Last night, my friend Janet gave me a copy of playwright Arthur Miller’s memoir, Timebends: A Life. He wrote it in 1987. As Janet pointed out, one of the big stories of his life is not even addressed. In the 599 pages of the book, Miller never brought himself to write about his son born in 1966 and institutionalized soon after. The boy’s name is Daniel and he was born with Down Syndrome. If you read the index of this memoir, you will find pages about his other children, Robert, Jane and Rebecca, but nothing about his youngest. During his lifetime, he never spoke or wrote publicly about Daniel.
You might have heard about this open secret, there was a polarizing Vanity Fair article written about it in 2007, shortly after Miller passed away. I thought about this story quite a bit last night and this morning too. Apparently, Miller’s rationale about institutionalizing Daniel in 1966 was that that’s what people did at the time and he feared that keeping the boy at home would be a disadvantage for his next to youngest, Rebecca who was born in 1962. (You might know this, but Rebecca Miller grew up to become a writer and filmmaker herself and is married to Daniel Day-Louis.) While Miller’s wife Inge visited Daniel regularly until her death in 2002, the playwright very seldom visited.
I am a storyteller myself, certainly not one as gifted as Arthur Miller, but a storyteller nonetheless. My friend Janet who gave me the book is also a storyteller. We both participated in a show last night with some of our best friends, Linda, Sarah, Michael and we also heard stories from two people I’d never met before. And what impressed me most, touched me most, was the honesty I witnessed. And with every story, without exception, there was this moment, when I could feel the person pause and wonder, do I really want to share this much of my story? A young man going into the military to ignore his sexuality? A cancer survivor yearning for the glow of her youth? A woman betrayed by her two best friends? I don’t think it was easy for them to reveal so much, but they did. And their candor, their vulnerability is what I’ve also thought about, carried with me all day today.
It’s been said that Miller’s finest work was written before 1966. People have guessed that the burden affected his writing, though he continued to be prolific, in the years that followed. I am interested in his story, what led him to create men and women like Willy and Biff and Eddie and Beatrice and Catherine. He wrote famously about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall. Maybe there was a part of him that wanted to write about Daniel, too. I can wonder about his path of logic concerning the matter, though I’ll never know.
But here’s the deal. There is the story and then the story of the story. His presumably forthright memoir that still sits on my desk, that I still look forward to reading, is not necessarily diminished by the glaring omission, but it’s indeed colored.
We are all storytellers. You might demure that you aren’t but, be honest, you know you are. You tell your story on Facebook and Instagram, at cocktail parties and board meetings and fellowship groups. I know that I am not the only one struggling with how much of my story, my heart, my frailties, my complexities, I’m willing to share. There are things that I think that no one will ever know, that most of you probably already know. And that’s the way it is. So, I guess, my advice, and it’s especially for me, is share your story as honestly as possible. It’s been my experience that the truth is what we respond to most.
The key, as you point out, is to do it “as honestly as possible”. There is some stuff even we are still too frightened to deal with, let alone ‘memoir’ about, don’t you think?
You are absolutely right. There are also things it’s simply unwise to share. I do think there is value in writing about things you never intend to give any sort of public platform to, because we might learn something about ourselves and the experience. And it might feed whatever it is that we write about after too.
“There is the story and then the story of the story.”
I love this post, Ray. We all have our narrative; the story we tell others, maybe ourselves, too. The official version… the ‘authorized biography’. And then there’s the truth, the whole enchilada. The “True Hollywood Story” tickertape, warts and all. We’re at our best – and most vulnerable – as writers when we tap into that deep well of the real. It’s not easy, and you remind me there is value in it. Cheers. (P.S. I just watched your 2009 piece on YouTube after you lost Lucy. So moving – and funny, even though your heart was breaking. Do you have more recent recordings of your performances?)