The Elephant in My Head

I’ve been thinking about elephants a lot lately.

Elephants are so massive (one might even say “mammoth,” but I’ll resist the temptation) that it’s not surprising that they make a memorable impression on anyone who has seen one. Not only have they left their mark on history (Hannibal crossing the Alps) and entertainment (what would a circus—or a circus parade—be without elephants?), but they have entered the English language in several colorful idioms. An unwanted and unusable gift is a “white elephant,” and we supposedly see pink elephants when we’re tipsy. The unpleasant fact that is staring everyone in the face but no one wants to talk about is “the elephant in the room.” And we tackle an overwhelming task by “eating the elephant,” one bite at a time.

At the moment I’m facing a lot of elephants that have to be eaten, but the elephant that has captured my thoughts lately is the one the blind men visited. Until I googled the subject, I wasn’t aware that this tale is an ancient Asian fable or parable, the moral or point of which, as expressed by Wikipedia, is that “reality may be viewed differently depending upon one’s perspective, suggesting that what seems an absolute truth may be relative due to the deceptive nature of half-truths.” My familiarity with the story, however, came from the nineteenth-century poem by John Godfrey Saxe, which begins:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

Each of the six men explores a different part of the elephant and comes to a different conclusion, pronouncing that the elephant “is very like” a wall (its side), a spear (its tusk), a snake (its trunk), a tree (its leg), a fan (its ear), or a rope (its tail). Although each of the men grasped a part of the truth of the elephant, none of them saw the big picture.

What has brought this to mind lately is reflecting on the nature of personality, personal history, and autobiography. Throughout our lives we have many experiences and meet many people. We share certain experiences—and certain types of experiences—with certain people. If we have siblings, we share a large body of family history with them, experiences that no one outside the family can truly appreciate. If we are married, we have another tremendous body of shared experience in common with our spouses. Our work colleagues may be very familiar with our work projects but know nothing about our personal life. Some acquaintances we see only in church or on the soccer field or at PTA meetings. Our neighbors we may know only enough to wave to, perhaps to exchange pleasantries with. Each relative, friend, or acquaintance may know a great deal about us (our family, our history, our accomplishments), but no single person knows us as we know ourselves, and by the time most of us start thinking about writing an autobiography, those few people who may know things about us that we don’t personally remember (our parents and other elders) are usually past being consulted.

It’s probably a good thing that no one knows everything about us, but as we start to write an autobiography, we have to think about what things we want people to know and remember, what sort of historical legacy we want to leave for our heirs.

In many ways autobiography is harder than biography. The biographer, especially of a long-dead subject, has a finite amount of source material to work from. Interpreting it may be problematic, especially if the subject is a controversial figure, but the problem is primarily one of collecting data. If the subject is still living, or recently dead, the writer may interview people who knew him or her, but, like the blind men, each of these relatives, friends, or acquaintances will have known the subject in only a given context, and the writer’s job is to put all these details together. The task of the autobiographer, on the other hand, who theoretically knows everything about himself, is to winnow out the superfluous details and present a consistent picture.

It is practically a given that I will eventually write an autobiography. Both my grandmothers wrote them; they also wrote biographies of my grandfathers. Both my grandmothers also wrote about their fathers-in-law and one about her father and grandfather. My mother wrote her autobiography and would very likely, if she had lived long enough, have written a biography of my father as well. I’ve already written several short autobiographical essays, thinking perhaps to collect them at some point. It’s a family tradition, and the desire to preserve our memories is evidently in our genes.

I definitely have ample source material. I am in the dubiously enviable (and I think relatively rare) position of having not only every single letter I ever wrote my parents (mostly from 1962 when I went off to college, but a few scattered earlier ones from summer vacations spent away from them) but also every single letter my mother wrote to her parents, in which she describes me and my younger brothers and recounts our activities (sadly, these letters don’t cover my first year, when my mother was living at home; the equally detailed letters she wrote to my father, who was with the Fifth Army in Italy, went to the bottom of the China Sea in a typhoon; luckily Dad was on a different ship!). Although my letters to my mother ended when she and Dad moved to Fairhope in the spring of 1991, in the fall of 1992 my son went off to college, and I have copies of my letters to him and later to my daughter, through 1999. Obviously a wealth, perhaps a surfeit, of raw data to supplement my own memories.

“Eating the elephant” in this case requires deciding what picture of myself I want to present and selecting the details that will help to portray this. To get to that point I will have to figure out what my life was “about,” and I don’t think I’m at that point yet, but from time to time I read books on writing autobiography and continue to collect ideas for presentation. One influential book I read several years ago was Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography, which helps writers find the “story” their lives have to tell, making the autobiography read like a novel. Currently I’m reading Writing from Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story, by Susan Wittig Albert (one of my favorite mystery writers), which takes a topical approach, suggesting a number of broad themes to explore, and I find that quite appealing, as it is not entirely unlike the way I had begun.

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying exploring and transcribing the original material my parents (and grandparents) left in the form of letters and diaries, which give a vivid picture of their lives, their thoughts, and the world around them. But that is a subject for another post.

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