so much of life, or our experience of the world around us, is what i’mma call THINGS IN THE AIR.
(feel free to credit me with that incredibly precise phraseology when discussing this later with all yo friends.)
by THINGS IN THE AIR, i mean things we’re aware of without paying much attention to them or really caring. and also things which appear to be disconnected and of seemingly very different importance but which nonetheless coexist in our minds because we are simultaneously aware of them. like, THIS.
or, my simultaneous awareness this morning of kim kardashian, virginia woolf’s biography of roger fry, today’s weather, the egyptian antiquities minister’s disavowal of ben carson’s claim that the pyramids were built to store grain, and the possibility of uterine transplants.
so there’s that. but what particularly interests me within that is the shift that may occur with any story, where it transitions from casual interest into a story with- sometimes extreme- personal and emotional significance.
we can be casually aware. then something happens (very often, it seems, death, MURDER, something either incredibly natural or illegal!) and our interest shifts into full on.
i’m tempted to say this is the transition into story, but that seems foolish. perhaps it is more precise to say that it is that this is the point at which the story decisively enters our own story.
it is undoubtedly a moment of emotional connection.
i’ve written again and again and again and again about how i was aware of jackie before i was interested in jackie. (if you do not know the story of the cheerleaders and hard copy and the badly xeroxed worksheet, go here for a refresher.) and how, with her death, that dynamic fundamentally shifted- a circumstance with which anderson cooper’s channel one news report, the 23 may 1994 episode of hard copy, and this issue of TIME had a lot to do…
all of those things came together in that moment so that i was no longer just aware of jackie but i was interested in her. and also, significantly, i cared.
i wanted to read more and wanted to know more. there were now wants and needs around a life i’d previously been aware of but cared nothing about.
this was, i have come to believe, in huge part to do with the times. i was interested in jackie because her story was interesting, but i think it resonated for reasons very much having to do with the timing- a very precise cultural atmosphere existing in spring 1994– and i was able to read her story because, in may/june 1994, it was everywhere.
her story had been everywhere for awhile, so it’s not like it wasn’t already available to me had i gone looking for it. but there was an urgency to its telling now and a hyper-visibility that made my interest far easier to indulge. she was there.
and magazines and tv specials led to biographies and other magazines and an MA and, eventually (god-willing), a PhD.
the entry of jackie’s story in my life felt, even at the time, ground-breaking.
it’s easy, in retrospect, to amplify it, to make it bigger and more dramatic than it was then because we now have a better sense of where it would eventually lead. but, you guys, it was pretty damn big.
enough so that, i felt the need one night over dinner at the taco bell on highway 96, to announce to my parents that i was going to begin collecting editions of life magazine with jackie on their cover.
i also spent much of that summer writing a series of HILARIFYING diary entries trying to figure out what had happened.
great in number because, having left my diary behind at the summer youth camp, i then rewrote many of my deep thoughts on jackie (and dick nixon), only to have the original diary resurface so that i’m left with double the thoughts.
this entry in particular- where, in the new diary, i attempted to reconstruct the events of the previous months- is particularly illuminating. the banality! the historical intrusions! the baby-sitting!
in retrospect, it’s clear that, in these diary entires, i was doing some sort of autoethnographic triage.
it is highly possible that i am still trying to do some sort of autoethnographic triage- trying to figure out what happened, trying to explain the shift i described earlier, trying to pinpoint the moment when we begin to care and to dig deeply into the site of that wound.
there was a moment last spring in the writing of my jackie book where it became clear that nixon was a major player in the story i was trying to tell. this was a REVELATION. and yet…
richard nixon comes up in my diaries all of the time. he was already there, from the beginning. i see that now.
and i am surprised by how often i mentioned jackie and nixon together. in my memory, there is only her, but he nonetheless seems to have somehow vitally paved the way.
if my own biographer were to ever come along and read these entries, it would appear that i always had a complete vision of the book i was going to write.
this interpretation would be very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very WRONG.
(how often biographers must make such assumptions. how often we must get it wrong.)
i clawed my way through the dark forest of this story. it is only after the fact that it looks inevitable. it is only after the fact that it looks like richard nixon was lurking in the shadows all along.
(this is one of the great devastations of writing: the realization that if you do it well, it will look as though you’ve simply pointed out the obvious.)
nothing about this was clear.
in may 1994, almost immediately, with jackie, i felt something momentous had occurred in my emotional life which was not apparent to the outside world and which also did not seem to make any sense AND which was vaguely embarrassing in its excess.
i was trying to figure out through writing- in the tones of someone who’d just read all of jane austen’s novels- why i so suddenly cared about jackie so much.
my retrospective assumption that all of this had hugely to do with timing and context has evidentiary support.
i appear, at the time, to have been very down on america…
there is also an embarrassingly moralistic tone…
i went to see gone with the wind at the bfi this weekend, and i see hints of the opening poem here.
so that my longing for the world of jackie onassis and richard nixon (!!!) was very much rooted in a nostalgia for the past. this isn’t surprising given that the wall-to-wall coverage of jackie’s death in 1994 was characterized by the same.
rather hilariously though, these are the dimensions of her story that least interest me now. this is precisely the very conventional telling that i have subsequently rebelled against.
in july 1994, i write of my interest in jackie:
that full impact was hugely positive. and i do believe i was initially drawn to her, almost instinctively, because it was apparent that she was beloved.
