Writer Jesse Green came into fatherhood quite
unconventionally--he fell in love with a man who had an
adopted infant son. "The Velveteen Father" is his account of
the transition--alternately exhilarating and terrifying--
from single gay man to committed father of two young
boys. In an exclusive essay for Amazon.com, Green confronts
some of the conflicts he still feels about writing an
intimate memoir about his young sons. Along the way he
reveals that for the memoirist the lines between truth,
fiction, and responsible journalism can often be very murky.
You can find "The Velveteen Father" at
by Jesse Green
If there's a question all fiction writers dread, it's the
one about how "true" their stories are: Did you really
murder your cousin, drown at sea, make love to the rabbi?
Like most novelists, I take great (if defensive) pains to
emphasize the purity of my invention, just as, in second
grade, I insisted that the hero of my short story "The
Adventures of Rodney Smart" was not based in any way on my
father, though they drove the same car, wore the same
cologne, and (coincidentally, of course) had the same not
very common first name.
Writing a memoir, especially a memoir about one's family,
one might expect that the fiction question would be moot,
but it isn't; it just gets transformed. Now I am asked not
if the stories I have retailed in print are true but how,
assuming they are true, I ever dared to write them.
It's not even as if I report anything dreadful. I do air
some barely soiled family linen (a distant cousin became a
stripper) and paint a warts-and-all portrait of my partner's
mother, "a brownstone-belt Queen Lear." But neither the
stripper nor the shrew objected in the least; if writers are
supposed to write as if everyone they ever knew were dead
(as a sage once advised), these two women did me a favor by
checking out before I checked in.
It may be that the recent vogue for titillating memoirs has
prompted people to see any formerly private fact as an
intimate revelation, even when no incest, disease, or
celebrity is involved. It's an odd double standard: the very
thing that most readers would relish in a fictional
character may disturb them in a memoir. Miss Havisham, yes;
your mother, no! Is there not some disloyalty implied in a
portrait of a family member that is anything less than
perfectly flattering? Anything more than unreal, that is?
I think what disturbs people is really a projection. They
fear their own exposure--a fear that wouldn't have any force
if it weren't containing an equivalent desire for self-
revelation. Most people, in my experience, want to be known,
but they want to be known in their own way. A memoir
suggests that the membrane between our interior and exterior
lives may be breached at any moment, and not necessarily in
a friendly manner. This is in part the problem Janet Malcolm
alludes to in her dictum that a good journalist is always
acting in bad faith. And a memoirist is a journalist of the
To the extent that a memoir is a work of journalism, it
shares in the onus of that profession, but to the extent it
is a literary production, it shares in the dispensations of
fiction. That's at any rate how I rationalize the really
arrogant part of what I've done--not what I've said about my
parents, my partner, his parents, our friends, but that I
have, in saying anything, absconded with their stories and
made of them my own. Sometimes, as I interviewed my partner,
my sixth sense for some meaty but hidden detail would kick
in, and I'd bark and whine and sniff and cajole until I got
that bone from him and ran away with it.
But, as it turns out, this isn't the really dangerous part
about writing a memoir. Andy is almost 50; he gave me
permission to represent his life and was competent to do
so. The more ambiguous act (and the part no one ever
questions) is writing about one's children. Ours are now 5
and 3. They barely understand that what I have written is a
book for general consumption (the older boy thinks it's my
"homework"), and that when I give readings and talks I am
reading and talking about them. (The younger boy, attending
one of my bookstore events, obediently ran down the aisle
whenever I read his name, as if I were calling him.) Surely
they would be stingier in their outpouring of cute sayings
if they knew how I hoarded them. A friend of ours, who is
staying with us this summer, reported that the older boy
walked into her room while she was changing her shirt. He
looked at her and exclaimed: "I know what those big floppy
things are! Those are your eggs!"
Our friend might have been offended but instead admired how
the outer imagery (fried eggs) and the inner concept (female
generativity) had merged (or not yet diverged) in his
imagination. I wrote it down.
But there I go again, stealing from my kids--and possibly
providing grounds for the divorce they must one day seek
from me. Still, I suppose that writing about one's children
is the exception that proves Janet Malcolm's rule. While
they are this young, there is nothing bad to say; with
nothing bad to say, there can be no bad faith. The portrait
of a loved young child is the only portrait that can be as
safe as fiction while at the same time remaining as real as
memoir. In the loved young child, truth and the beauty of
imagination have not yet parted ways.
You can find Jesse Green's essay at
Featured in this e-mail:
"The Velveteen Father"
by Jesse Green
This mailing was sent to the following Amazon.com Delivers
mailing lists: Biographies and Gay Studies.
To become a new Amazon.com Delivers subscriber, or to sign
up for additional categories, visit
To change or review your subscriptions, please visit your
Amazon.com Subscriptions page.
Copyright 1999 Amazon.com, Inc. All rights reserved.
For more information about the rp-ml, see http://ltk.hut.fi/rp-ml/
This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.2 : Tue Jun 05 2001 - 22:52:25 EEST