Family Matters

The Shirt Off My Back

Losing control of your story can be a terrifying experience

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This article first appeared in the September/October 1997.


WHEN YOU PARADE your pathology in public as I have, shamelessly revealing things most people would rather die than admit, your writing at the very least is called “honest.” But I prefer “candid.” Candor implies a sincere reach for the truth, accompanied by the recognition that the gesture is doomed from the beginning. No one has 20/20 vision when it comes to themselves or their families.

A writer, however, has the luxury of making it look that way. She constructs a life of her own making, selectively adding and deleting whatever she chooses. Her story is totally under her control. No one’s mother or ex-husband gets to weigh in at the end of a book with other versions of reality. This is perhaps why I like to write. I always get the last word. But when someone else has control over my story, it’s a different matter. It’s fine for me to describe the dirt in my house. It’s quite another thing, however, for someone else to document it. And in my case, it seems that a number of people want to do just that.

Since the publication of my first memoir a journal of depression journalists have asked to spend time with me and my family, to “get to know us better.” We find this a strange request since pretty much everything we would ever want anyone to know about us can be found somewhere between pages 1 and 2 of my book.

The most recent request for an interview came from HBO, for its documentary about depression. In addition to the “public service” motivation the little dollar signs in my eyes caused me to lose my good judgment and let more strangers into my house, my family, my head and my life just so I can sell more books.

I may be courageous in print, but I’m a coward in front of a camera. Experience has just made it worse. Before the interviewers and crews descended, each member of the family plunged into painful self examination, which eventually extended to a critique of our house (a mess) and our every clay family life (a bore). I fantasized about hiring a family to play us on screen. Then I wondered whether it’s possible to rent a better house and even a few pets for a day.

HBO gave us only three days’ notice. As I hung up the phone, I wondered how many pounds it is humanely possible to lose in 72 hours. When I concluded that nothing short of major surgery would help in the fat department, I turned my attention to the house. The bathroom and kitchen just had to be painted. But once they were finished, the old linoleum floor and the ugly kitchen cabinets looked so bad that the day before HBO’s arrival, I laid down a tile floor and my husband upgraded the cabinets.

By the time we finished the kitchen, our relationship was in the sink and I wondered how we would be able to fake even basic tolerance for each other on film. With no time to repair the damage, I went in search of what my mother calls your most “forgiving” piece of clothing and settled on a sleeveless, black jumpsuit, which hid “a multitude of sins,” and a nice arm- and ass-covering jacket to wear over it.

The crew arrived 20 minutes early, naturally. My hair was wet, and I had to make a quick choice shave my legs and underarms or try to make up with my husband, to whom I was still not speaking. I threw the new jacket over the jumpsuit, which took care of the arm and leg problem, and ran downstairs to make peace.

The only hitch in the first five hours of filming occurred during an interview with my husband, when one of the crew yelled, “Cut! His head’s throwing off a lot of light,” and we all had to sit around while his bald dome was powdered.

A short while later, it was my turn. The director was trying to stage an arty shot of me looking out a picture window at my husband and daughter chatting on the patio. He fussed interminably with positioning and lighting, waiting for the perfect slant of the sun through the trees. After looking back and forth from the camera to me, he announced, “The light is bouncing off your jacket, take it off.” I tried desperately to look like I had nothing to hide, but flabby arms and hairy pits loomed in my mind’s eye. He accurately assessed the panic on my face and said, “Trust me, the only thing that will show in the finished product will be your head and your neck.” I slipped the jacket off awkwardly, keeping my arms glued to my sides.

Then he found something wrong with my pose. “Stretch your left arm out,” he said. When I told him I needed to run upstairs for a second, he and two camera guys told me I couldn’t the light was finally coining through the trees perfectly. As I extended my arm, all I could hope was that they would see my hairiness as a feminist statement, rather than proof of poor hygiene.

When the last piece of equipment was packed in the vans and the thank-yous were said, we collapsed on the couch with a collective sigh. But it was short-lived relief because we know that although they left us at home, they took our story with them. And the story will forever be out of our control. Sometime next winter, we’ll sit together in our family room and suffer through that story. Our relatives and friends will call, enthusiastic and complimentary. And we will shake our heads wise to the dirty corners, shiny heads and hairy armpits either amazed at their easy dishonesty or convinced that the kinder version they saw was not the one that aired on our TV.

Martha Manning

Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer and clinical psychologist who has written five books, including Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Surface. She has published frequently in the Networker as well as other magazines.