The High Jump: Privacy, Veracity and Autobiographical Fiction

I was once talking to a writer’s workshop whose members said they didn’t understand how I’d got the consent of my family to write about them.  And one thought I had was that the consent was perhaps the legacy of my father’s Catholicism.  Stripped of heaven and God, Dad nevertheless passed on a feeling for confession, atonement, redemption to his daughters, which gave us some immunity against Protestant secret-keeping—the notion that all private life is secret; and all strong feeling shameful.

(It can be said that all literature is about redemption.  Or, to put it more clearly, in its existence all literature is about redemption.  If poetry aims to stop time—so that the great lyric poems are always the present, as Charles Simic says—then fiction and memoir are Proust’s exercise: time regained.  And if time stopped and time regained aren’t about redemption, then what is?)

Of course it isn’t enough to be willing to represent other people’s folly, oddities, shortcomings, and then tell them that they shouldn’t be ashamed. An author has also to represent what shamed her.   Tawa , the third book in The High Jump trilogy, certainly lays out it’s protagonist’s shame. Lex is ashamed that she wasn’t brave enough, and open enough, to save her sister Steph from her abuser. Tawa shows Lex’s sense of her own mistakes and how unequal she is to what she has to do, what she feels only she can do.  It does this as much as is possible in a book that doesn’t look forwards, that doesn’t anticipate a future.  (Strangely only the young Lex’s story—Pomare—does that, as if only Pomare‘s author feels able to.)

I think The High Jump exists somewhere between my first intention to make it public and what I privately thought.  This, for instance, is Pomare’s original private appearance in a passage of notes from my journal in 1991:

“Sandra and the barrel of blood and bone.  The shell in the gutter, and the spill of maggots in green rot.  I held my hands, smeared, away from my body and ran home.  Sandra and Darryl and the swan plant.  Playing aeroplanes.  Being buried.  The light dry and crumbled.  The willow root I hauled my way out of the earth on. Out of the collapsed tunnel. The boy behind me in the tunnel withdrawing, and his warm hand leaving my ankle.  Standing by the river (the white scar of the diving rock and the bush on the far bank—the smell of cold water, a weight of it, powerful and wayward, bullying). Mum at home peeling potatoes into the sink, her hands red under the tap, the light off, the kitchen dusky.  She was crying, and there were the plastic toys from the puffed wheat packets (little models of the Mercury and Saturn rocket capsules), white plastic littering the kitchen tabletop like tossed bones.  Mum had taken the toys to the hospital to entertain Stephen, but he had died that morning and so she’d brought them home again.  She didn’t notice the dirt I hadn’t combed out of my hair—I had nearly died too.  Jill’s brother’s tunnel fort had collapsed on me.  I remember we were attacked by the big kids. I remember a stone like a thrush in flight over the pit—it knocked me out.  We treated Jill like a foreign ambassador, she was special, she came from Christchurch.  (I’d been there as a baby, chased by Andrew Campbell with his mother’s scissors—he was threatening to cut the draught stoppers, the ‘sausages’ in half.  Cousin Steph and Mary made me be baby in the Playhouse.  I was annoyed by that, although I was only 18 months old.  My first memory, leaving Wellington harbour and looking at the lights on Mount Victoria; I was buttoned into Dad’s coat.). The shed and its honeysuckle. Us girls’ in our floral pinafores  (that picture of Sara and me in our pinafores at the door of the shed for the cover of the book!  Or perhaps the photo of  the six-year-old me at the kitchen table, writing ).”

Everything there is in the finished novella—including the cover picture of Sara and I at the shed door.  But in the book my own memories are augmented by family stories. Those were more often the cause of dispute, though the things that my family took issue with were largely only a matter of detail. They were never against the spirit of the work —they didn’t question my judgment.  I think they could see that it was my job to judge, since I was the one doing the writing.

There was one thing I got wrong that particularly annoyed my father: I’ll read the passage —I didn’t change it when Pomare was collected in The High Jump, for reasons that I hope will come clear when I tell you why he objected.

“Frank and another alpine guide had set out to carry supplies to a party of climbers stranded at Ball Hut. The road was snowed in and there was no getting a tractor through. Frank’s partner carried a pack of food; Frank had a six-gallon drum of kerosene strapped to his back, which gurgled in a distinctly spiritous way at his every step.

