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!)
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