New year, new me? How memoirs can help us shape our futures by examining other people's pasts
Alicia Elliott found a resolution of sorts in Keith Maillard's Fatherless: to live with radical compassion
Shelfies is a monthly column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.
There's nothing like the close of a year — or a decade — to force one to reflect on where they are and what they've achieved in that time. December was filled with so many critics mulling over what pieces of art were most memorable, so many friends and colleagues and complete strangers flipping through the pages of their lives to see evidence of their personal, professional, and/or emotional growth. There's a certain pride in being able to collect evidence that you existed during this time, that you survived — that no matter what hardships you had to struggle through to get to this point, you still learned, loved, felt joy and experienced triumph.
And then comes the cold, hard reality of January. New year, new you — or so the saying (and subsequent expectation) goes. I'm not really the type of person to make New Year's resolutions. I have a hard enough time remembering to reply to texts I've literally just read, so the idea that I'd remember to make a sudden, sustained change in my behaviour every day simply because I changed my calendar is somewhat ridiculous to me. However, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't something promising about having a new year before you, as unblemished and full of possibility as the world seems after a fresh snowfall. What kind of person do I want to grow into in the next decade? The next year? The next week? What can I do to become more like that person?
For many of us, the way forward is, in fact, back. What I mean by that is that we must each critically examine our past, identify the stories we had to tell ourselves and the behaviours we had to develop to get by, and start the difficult work of determining whether those stories and behaviours are still serving us, or if they're keeping us from reaching necessary points of understanding, insight and growth. In other words, scary stuff. Luckily for us, there's an entire genre of writing specifically dedicated to mining one's personal life, making meaning out of it, and paving a path forward: the memoir.
As I was entering 2020, I picked up Keith Maillard's 2019 memoir Fatherless. It turned out to be one of those rare moments when you come across the exact book you need to read at the exact time you need to read it. I was wondering what I could do to become the best version of myself, pondering what sort of legacy I want to leave behind, and here comes Fatherless to grapple with exactly that: twisting and turning these questions to examine every possible angle (albeit in a much more specific context). As Maillard dwells on the successes and failures of a lifetime, and the stories we tell ourselves to get by and stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions, he gives us a model of not only self-awareness and honesty but also, more importantly, healing.
The book opens with a somewhat surreal scene: while at work, Maillard receives a phone call from the lawyer of his estranged father, informing him that this man he hasn't seen since he was a child has died. When one's father dies, any emotional response is going to be complicated, but the circumstances of Maillard's father's life — a man who made punctual child support payments, but never offered so much as a note on his son's birthdays — makes his death particularly hard to process. He writes: "My absent father had always been a black hole in my life — no matter what I directed into it, nothing ever came out of it — and by this point he shouldn't have mattered a damn to me. I was, after all, no longer a six-year-old. [...] I had succeeded without a father, without even thinking about him very much [...], so why should it matter to me that this unknown man — Eugene Charles Maillard, my biological father — had just died?" This is the story that he had to tell himself since childhood: that his father leaving him didn't matter, that his absence made Maillard's own accomplishments even more impressive because they were achieved in spite of his fatherlessness. This is the story he tries to cling to when he hears that his father has died. Why should he care about a man who didn't show he cared himself, who didn't take the time to get to know his son?
Maillard obviously needed this story to deal with the complex pain of losing a parent who was, in fact, still alive. But if the story he told himself were true, his father's death shouldn't have mattered. The problem, Maillard admits immediately, is that his father's death "did matter. I could tell how much it mattered by how angry I was." The rest of the book unpacks this complication as Maillard learns what his father's life entailed, the sort of man his father was, and what being a father — and being without a father — really means. He does this by conducting long, detailed interviews with people that knew Eugene Maillard, fastidiously poring over the scrapbooks he kept. In places, Maillard even imagines pivotal moments in his father's life, giving us dialogue and details that feel real, even if they can't be exactly accurate.
Initially, I thought this was a strange choice. How could the same man who had never had a chance to feel fatherly love — who admits in a moment of vulnerability, "I had never in my entire childhood hugged a man. That's all I ever wanted, I thought, that acknowledgement." — how could he look at the man who caused him so much pain and loss and construct a complex inner life for him? When reconstructing the fight that broke up his parents, Maillard starts his imagined scene with his father making a joke, then revises to suggest that maybe it was "a joke that [wasn't] really a joke, a joke with a stinger attached." "But no," Maillard finally admits, "I can't believe that version either. It wasn't a joke. I've finally caught up to him. I know him well enough by now to feel the fire of his outrage — to feel it burn in me too." That's deeper than empathy; that's immersion.
When I read Maillard depicting his parents' breakup with such clear-eyed compassion, I wondered what it might look like if we all were a little more vulnerable and kind with our imaginations.- Alicia Elliott
Although I've done the same sort of empathizing with my parents in my own writing, it still surprises me when others choose to do it. It's difficult work — not the sort of thing you do if you can at all help it. For example, actor Shia LaBeouf — who not only wrote 2019's Honey Boy about his complicated relationship with his abusive, alcohol-dependent father, but also played his father in the film — originally started his script in rehab as part of his treatment. In a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable interview, LaBeouf explained that the reason his rehab experience and the film were so important to him was because they helped him feel "empathy for my father, who was always the biggest villain in my life. I think if you can empathize with the biggest villain in your life, and sort of escape some of these shadows, it makes you lighter, freer."
When I heard LaBeouf say that, and when I read Maillard depicting his parents' breakup with such clear-eyed compassion, I wondered what it might look like if we all were a little more vulnerable and kind with our imaginations. Instead of using my mind to furnish my worst fears with details and dialogue, playing out elaborate scenes of potential pain and furthering anxieties that often have no basis in fact, I could imagine people in my life not as would-be villains but as, quite simply, people. Perhaps complicated people, perhaps flawed people, perhaps even sometimes cruel people — but still worthy of more consideration than I'd previously given them.
Maybe there's a resolution there — a promise to try to see from others' perspectives more, a promise to turn away from fear and anger and choose love, as Kai Cheng Thom put it in her revolutionary, brilliant, and, above all, kind 2019 book I Hope We Choose Love. In a world that's predicted to become uninhabitable for humans within our lifetimes, what other choice do we have? What else can fuel our desire to save our families, our communities, our species, our non-human kin, our planet? What else but love? And if we really do have limited time left to lead the sort of lives we want to, why not be purposeful and positive with the legacies we leave? Why not start using love to transform how we see and interact with others now, while we still can?