The ceiling of cloud was low, snow on the slope to the left of the road loose and threatening. Mist moved now and then between the men and their view below and behind of that white and preposterously wide road, the Tasman Glacier.
They heard the storm coming up the far side of Sefton, closer, sharp concussions of thunder then the bass chorus of an avalanche shaken loose in the opposite valley. The men stopped. The tin on Frank’s back boomed. A small snowfall skidded down the slope above the road just in front of the guides. Frank’s partner went ahead to take a look, first shrugging off the pack so that, if he must, he could make a quick retreat. His ice axe was still fastened to the top of his pack. Frank thrust the spike on his axe-handle into the snow, and used the head to rest on, like a hacking-cane. For a moment it was quiet, but for the creak of their feet in the snow. Then, beneath Frank’s hand, his ice axe began to hum. He raised it, broke contact with the ground, but it went on vibrating like a tuning fork. Something was on its way, something unlike anything he knew – the jolts he’d heard when he put his ear to a railway line in a quiet landscape, or, his head underwater, the sound of the prop of a big ship coming into the bay. Frank flung the ice axe from him. It sailed out over the glacier and was struck by lightning. Only a thin capillary of electricity, but around the two men the air was instantly solid, deafening, and as brassy as small change.
They went on, with supplies to deliver. But on the way back the following morning, in finer weather, they climbed down from the road onto the glacier to look for the axe. And found a comma-shaped hole milled from the ice where the axe-head had melted its way down into the glacier, too deep for sight.”

What Dad said about this was that it made him look like a nung-nung (I’m quoting, and he was using one of Mum’s words). Apparently, in a thunderstorm, a climber would drag their axe around after them on a string. Now, if I’d known that I would have used it! But to quite different ends, and the whole book would have had to shape itself slightly differently around an alpine guide dragging his lightning-attracting axe around after him on a string. I remember passing this comment of Dad’s on to my younger sister —this was before the book came out, before she’d read the passage. She said that she’d told Dad’s ice axe story to someone just the other week, and she’d told the version I’d used. As far as she knew that was the true story. I’m sure it was the story we were told as children —Dad was a storyteller too, and must have recognised that the flung axe was more striking than the dragged one.

During the years in which the three novellas that comprise The High Jump appeared, I have, time and again, been asked questions about truth. It seems to me that questions about “truth” in autobiographical fiction are questions about authority, and openness.  On one hand there is the question, “What makes you think you are the one to write about these things which you don’t solely own?”  On the other an almost admiring, “How do you manage to be so open about yourself?”

Well, I guess my response to those questions must be this. To say you do own something —like your life as a subject, a territory, although it overlaps the territories of other lives—is to let others in, to let light in.  The more personal the work, the more inclusive and unflinching, and the less generalised it is to the experience of others, the more it is universally human. And that is because the core experiences of consciousness —of experience —are particularity and unrepeatability.  That’s why we think we have souls.  So—the more I represent my life as only like my life, and what I care for as what, for all I can tell, I alone care for, the more I’m representing the particularity and unrepeatability of human life.

At this point I’d like to say a little about the problem presented fiction —all art in fact —by the culture of therapy.

The thinking and language of therapy are, at the moment, whether we like it or not, one of the dominant social forms we have of making sense of our personal lives.

Our lives are odd and maddening.  But therapy is fashionable, and even friends fob each other off with, “Have you considered counselling?” The influence of therapy on our stories means we can say, “These strange, self-assaulting things happened to me and I was improved by them.” Or we can say, “These things happened and I survived them.” And sometimes that’s all we have to say. (Or we have to see a therapist.) We have a tiny therapeutic lexicon for describing what has disturbed and hurt us, and find it increasingly difficult to describe all the oddities of individual experience, all the silly, inexplicable stuff.  And if we can’t properly articulate our experiences can our experiences enter the culture as our own? I find it disturbing that, at the same time that the general public has reached a consensus about what a person can expect from therapy, therapy reaches the point where it scarcely ever admits there’s any —for instance —social dimension to private pain.

This is a challenge for autobiographical fiction.

Of course the greatest challenge to autobiographical fiction is privacy.

There are people, many people, who quite reasonably believe that, if they don’t themselves seek public attention, then their lives and actions aren’t in the public domain. Fair enough. And privacy is a good, but it is a good among goods. Truth is also a good, and it is good to represent the full complexity of human life. One of the dangers of exposing anyone —oneself, or someone else —in art is the possibility of a glib response from the audience. I think I’d have to say that it is what we call “the media’” who are partly responsible for that. The media’s tendency to sensationalism and simplification does shape all our responses to any narrative, to any information. And, given the likelihood of the impossibility of controlling the reception of anything, probably the best defence against superficial misreading and bad faith is to give as complex and large a version of the truth as possible.

My husband —who has a foot in the public domain — would like me to say, “Betraying people’s privacy is indefensible, but I can’t help it.” But I’d like to say that the only real defence we have against the shame, the sense of being lepers and losers with which society attempts to control us, for its own interests, at any given point (and these interests change daily, almost hourly, like the Dow Jones Index)—our only defence is having no shame. Here I think of King Lear, “None do offend, none I say, none.”

2001