jackie evades me. i’ve been writing about her for ten years and she has never seemed so unclear as now.
this is obvious in my work lately, wherein everyone around her seems vividly alive, jockeying to the forefront as she gets pushed further and further away, into the background, OF HER OWN LIFE.
it’s a problem. one which, perhaps counter-intuitively, i interpret as a signal that the story i’m telling will be a stronger story in the end, but it’s a problem in the present nonetheless.
jackie evades the reader because she’s evading the writer, and so the book as it stands now- 2 1/2 chapters in- is a mediation on all the things we cannot know.
will it still look like this in a month? or even next week? maybe not. but it’s both disheartening and provocative, where it is now.
i often imagine- in that way that you imagine all the roads you’ve not taken would’ve been far simpler- that writing The Definitive Biography must be so much easier. for, in surrendering to the delusion that we can actually know someone we’ve not known, the biographer avoids much angst.
and bypasses an upsetting silence that it seems i cannot avoid.
because, as it turns out, by narratively engaging with all the things said about jackie, all the stuff X told Y not to tell Q about what K saw jackie doing, one creates a cacophony, a gossip loop that only heightens her absence.
in her own story, she is distressingly AWOL.
this is, quite obviously, a reflection of my own relation to her now rather than something of biographical significance because it isn’t biographically true at all. she was real and she lived, like most of us do, as the star of her own life, a life that was, i think, interesting and unusual and brave though, unfortunately, astonishingly little of it- if one is writing outside of the accepted narrative- is available to us now.
i wonder if this is the problem: she evades me because i am angry with her.
am i angry about the silence? it would be ironic, really, as it was precisely that same silence that initially drew me to her story when i was a girl: the disconnects between her refusal to speak, the way her story was portrayed in the press, and how that story looked in the images from her greek years. she was almost always a silent star.
so the silence is significant. but how to give a voice to that? how to portray it? and how to reposition her in our own imaginations and in american history when she so steadfastly resisted participation in telling her own story during her life?
(a statement that’s a gross oversimplification as she did engage in the selective story-telling, from which the official narrative springs [camelot, anyone?]; however, she resolutely didn’t participate in the telling of the story of her greek years.)
i’ve always seen this project as one of transition- bringing together elements of jackie’s story that are at great risk of soon being lost. the tabloids. the stories of the women who read them. jackie’s place in the lives of ‘ordinary’ americans, people who were- in the vocab of us weekly– ‘just like us.’
these are the details often sifted from official histories. the intersections of major historical figures and the lives of the people who were interested in them. perhaps silence is something that goes missing too…
i’m writing about a period that has been, for the most part, expunged from the culturally current narrative of jackie’s life. because it’s embarrassing. because it’s not american. because it doesn’t easily jive with the image we have been given of her.
‘the image we have been given of her.’ in it, she represents dignity, manners, and poise.
in my image, she represents adventure, exploration, and freedom.
it’s an odd clash of old world versus new, wherein we have been given, and have been seemingly content to accept, the narrative of a social drama when we could’ve had a quest.
because it’s easier? because it’s safer? because it is, we think, what jackie would have wanted?
i am not content. i want the new. i want the quest.
so why does this matter at all?
increasingly, i’ve been thinking ‘life-reading’ should be a thing. it isn’t but i’mma start arguing it needs to be.
‘life-writing’- a term i’d never heard of until two years ago- is très on trend in academic circles, as it’s fairly obvious (or is it?) that there’s value in exploring the way we write about lives. but what about when we read them? and the ways in which what we read of those lives shapes how we see ourselves and live our own?
the work i do always, inevitably (for years [in every regard]) has circled back to two things: choices and expectations, both of which are areas where our perceptions of the possibilities available to us are dramatically shaped by the stories we encounter of other people’s lives.
for instance, i never thought i could be president but i always thought i could be an astronaut thanks to sally ride.
that’s a big example. this dynamic exists on a small scale too.
in may 2004, i had coffee with a biographer. i loved reading biography. i’d, hesitantly/begrudgingly, begun writing biography for my MA because i couldn’t think up anything else to do. but it wasn’t until that coffee with that biographer (the first one i’d ever met in real life) that i began to think that a biographer was something one could actually be.
without seeing what is possible, it is hard to believe the possibility exists.
life-writing -> life-reading -> living
i see an obvious and, yet, oddly undervalued (or under-articulated) connection here, that trickles both up and down.
somehow, and the how of it i don’t yet know, jackie’s silence fits into this equation. for the stories about her proliferated, in large part, due to that silence. she said nothing and so one could write anything one wanted about her. which opens up a limitless world of narrative possibilities. and endless collection of interesting, often opposed, narratives in which to believe.
possibilities for why she might’ve acted the way she did, for what might’ve made her do what she’d done, for what she may have been like.
as a biographer, her silence beguiles and frustrates and upsets and provokes. it is always, always there, unrelenting, and, likely, it is unbridgeable. but i’d be lying not to admit that it’s also freeing.
if we can never know who she was, we’re free to imagine who she might be.