but, once the dust settled, all that the way we were… business became the least interesting thing about her story. because, y’know…
i mentioned accessibility earlier and i’ll return to it now.
other stories were available. i had a casual interest in princess diana, for example, which had much to do with the availability of her story.
i was aware of her. how could you not be?
but i do not know that i ever really cared about diana and, if i did, it was certainly not in the same way.
my diary entries on diana- of which there are very few- seem to support this interpretation. they are strangely clinical. i relate factoids of her life in the same tone as i relate the downing of planes and the coming of tornados.
this entry is a few years after jackie, when i was even more keenly aware of the sense that one day everyone would want to read my diaries and my penmanship had accordingly morphed to carry the weight of my historical duties… (please cherish with me the adolescent pomposity inherent in inclusion of the current temperature and the precision of the time stamp.)
note how her impending divorce (which did feel like a monumental plot development at the time) is totally eclipsed here by the more personal realization that biblical stories may not be factually real…
there is a patness to any interest i had in diana. perhaps this had to do with her britishness. more likely it had to with the sense that there seemed to be far fewer unknowns with diana. jackie, in contrast, was an ongoing mystery.
i wondered, what must she have been like?
i know i wondered this because i wrote about my wonderings in GREAT detail.
and i know that i was aware, in that summer of 1994, that my own interest in jackie sprung from her omnipresence.
on 7 july 1994, within the 2nd most obnoxious thing i have ever written about jackie onassis (the worst BY FAR is the 4 august 1994 entry, which concludes with the declaration that, were i given the opportunity to have a conversation with jackie onassis, i would tell her she was a survivor and quote the lines “don’t let it be forgot/that once there was a spot…”), i indicate as much:
let’s all shudder at the unfortunate word choice of “splattered” to describe photo usage in print. then let’s laugh at the notion of her image being splattered across the seas. and no let’s note how this is SO FANTASTICALLY WEIRD, non?
i was just barely 13. and the repeated refrain throughout this one-page document that i produced in the corel office suite and printed on my dot matrix printer on the ivory marbled paper i only used on special occasions because i thought it was more expensive is that something momentous had occurred which i did not understand and i was quite sure that it had something to do with increased visibility in the media.
this is alarming because (1) it is basically my research interests in a nutshsell and (2) i was thirteen!!!!
she didn’t have a clue, but already she was peering into the weird and wondering.
parents be good to your pre-teens because i’ve this theory that when you’re 12 or 13, you’re opened up to the world in a way that is either new or different or heightened or, i don’t know, just plain fuller.
in palimpsest, in a section where he argues that movies shape us as we’re growing up and he talks about his childhood desire to be a twin, gore vidal mentions that he was 12 at the time.
perhaps not compelling evidence and i do not know that my 1994 self would have agreed, as she saw the interest in jackie as part of a pre-existing narrative:
the narrative of my weird interest in people after they have died. a rather reductive way of classifying it, i’d argue now, as i don’t think it’s entirely to do with death but rather, again, about accessibility, as there are multiple cultural forces at work here and i now know that stories often become more accessible around anniversaries or deaths.
my interest in elvis had much to do with this completely ludicrous 1992 bill bixby special tv special…
but also my family’s interest in elvis and TBS’s annual elvis week every summer, during which they ran two elvis movies every morning.
the interest in gone with the wind was prompted by georgia public television’s airing of the 1988 documentary the making of a legend: gone with the wind during a fundraising marathon. this was probably the first documentary film i’d seen and paid attention to and i was mesmerized by the behind the scenes-ness of it.
and i’m pretty sure the road there was paved with paper dolls…
the 1994 narrative here of my weird interest in people after they have died is blatantly inaccurate in a number of respects, chief among them the fact i was interested in living people, especially the life narratives of figure skaters. (those mini-bios CBS ran during the winter olympics were crazy compelling.) so i’d suggest there was a little self-editing happening here for historical purposes.
but there’s also some truth to it.
i write a lot about how the narratives of living people mirror our own uncertainty in life but posthumous narratives offer a certainty. we know how the story went. it is ended, settled, if not solved.
i was 13. life was high drama. everything was uncertain and the world appeared to be falling apart. adam and eve were not real.
but jackie, she was safe, beloved and her story was over.
obviously it wasn’t or i wouldn’t be writing it now, but i do wonder if that explains the shift from sixth grade to eighth, the shift from her being a face on a women’s history handout to being someone i cared about intensely. there was, at the core of that, a loss.
let’s be real: had jackie lived, it’s unlikely i would have ever seen her, much less met or known her. let’s thank god for that because i apparently would have told her she was a survivor and quoted camelot and that would’ve been awkward for us all. but, my lamentation here is an articulation of a loss.
it is an acknowledgement of the limitations of my knowledge and my own life.
never in my life will i know jackie onassis.
there are things i can never do. already! and i was discovering this at on 13. the reality there is knowledge that, due to the restrictions of time and space and life and death, i will never have.
at the conclusion of the bombastic death scene he concocts for marilyn monroe in his 1973 book marilyn, norman mailer writes:
i’ve suggested before that perhaps the rumors of people’s sex lives are never-ending because they are a way of keeping those people alive. obviously not in a literal sense, but in a figurative one.
his or her story is still visible. we are still talking about it. they are still with us. it is a way of unconsciously convincing ourselves that people still matter after they are gone. and, by extension, that we matter.
time goes swiftly. one minute you are living history then you are history, as i so famously and repeatedly wrote in 1994.