This morning I finished reading Ann Patchett’s novel Truth and Beauty, a memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. It’s a lovely, tragic story and I would have “closed” the book on my e-reader and enjoyed its lingering aftertaste much more had I not felt so uncomfortable. Dare I say, dirty?
How could she do it? I wonder. How could Ann betray Lucy’s confidences, expose her friend’s suffering to strangers in such a lovingly brutal way? How could she remember all of those conversations and moments, when time condenses and distorts memory into something almost unrecognizable from the original events? Was she taking notes all along? Did she realize early on in the tumultuous friendship “This will make a great story.” Because unless Ann took dictation and captured Lucy’s words verbatim, she was fictionalizing.
It made me squirmy, this literary exposé. I am always so careful to avoid writing about anyone I know—friends, family, acquaintances. I have had people search for signs of themselves in my writing and been relieved when they didn’t find them. I try to be cautious with reality. When my personal life seeps into my fiction (as it invariably does with any writer) I am careful to use only my own emotions surrounding an experience. I mangle and mash the unstable flux of “feelings” into new shapes and découpage them onto paper dolls and cut-out scenery. I will not give anyone away.
For a moment, I regretted purchasing the book, as if in doing so I had colluded in an act of aggression or witnessed an assault and stood by, doing nothing. But the discomfort is mine—not Ann’s, probably not Lucy’s—for I’m aware that everything we feel and say about someone else is just a mirror image. Our praise and protestations are our breath upon the glass, giving us a glimpse of something that prefers to remain unseen.