about your opinion on the book, which I definitely agree with. I judged her on Oprah. After reading the book my opinion has completely changed. I think she did a great job of writing about HER story, while respecting the Kennedy's sense of privacy.

  13. Not sure if you will be checking back here or not but wanted to say thanks to all you anonymous commenters. The fact that this post is still being regularly found and commented upon proves to me the power and value of Carole's book. I'm glad so many people have found and read it.

  14. One year later and your comments continue to be read...February 11, 2007...

    I am reading "What Remains" and I am moved by the telling of the story. It is such an engaging and compelling story that draws you in from the first page. I am struck by Carole's feelings of awkwardness and feeling out of place in such a world. I commiserate with her needing to justify her place in her relationship with her husband to his family, knowing the unspoken questions about "why her"? I agree with previous postings that she only shares the details of John, Carolyn and others in the family as those details relate to her. I did not have the sense that this book is salacious gossip. It is heartwarming and heart rending at the same time. It is a wonderful story of life and love and what happens while you are making plans.

  15. I think of all the books I read last year, this one stayed with me the most. Thanks for your comments.

  16. Funny how this book seems to come around again and again....this is being posted in the summer of 2007 - a summer that seems to be filled with stress, angst, regrets - is it the war, is it the economy, is it that everyone seems to have a story of suffering in their family? I can't put my finger on what "it" is, but everyone seems to be pretty sad these days.

    I just finished the book. Have to admit I cried. My mom has cancer, so it hit home. In the book, Carole captures the nightmare that is cancer, from the patient's denial to the family's suffering (she is right - we aren't brave), and, of course, the sterile, impersonal world of medicine. I'm pretty sure I met Dr. Best of the Best - there is one in every town, isn't there? I don't recommend that the book be read by someone in the throws of chemo, after all, the story doesn't have a "happy" ending. But, it is a good book for someone who has been there, survived the throws of cancer, and knows what happens. Carole gets it right - she captures it all. She is a great writer.

    I love her crazy family and the fact that she married into THE ROYAL FAMILY. Just proves that good, smart girls can get the guy, even if their net worth is in the negatives. I'm very impessed that Anthony and John married normal girls - just shows that their mamas raised them right.

    I liked the portrayal of Carolyn B. Kennedy. I get the feeling she would have been a great girl friend for an average girl like me - or maybe that is is what carole wants us to think? (a final tribute to her friend...) I wasn't suprised by the portrayal of Caroline K. Schloss...but, can you imagine her life? I'd be an island, too.

    Finally, Diana Sawyer. Love her. Well, she is from Kentucky, so you know the stories of her love, compassion and manners have to be the truth. She's kept to her good bluegrass roots - go Diane!, that is just too mean. I like her, whatever weight she is. At least she has shows that I'm not embarassed to discuss (or watch) with my mama and granny!

    That's all I have to say - off to work and the world.

  17. Just finished reading What Remains by Carole Radziwill yesterday. Cried like a baby thru (almost!) the whole book. I'm the one with cancer, and my husband is the one going thru many similar scenes as Ms. Radziwill. Confirms for me what I've always felt: the loved one that cares for the patient is the one with the most difficult job. Ms. Radziwill's story will stay with me always. Love is Real. m

  18. M--Thank you for taking the time to post a comment while you're going through the hell that is cancer. You will be in my thoughts and I hope that everything will turn out well for you and your husband. I'm sure Carole would be proud to know the effect her book continues to have on people.

  19. I just finished this book. It is an honest account of marriage to a person with cancer. It was also interesting to read about people I have heard of, but she talks about them as friends and relatives not as celebrities. It was a great read. I highly recommend it!

  20. I read What Remains more than a year ago; first listening to it on audio, with Carol as the narrator, and then reading the hard copy of the book. It was an amazing story, so emotional and heartbreaking and one that touched me deeply, partly due to my love of the Kennedy family since my youth. Seeing John, Jr. through Carol's eyes was a profound experience. Carol and Carolyn had a friendship that is enviable. That is what impressed me most about the book. Carolyn was such a strong support to Carol during a stressful and difficult time. Whenever I think of the book or talk about it with someone, what comes to mind first is my thought that everyone should have a friend like Carolyn was to Carol. I am sure I will be reading the book again soon and will probably do so every couple of years. Many thanks to Carol for sharing this story.

  21. This site truly has all of the information and facts I needed about this subject and didn't know who to ask.

    Feel free to surf to my blog post :: satılık villa