Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Honesty ("The Splendid Things We Planned" by Blake Bailey)

There's a frustrating paradox involved in the writing of a memoir--namely, the very people who've lived lives interesting enough to write about also have legacies and careers to preserve, making true honesty downright impossible. Which is why, year after year, the bestseller list is dominated by memoirs of the famous and influential--actors and actresses, politicians, writers, pundits--that are both massive and hollow. Even when these public figures manage to create something bordering on honest--the infamous "tell-all"--they always manage to portray themselves as pinnacles of purity and rational thinking amid the thoughtless, impure masses.*

In other words, they skirt the truth if not lie outright--an act that violates the very agreement between themselves and the people who read their work. In order for a memoir to succeed--in order for it to actually have a purpose beyond feeding the ego of its creator--it must be brutal and unadorned, with explanations instead of excuses and clarity instead of self-preservation, even if that means poisoning otherwise healthy relationships or scrutinizing an otherwise incorruptible career. If a memoirist isn't willing to sacrifice everything they hold dear in the name of truth, then the story is best left untold. This is the danger and the beauty of autobiography.

Blake Bailey's The Splendid Things We Planned is danger and beauty as it should be. Subtitled "A Family Portrait," Bailey's memoir is ostensibly the story of his brother Scott's decades-long drug abuse, underpinned by an undiagnosed mental disorder, which builds towards a tragic but inevitable conclusion.** Along the way we witness Scott's rambunctious younger years, where signs of his upcoming struggles are indistinguishable from cliched adolescent tribulations, all of which slowly builds into his wandering college years, failed jobs, dalliances with harder drugs, and crumbling relationships with almost every member of his family, including the author himself. At the same time, Blake struggles with his own problems--a jealous temper, rampant alcoholism, an unsteady series of jobs--and at times the brothers seems to juggle their respective roles, with Scott cleaning his life up while Blake's falls apart, only to reverse a year or so later. As Bailey notes in his  "Acknowledgements," he and Scott were eerily similar--a truth that is both comforting and heartbreaking when taken with the 250 pages of unsettling recollections that precede it.

What makes Bailey's memoir so effective--that is, what makes it so representative of what a memoir can and should be--is how honestly he recounts every detail, even when it means revealing his own failures and shortcomings, as well as those of his otherwise wonderful family. More often than not, Bailey is downright vicious towards Scott, antagonizing him over the sundry trials of his past to the point where our sympathies are suddenly confused. We know that Scott has problems and needs help, just as we know the severity of his past mistakes cannot be ignored or blamed away, and yet we cringe in these moments--and there are more than a few--knowing even without being there the weight of these actions on those involved. Towards the end, after his family has endured decades of Scott's instability and abuse, their conversations with one another turn to the possibility of Scott committing suicide--sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes hopeful--and we find ourselves shocked but also unable to judge them fully. We may not agree, but we understand, and that--perhaps--is all the author asks of us.

Blake Bailey's family is portrayed as uncharacteristically open-minded for mid-century Oklahoma--they are atheists, and their home is open to gay and Arab friends--and this belief in openness is obviously part of the reason why he is able to bleed onto the page without concern. When the story ends, few if any of the people featured in its pages are without a reason for shame or guilt; even those with no connection to Scott's failed rehabilitations have moments of anger, pettiness, or cruelty. But that's the point--they are forced to deal with situations beyond their control, and in the process they make mistakes and grow frustrated, revealing their humanity. Bailey could have easily glossed over these instances and focused solely on his brother, but in doing so he would've been lying about the impact of drug abuse and undiagnosed mental illnesses--the two chains that dragged down every member of his family and quite a few friends and bystanders. After all, a memoir is more than just the story of the writer's life--it is the story of all lives.

*The one exception to this rule is memoirs by musicians, where the exact opposite seems to apply:  the harder you lived, the better your story and more worthwhile the purchase.

**Scott Bailey is diagnosed only once in the story, with paranoid schizophrenia, a diagnosis that is dismissed as inaccurate.