all wrong

(17 january 2011)

i wonder sometimes if i’ve got it all wrong. made up a series of elaborate meanings where there are, in fact, none.

these are the scary days.

on the good days, it makes perfect sense and most days are good days.

gossip is a socially useful device. other people have proven that.

human beings are naturally self-centered. people have proven that as well.

and so, on the good days, it doesn’t seem such a leap to say that human beings take in gossip and apply it to their own lives. it’s only on the bad days that i realize this leap is enormous.

i am standing on a mountain of proven facts shouting something no one else has said. at least not in writing.

i would argue jackie’s was the most significant female life of the 20th century. i would argue the 1970s were the most important years of that life. i would argue that for reasons no one would ever guess and most everything ever published would argue that my argument is wrong.

i don’t really know what to do with that. except maybe shout a bit louder.

breakthrough

(12 january 2011)

i am alarmingly resistant to different ways of thinking. not necessarily in life in general, but when it comes to jackie, i take an extraordinarily limited view and subscribe to the age-old paradigm that one must write a book, find an agent, find a publisher, get published.

this has not worked for me in the past so Lord only knows why i cling to it still.

the problem with this, with the narrowness of my expectations, is that it makes it that much harder to ever get off the ground. there are too many impossibles, too many ifs. and if you never begin, you go nowhere.

for six years, i have been sitting on a book. a book that is written and which contends that jackie is an empty vessel. that she is an icon that encompasses every aspect of the mid-century female experience. a symbol that can take on any set of meanings we want her to have.

i have been sitting on this completed work since june 23, 2005, and i have only just now realized that, with this research, i can write papers on nearly every topic known to man.

jackie and motherhood. jackie and marriage. jackie and religion. jackie and wealth. jackie and racial relations. jackie as advertisement. jackie as self-help. jackie and sex. jackie and see-through tops.

i am only just now seeing i can take this show on the road.

it seems so stupidly obvious now. to be putting into practice the point i have been making all along. and yet, because the word “academic” most often translates as a pejorative, i have held back. i have been ridiculous.

because i have complained time and again that biographers hand down faulty information from one book to the next as though jackie’s story were a handmade quilt with which we must never mess. i have said this is wrong and yet i have done the same thing.

i have the missing piece of a puzzle no one has begun to put together. and i have kept that puzzle unused, unopened and in its original box.

lara said it was going to be the year we get published.

i didn’t believe her.

i was wrong.

here, kitty, kitty

(23 december 2010)

there is a convention of biographers convening in the middle of may.

thanks to some tantalizing press materials, it has long been known that the pre-conference reception will be held at the “washington d.c. home of a prominent biographer.”

the biographical community is fairly small and it’s safe to say that the number of biographers who own multiple homes is infinitesimal. so i was pretty sure i knew whose home this would be and i knew if i was right, then the answer was pretty, to quote lourdes leon, vair vair awesome.

there’s this biographer. she wrote a book about jackie. it has no bibliography and it contends jackie had electro-shock.

thanks to this book, the subject of my biographical quest has been, from the get-go, referred to by my grandmother as “that appalling jackie woman.”

this book is memorable and catchy and all-powerful. it laid the foundational myths that every subsequent jackie biographer has had to go to great lengths to debunk. for this, i should hate this biographer, but i don’t.

for thirty years, she was the only woman writing about jackie. i’ve barely got the balls to say i’m a biographer, but this woman has taken on both oprah and the royal family, bibliographies be damned. there is something to be said for such courage and for that she gets my respect.

when news came yesterday that the pre-conference reception was indeed being held at this biographer’s home, it was a revelation that pleased me much. that is until my father weighed in with a warning: if caroline finds out you’re consorting with such bad characters, she’ll never give up the family treasures.

i have not known what to make of this project from the beginning. it has been simultaneously underwhelming and too big to be believed.

all along, i have been waiting for a moment when what i am doing will suddenly hit me. a moment like this, like when my father reminds me that my actions could have long-lasting effects upon my relationship with caroline kennedy, and i think, oh, so this is for real.

the sexpert

(7 january 2011)

i may or may not be delivering a paper at a conference.

i say may or may not because my acceptance to deliver said paper at said conference was conveyed through a forwarded email from the biography, autobiography, memoir, personal essay area chair that mentioned nothing of my paper but simply stated that i had been “approved” and that she looks forward to seeing me there. since this echoes the sentiments of all people everywhere half-heartedly welcoming visitors whom they do not want, i take it with equal parts salt and hope.

so i may or may not be delivering a paper. a state of circumstances that i am nearly entirely certain is due solely to the fact that the paper i may or may not be delivering has the unlikely phrase “sex toboggan” in its title.

