2 March 2003 | Vol. 3, No. 1
Why remember? Why recount at family gatherings embarrassing, exciting, terrifying, painful events? Why tell tales of great-grandpa so-and-so who ranched a remote valley in the mountains against incredible odds, or of a grandma who ate bread and dog gravy during the Great Depression? But more than that, why seek a bigger audience to tell? Why write the stories at all? Is it to mark passage through a confusing, dangerous landscape or is it to give life meaning?
Take the story of a young man—murdered, executed, assassinated, slain, killed—depending on how the act is perceived. Some say it was a drug deal gone wrong. Some say it was a friend who just wanted his money. No one but the murderer and his victim will ever know.
"Was he in state of grace when he died?" the local priest asked the boy's mother when she requested a memorial service.
"No." She explained tearfully. She had stopped taking him to church when he was very small. Surely the priest remembered those days when the church was banning books? But she always kept her faith in her own way, followed the teachings—stayed married no matter what. She needed the church now.
"And there is the manner in which he lived and died," the priest had added. "A mortal sin is a permanent stain on the soul, unless he confessed?"
"But, but, he didn't have a chance to say anything. He was murdered," she said.
"I'm sorry. The Church is clear on this issue," he said.
She cremated her son. The funeral home returned him to her in a small cardboard carton, his name officially typed on a mailing label. She bought a hand-carved oriental box at an antique store, put him inside, and hid the box somewhere in her house. He now joined the role of artifact, like the many knick-knacks, memorabilia, and heirlooms the mother collected and displayed in her kitchen and living room.
The first Christmas after his death, the mother took him out and decorated a corner for him with live Poinsettias, blinking lights and a ceramic nativity. The box sat within sight of the kitchen table while her husband, children and spouses and grandchildren ate Christmas dinner. No one mentioned its presence. No one mentioned him at all.
Just the way Christmas had been transformed into an anniversary of grief, the memory of the boy's life soon transformed into the tragedy of his death. But who among them even remembered the boy's life as a celebration?
What meaning could telling this story render? What theme would be derived? Maybe a chapter could be added to explain that he was the focus of his father's rage. He bore the brunt of the taunts, the punches, the belittling. He got all the attention, was always the bad boy, always in trouble. He was hyperactive and had attention deficit disorder, couldn't help it, the school counselor said. He suggested family therapy, behavior modification, and medication. The father refused to participate.
The lie in this family formed a blistering truth they each chose to ignore. Nobody talked. But is the story really about the boy's abuse, or his murder? Was he a victim or a hero? Like a matador with a red cape, he diverted the mad bull from his sisters and brothers and even his mother.
"I couldn't. I didn't know. I was just a kid," his older sister said. She had cowered when her father raged. She didn't dare save her little brother then. In fact she felt lucky it wasn't her. Why didn't she jump on her father's back and scratch his eyes out? Why didn't she scream to the neighbors? Instead, she stayed mute, paralyzed.
When her father gave her the news of her brother's death, her first thought was, "It's all my fault."
She wants to tell now. She wants to write about it, about him. Nothing has been right since it happened. Five, ten years later, she still dreamed about him. It was always the same—a flood, a tidal wave, an earthquake. She can't reach the boy to save him. Fifteen, 20 years later, she's still writing, still trying to make sense of it, trying to put it to rest.
Life has to have meaning, right? What meaning would she give this boy's life with her words? He wasn't the hero son chosen to die for his country, or the saint son marked for the priesthood to assure his family's place in heaven. Was he the boy who would never amount to anything like their father had always said, or was he the slick, cocky, big bad drug dealer the priest imagined? Or was he really the sacrificial lamb?
He was the firstborn son, the father's namesake. He became the image of the father's self-loathing, the scapegoat of the crimes of his father and his father's father before him. The son must at least inherit if not pay for the sins of the father. Violence begets violence, begets violence and so on. Ahhh, now we have symbolism, metaphor, allegory, myth, the ancient duel between father and son. The story emerges, takes shape.
If the boy was self-destructive because of the father's abuse, surely there are many ways to commit violence against one's self. Why was the boy flashing guns and money at local bars, and selling drugs that night before it happened? Anybody could see the folly in that. What was he doing with a friend who would push him to his knees, shoot him in the back of the head twice, and leave him limp in a pool of his own blood, not to be discovered for days?
Some might say the boy deserved what he got. Crime must have a reckoning, and a criminal a final retribution. The Church assures us of that. So would this be a parable? A fable? A scary story to tell little children at night? The moral of the story is what? What would Aesop say?
"Beware of a friend with an ulterior motive?"
"Men often mistake notoriety for fame?"
"The child is father to the man?"
"Every truth has two sides?"
What would the sister write? What will she tell? Why does she write? Is this her revenge on her silent family? Is this the vehicle of her deliverance, her penance to end her nightmares? Who will read this story, her mother, her father, her siblings, students, teachers, strangers, a literary agent?
She writes and finds herself an angry narrator. An angry narrator is an unreliable narrator. Yes?
Memory is a trick of the light. Five children growing up in the same family, five versions of their childhood. Each individual wound, each fragment of memory fits together like a puzzle putting shape to each truth. It explains too, the themes of each life, the failures, and the successes.
Inside each memory lies a kernel of truth. Not a factual truth, but a literal one. No matter how the kernel is housed, or what fabric it is wrapped in, or what colors are on the canvas, or which window the teller looks out of, the need to discover the truth is the reason a memory hangs in time.
In writing, memory must utilize different vehicles to discover each kernel of truth. Discovery could lie in first person point of view. What better way to tell a story than to put oneself back into the moment. The boy's sister tries that first but finds herself angry, or sad, or stuck. She shifts to the third person point of view and suddenly finds herself a fly on the wall, an outer eye observing the event. The picture is still painful but more precise. Third person? Maybe this is the way to tell the story?
And what about characters? The character of the father must be fleshed out or he assumes the cliché of monster. He wasn't just a monster, was he? He had motives, traumas of his own, mental incapacitates, circumstances of poverty, ignorance, abuse beyond his control. In truth, he was charming, generous, handsome, funny, intelligent, and responsible. He always made sure there was food on the table and a roof over his family's head.
More than he ever had growing up. He did do the best he could.
And there is of course the proof of his value and importance, the almighty Curriculum Vita, as thick as a Webster Unabridged Dictionary. He was a monster at home but when he left the house, he was a successful, middle class academic with a penchant for genius and drama. There were students who worshipped him. His colleagues respected him. Can a man like this only be seen through one set of eyes?
Should the reader be allowed to feel sympathy for this man? As the plot thickens, what if the father gets cancer, an especially fast-moving deadly sort. One day he's a monster and the next day, he's a lonely, broken old man who has just realized he has lived for the wrong reasons. He explains it all to his daughter. "I wanted to make you tough. You have to be tough in this world."
And what about the character of her brother? She loves her father and she loves her brother. Her brother is dead. He doesn't care what she writes. Her father is alive. Should she keep quiet again to protect her father?
This is good stuff to write about. Real life is so much better than fiction. But she is on the fence now, unsure of her motives. How can she write when the truth keeps shifting and she can't put her finger on the story? What is truth anyway, she asks herself over and over? Does it even matter?
About the author:
Sonja Mongar is earning an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. She also teaches at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. She can be reached at or online at academic.uprm.edu/~smongar.