When I was small, my father would tell me stories and I would feel like I could not escape. I would feel like I was being talked ‘at’. I would look sideways for a means of escape … but I knew that if I broke the story-spell he was under, halfway through, there would be hell to play.
Later, when a nephew was diagnosed with Aspergers, I came to realise that perhaps my father was also on the spectrum. He certainly did not know how to read the social cues I was trying to show him as a child – that I was bored out of my mind and he was going on just a BIT TOO MUCH.
So, when he asked my sisters and I to fly to Tasmania to witness his memoirs shortly before he died, I was in two minds. Part of me thought it was important to record his stories for posterity. Another part of me thought he was self-indulgent and narcissistic – I was angry with him for expecting us to fly interstate to put up with him talking at us yet again, this time for days on end.
So we sat around the kitchen table for three days at his home in Hobart, looking out across the Derwent River, listening to him talk about his life growing up on the mountainous West Coast of New Zealand, working in the mines, meeting Mum, studying engineering … more stories about working in the mines … us kids coming along, moving to Australia … and even more stories about working in the mines.
There were points where I had to walk out of the room and let the recording device do its thing. Those childhood feelings of being trapped re-emerged, what with all those stories about mining and engineering. There were points where I wanted to know more. There were points where my sisters butted in, wanting to direct him back to stories about Mum, and our childhood. But in the end, they were his memories and the fact that he wanted to talk about his life pre-marriage and family, his life in the mines, was his prerogative …
We went onto have those stories transcribed and I edited them and made up a booklet for family members.
Difficult though it was at the time, the process ignited something in me. Since then I’ve gone on to build a career helping people tell their stories – as a writer, ghostwriter, biographer, editor.
Yet, to this day, I still ponder whether writing about your life is an act of creativity, self-love and a way of sharing what you know with the world – of giving back – or is it an act of navel-gazing and ultimately narcissism?
When I record the stories of people who are dying in my work as a biographer at the hospice in palliative care, I witness the value in reviewing one’s life. Because I don’t know these people, I can assess the process without bringing TOO many of my own judgements to the table.
I see people light up as they review and relate the stories of their lives. I see them not wanting to stop telling their stories when time is up for the day … as if they are clinging for dear life to the thread of their humanity, and if they cling hard enough, it will stave off the inevitable.
It also seems to be a process of making sense of one’s life – was a it a good one? Did I do it well? Did I live it fully? Was it worth something, in the end? Leaving evidence of their life behind in the form of a book or booklet seems to solidify what they experienced somehow … They are leaving behind evidence that they existed and that perhaps their life meant something.
But isn’t that itself clutching at straws? A narcissistic impulse?
The truth is, I have also spent the last few years researching my family tree. I have learned about ancestors I barely knew existed, and I have learned their stories – because someone wrote them down. I have learned about the young boy from Scotland – my great-great grandfather on my father’s side – who was sent out to Australia as an ‘apprentice’ – ie, a term they used for the youngest convict boys, to give them a chance at rehabilitation. I learned about the 13 children he had, and about how he and had his sons were some of the original foresters of South Australia. I learned about the 16-year-old girl from Tipperary and her young husband who were sent to India with the British Army. I learned about how, at 21, she‘sat down to dinner one Sunday, and by the next Sunday, they were all gone’ – her husband and two baby boys had contracted the plague and died very suddenly. She went on to marry her husband’s best friend – my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side – and started a new family, so she didn’t have to be sent back to Ireland, where the Potato Famine was in full flight. I also learned about the line of newspaper-men I am descended from, that I didn’t know existed until just before my mother died.
Their stories make me understand myself more, my history, my impulses, my talents – my very essence. I feel connected to something greater … I feel connected to their stories, and to my own ancestral line. I don’t feel like I’m this disconnected being floating around in a mass of humanity – a feeling I have often had in the past. The truth is … I feel less alone in the world, knowing where I come from.
I feel the battle within, when it comes to writing about my own life – the battle between judging myself as narcissistic – and the flipside of that, ‘Well who would care about what you have to say anyway?’ … and what I have learned through my work helping people tell their stories. Ultimately, I write about my life to make sense of it. I’m just not leaving it to the end of life to do that.
Surely shooting for self-knowledge, self-understanding and a sense of connectedness in life (and death) is ultimately an act of humanity? If telling our stories can help us achieve that, then yes thanks, that’ll do nicely.
“Yours may be the words that relieve another’s isolation, that open a door to understanding, that influence the course of another’s path. If you write an autobiography for a great-great-grandniece not yet born, perhaps she will find it in her mother’s drawer, and she will be altered, perhaps even saved, through the wisdom you have sent her.”
— Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story
Heather Millar, lifestoriesink.com.au