much like my uneasy worldwide affiliation with michael landon’s loins, i do not know if the sex toboggan is something for which i want to be known. principly, i do not know what one wears when positioning oneself as an expert in sex toboggans. and that seems somehow monumentally more important than the fact that i’m not even entirely certain what a sex toboggan is.

sister, sister

(16 december 2010)

i am still writing letters. and, blessedly, getting letters in return. it is a struggle to comprehend that these letters are, in fact, progress. i put that down to the fact that they inevitably arrive in my life at points of extreme banality.

it is 6 p.m. on a tuesday. i am wearing a nightgown and kneesocks waiting on pasta to boil when i notice the sister has written me back.

oddly, it is news that i keep to myself for several days.

it’s a measure of how spoiled i have become that, upon receiving this letter, i assume it is from the daughter. that it is from the sister is somewhat of a surprise.

thanks to the myriad scope of things one reads when searching for the addresses of famous people on the internet, i know that the sister routinely takes upwards of six months to return autographed photos to her fans. since my letter went out into the world sans a zip code and to an unverified location that was an odd conglomerate of an address the step-brother had given me and one mistyped on fundrace.org, i expected that it was being sent forth into an abyss, never to be heard from again. but just twelve days later, here is a response.

a response that says very little, mind you, but a response nonetheless. the only thing of particular note being that the sister says i am right.

i have explained my project to the sister and she has said, “i think you are certainly right.”

while i kind of already knew that- it being generally accepted historical fact and all- it’s a tremendous relief to have it acknowledged. it feels terribly good to be right, for certain.

i immediately imagine how this can be best incoroporated into my letter of introduction.

voilà!

i gently set this letter from the sister atop the pile of important papers on the floor, approximately six inches from the liter box. satisfied, i hike up my kneesocks and take the pasta off the stove.

let’s talk about sex, baby

(6 december 2010)

i am reading baby, let’s play house: elvis presley & the women who loved him. it is written by a woman who is writing about a man’s sexual relationships with women. the book’s central revelation is that elvis had sex with every woman in the western world, except mary tyler moore.

betcha didn’t know that. i sure didn’t.

that’s the problem with reading a lot about one person. you begin to think you know them. and then, after all these years, you read something so shocking, so out-of-character that you realize you never knew them at all. a truth that should be evident all along but somehow isn’t.

my dad talks about this quite a bit. about how you can never really know another person. about how he and my mom have been married forever and yet she shocks him still. like, the fact that she hates mr. rogers.

finding out that elvis bed-hopped is a lot like my mother hating mr. rogers. both of those truths make me want to curl up under an afghan and weep for the state of our world.

they do not make sense. they are impossible to reconcile with what i already know. my mother is a good person. how could she hate mr. rogers? elvis was a good mississippi boy. how could he have possibly had that much sex? (never mind that he was a man who did not bathe.)

i am tremendously skeptical of this skanky elvis business, though deep deep down i know it is likely true. it’s doubly hard to accept, however, because out of all the other elvis biographies i’ve read, all of them written by men, none of them have dealt at length with this. they have focused on his career and his music. they have regarded him as a serious historical figure.

this book is different. it is a woman writing about a famous man and all the action he got, a story underscored with a faint breathy horror that makes it very, very clear that the biographer does not approve.

as a reader, i’m being horribly sexist. i am reading this as a book written by a woman when it should simply be a book. i certainly wouldn’t want someone to be reading me this way and yet, much as i’m loathe to admit it, reading this book has made me only want one thing as a writer. it has made me want to write like a man.

the sister

(17 november 2010)

writing biography is like being blanche dubois. you’ve nothing except the kindness of strangers upon which to rely.

you hope they will remember. that they will talk. to you. that they will not die and take their secrets with them.

i’m writing a letter to the sister. the brother and the sister did not get along and the brother does not have the sister’s address and so i am sending this letter to the sister to an address the brother gave me at which the sister’s daughter may or may not still live in the hopes that it will reach the sister’s daughter who will then pass my letter along to the sister and the sister will then write me back.

that’s a whole heap of contingencies. particularly for a letter on which i forgot to include a return address.

i’ve written the sister before. seven years ago, i wrote her about this very thing. with my letter i included a list of 27 questions, most of them featuring separate bullet points. i pray she does not remember that. at this point, 10 seems a brazen liberty to take with someone’s time.

the sister is endlessly fascinating. she inspires an admixture of slight pity and extreme awe.

i do not expect she will write back. but i’ve gotten rather accustomed to the receipt of famous mail and there’s a part of me that’s getting cocky, spoiled by the people who have written back, even if only to say they don’t remember.

i want her to write back because she’s The Sister and she may have biographically important things to say and blah blah blah.

but mostly, i want her to write back so i can have a piece of paper with that handwriting. the handwriting that is just a few genetic degrees removed from jackie’s, which i know better than my own.