Or at least we are when we read. This is what you realize when you write a memoir. You learn how self-centered we all are – how selfishly we all read. At any rate that’s one of the things I learned.
I’m not meaning to call everyone around me selfish, as if I’m better than them. I’m selfish too. The reality is, I think, that the world does revolve around each of us individually, at least in our own heads. How could it be anything different? And when we read we are in our own heads. Where else could we be?
People have read my manuscript. And what do you know, they’ve read it from their own experience, from their own frame of mind. I can tell by what some of them say to me when they’re done with it, and how they react. There are people who knew me at Stuyvesant High School, who only want to read about our high school. (Same way I feel when I read a memoir that takes place around Stuyvesant.) People who find the part of my story that resembles theirs. The ones who seemingly scour the manuscript for their own names, and read into my writing things I’m not sure I meant – but that’s what the words mean to them. The friends who are moms who read from my mother’s point of view, or at least from a mother’s point of view. The people who knew my parents who knew and saw them differently than I did (and do). And my brother who, I think mostly jokingly, tells me I got it all wrong. He remembers it differently. Who knows what is “true?”
How could we not be selfish when we read? How can we not be selfish as we go through life? I don’t mean selfish in the “bad” sense – always and only thinking of ourselves. But we see the world through our own eyes. At least mostly. And what we read touches us personally, if it touches us at all. We hear the author’s story through our own words, through our own perspective, through our own experience. I guess that’s what a writer tries to do – to express what’s in their mind and heart in a way that people resonate with. That touches the readers in their minds and hearts.
We experience everything personally. At least I do. In arguments I desperately want whomever I’m arguing with to hear my side, to understand my position. Sometimes I forget about theirs. In moments of joy I can’t understand why others see things differently, when what I see is so crazy beautiful. In conversations, brief encounters, and times when I’m listening to others talk about their realities, I catch myself seeing and understanding at least mostly through my own frame of reference. Even though I teach clients to listen to others and see where others are coming from, I forget, at times, when I’m in the thick of it. I guess that’s human.
I’m not sure how I expected people to react to my writing and my story. Maybe I thought they’d only ask me for my point of view. Maybe I thought they’d talk about me and what I experienced, not them and what they experienced. Maybe I did write for some validation, so that people could say, “Yes, it was like that. It was that crazy. It was that good. It did happen and you did live through it.” And, if I was honest, maybe I’d admit that I wanted them to say, “It’s amazing that you came through it.” Not, “Well, how I see this is…”
Someone once told me that a dichotomy of experiencing trauma is that you want to hide it so that no one knows, and at the same time shout it from the mountain tops. Well, I no longer want to identify myself as “a trauma survivor” or to have that be what defines me. I no longer want to hide it or to hide behind it. And I don’t think I wrote so that everyone could acknowledge what I’d been through. I think I mostly wrote so that people could acknowledge what they’d been through and how amazing we all are to be on the other side, whatever that means. And that would mean that everyone would have to read from their own experience. They’d have to read selfishly. Which is what we all do.
But it still surprised me.
In the past I may have meant it when I said your memory was wrong. I’m sorry. Your reality and mine coincide but are not the same — and don’t have to be. Your reality and your memories are yours and they are as special and unique and true as you are.
And I’m the luckiest brother in the world to have had you to help me survive everything we went through.
I love you.