The Body Under the Rug

The week I finished the manuscript of my family memoir, I had a terrible nightmare: a dead body turned up in my hotel room. “I didn’t kill this person,” I thought to myself, “but everyone will think I did.” I went outside to clear my head and when I came back the body was gone. But dead bodies don’t just disappear; as I was packing up to leave, I couldn’t find my camera and, looking around, noticed a lump in the rug. Thinking the camera might have somehow ended up under the carpet, I lifted it to find a man’s head, or rather the front third of a man’s head, like a bloody mask. I put the rug down in horror. “Now, they are definitely going to think I killed this person,” I thought, before waking up.

The face of the man under the rug was someone I barely knew, a friend of a friend. His presence seemed random until I remembered something: the man’s wife was a writer who had written a novel based on his family. The man’s father had committed suicide and then, not long after the book appeared, his mother committed suicide, too. My dream was clearly one of guilt and anxiety about writing a family memoir, guilt about pillaging the lives of the dead and anxiety about harming the living.

After all, in writing about my parents, wasn’t I something of a body snatcher? I hadn’t killed them, it’s true, but I was still, to some degree, trafficking among the dead. I felt I had treated my parents as fairly as I could, but would their friends and relatives feel the same?

My greatest concern was for my Aunt Lally, my father’s sister, who was very much alive and could well be hurt. I was particularly worried about the sections in the book describing her compulsive hoarding and her apartment, which she hadn’t let anyone see for some 20 years, and which was obviously a source of great shame. I decided that the best policy would be to give her a chance to comment on the manuscript before it was published. It took me seven months to get her to read it (“I’m afraid,” she told my sister, Lucy), and then five months to calm her down.

“It’s all wrong, it’s terrible. I want you to remove me from the book entirely!” she said. Interestingly, she was not upset by the things I had worried about. “That’s all true,” she said with a wave of her hand. She was upset by things I had considered relatively minor.

It wasn’t true that her mother, Mumi, was ugly.

“I never wrote that she was ugly,” I protested. “I said she was ‘plain’ and ‘matronly,’ which was true.”

“Everyone who knew Mumi agreed on one thing: she was a truly uncommon woman, she was exceptionally cultivated, kind and a real Signora.”

“But I wrote all of that,” I said.

“In your account of things, I do everything wrong. The only thing I did right was teach you Italian. I gave you the wrong Christmas presents and I didn’t know how to knit. The little white jacket with a hood I knit for Lucy was perfect — perfect — and she wore it a lot!”

“According to you, I am some boring old woman, who talks on and on about her silly dog. Ciao was not silly, she was extremely intelligent. One Christmas, I had gotten a panettone that I was going to give to a friend and had placed it on top of the refrigerator to keep it safe. Ciao managed to move a chair over to the refrigerator. Somehow managed to climb up on the chair and get the panettone. Replaced the chair and took the panettone over to another part of the apartment. I was angry at first when I saw the panettone gone, but when I saw the incredible intelligence with which she had gotten it…”

“It’s not just the facts,” she told me. “It’s the spirit that’s all wrong.”

“The person you describe is not someone a person could love — only pity. And I don’t want to be pitied by you or by anyone else! You don’t really know me.”

My aunt’s objections and those of other family members — most of them reasonable and all of them comprehensible — cut to the heart of the whole enterprise of writing a family memoir. The writer is taking events that belong to several people, appropriating them for himself, and turning them into something that feels alien to those who have lived them. I was asking Lally to read about a piece of her own life placed in the context of my parents’ lives and told in my voice instead of her own. Moreover, I had eliminated masses of detail and greatly foreshortened various characters’ roles to focus on what was, for me, the main story: my parents and their marriage. It must have been like seeing someone else wearing your favorite coat: it would look recognizable, but totally different and totally wrong.

In short, I had not treated my aunt as a human being, as something infinitely complex and, in effect, unknowable. I had turned her into a character in a book. A book in which she wasn’t even the protagonist.

ONE day, Aunt Lally turned up with a spiral notebook that contained a 30-page account of her life, neatly written in the third person so that it could be simply inserted into my book. It was, in effect, a counternarrative, written from her point of view.

One of my favorite passages is her description of a trip she took to Italy in 1950 for her employer, the pharmaceutical company Carlo Erba.

“When she arrived at the airport she was the last passenger of the 1st class and was walking towards the plane. Three attendants came to her, one carrying flowers, one a big box of chocolates, one with a telegram. She felt and looked like a movie star, elegant in a blue wool skirt, 3/4 top lined with gray astrakhan fur, the lapels were also gray astrakhan as well as the cuffs, and with this send off she boarded the plane. …”

After months of discussion, I wrote Aunt Lally a long letter listing what I felt I could and couldn’t change in the book, and why. Afterward, she said quite simply. “As long as you write that before you knew me I had a successful career working for the Carlo Erba pharmaceutical company, you can leave in all the rest.”

This was an extraordinarily gracious and magnanimous gesture. She had understood that this was my book, told from my point of view and that it didn’t presume to be a complete record of her life. But I knew that she was never going to be happy with it.

Even when I tried to give her side of the story — as in this account, which, back when I first wrote it, she also hated! — it was nonetheless folded into a narrative of mine. I could not help plucking out her spirited defense of her dead dog, Ciao. And so she once again found herself a tragicomic character in my story. She died a few months later, alone in her apartment, with the same fierce independence with which she had lived.

Within this kind of work there is inherent conflict. The characters in a memoir are not real people, but inevitably feed on the blood of the living like vampires. And so it is entirely natural for those real people to defend their identities as if they were fighting for their lives.

I did kill the man under the rug.

– February 9, 2013

Adapted from “The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace.” 

Published at The New York Times