Over there, on my bookshelf, sits the biography of my friend Alan. In its index, you can find an entry, “infidelities and romantic liaisons,” which directs you to pages 97-98, as well as page 209. This is, for me, rather disconcerting.
It is perhaps inevitable that if you work in the entertainment field long enough, you will encounter people about whom books have been written, even books that people have written about themselves. Because we tend to know such people at a remove, we are onlookers, and we end up with the clamor of Entertainment Tonight and talk shows, or the ironic whimsy of Celebrity Autobiography, a stage show in which actors and celebrities read with profoundly satiric intent from the fulsome memoirs of other actors and celebrities, although the texts are typically drawn from such eminences as Joan Collins and David Hasselhoff.
But when a book, be it biography, autobiography or memoir, is about someone with whom you have some genuine connection, I can assure you that your reaction and perception of these works, whether ghost-written, scholarly or deeply personal, changes radically.
In the case of Alan’s biography, which was “authorized,” I found it very strange to be reading details about my friend’s (who is 23 years my senior) early marriage, his somewhat unorthodox childhood, and so on. One the one hand, I suppose I could have just asked him these things, but our time together is usually spent genially discussing theatre and our present lives over meals; while I have interviewed him in formal settings, those occasions have been focused on his creative work, rather than the particulars of his personal life. Reading that biography, I felt as if I was crossing a line, since, even in our Google-saturated age, it’s sort of creepy to research one’s friends.
This is hardly the only time that biographies have held secrets about people I know and work with, and each and every time I dip into such books, I feel I’m going behind their backs. In several cases, the books haven’t been about my friends, but their parents. I learned of one’s early and brief marriage (disapproved of by her hugely famous mother); in another I learned of a sister, institutionalized since birth and never spoken of to me. I’ve never brought these topics up, and I feel that it’s somehow wrong for me to know them. We typically learn about friends’ lives from sharing moments with them, or from conversation where we each choose what to reveal.
Biography poses one type of social unease, but the memoir – not a formal autobiography, but recollections of one’s own past – is even thornier. A decade ago, Cynthia Kaplan, my college roommate’s sister, long a surrogate sibling of mine, published a book of personal essays, Why I’m Like This. While to most readers, the people in the book were characters, to me they were all-but-in-blood family; I knew most everyone whose photos adorned the inside covers. I laughed in recognition over the chapter about her father’s eternal quest for the perfect Thermos (I have owned several that he has designated superior); I puzzled over the near invisibility of her brother in her tales (prompting me to say to him, “Gee, I never realized your sister was an only child”). Of course I read the book the moment it appeared; I wanted to support Cindy. But I’m still not sure I should know quite so much about her romantic life as she revealed, just as I still feel it was wrong for me to have seen her naked in a bathtub in an independent film screened at MOMA, even if her grandmother was by my side. But she gave me, and thousand who don’t know her at all, leave to do so.
A just-published memoir, Chanel Bonfire, casts yet another light on my biographical quandary. In this case, it is a book by an actress named Wendy Lawless, who I knew causally for nine weeks in 1988 when she played Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage, where I was the press rep. In her book, she details the somewhat harrowing story of her childhood with her glamorous, erratic, manipulative, alcoholic mother; the book concludes a couple of years before the time I met her. Because her father, who I also met years back, was an actor at The Guthrie Theatre, there are many peripheral characters in the book to whom I am also tangentially connected. There are very few degrees of separation here. On the one hand, as I read the book, my reaction was, “If I’d only known,” but on the other hand, what would I have done? She’d had a difficult life, and at times an exotic one, but would I have interacted with her differently? Would I have cultivated a friendship with Wendy, out of sympathy, instead of mere acquaintance? Did I ever say or do something that could have been construed as insensitive? This book forced a new perspective on a tiny bit of my life.
Perhaps due to the run-up to the book’s publication, Wendy and I became mutual Twitter followers. Unsurprisingly, when I reached out privately, she had not made any connection to our briefly shared past, and perhaps I am still, at best, a vague recollection (I remember every actor who worked at Hartford Stage during my tenure, a by-product of collecting and editing bios and headshots for the show programs). I imagine we may meet once again, but we are essentially strangers, save for the fact that she has told me, and anyone else who chooses to read her revealing book, intimate details of her first 20 years. All she would know of me, should she care to look, are my biographical details, my opinions on theatre (via blog), and my social media meanderings. The relationship, should one be renewed, is unbalanced, and surely she’ll never solicit stories of my own childhood, which pale next to hers.
Social media has added yet another layer of complication to the issue of privacy and revelation, since we often know a great deal about some people without ever having met them. While I make an effort to meet in real life those with whom I correspond with some frequency, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever get to know all of these new friends.
Just last week, I was chatting back and forth with an actress whose name I know from assorted TV credits, and I’m aware we have some friends in common. She seems just like the sort of person I’d like to know; at least on Twitter, she comes across as smart and warm-hearted, as well as committed to theatre. But it was nagging at me whether I’d seen her on stage, so I did stoop to internet snooping. It turns out that my online friend, Christina Haag, published her own memoir, Come to the Edge, almost two years ago. Its focus: her five year relationship with John Kennedy Jr.
If Christina and I meet, that fact is just going to be sitting there in my frontal lobe and, while I have never been transfixed by the saga of the Kennedys, this connection would surely bring me closer to that family’s sad tragedies that we all know about. While I am to young to recall where I was when President Kennedy was shot, I recall precisely where I was when I heard that John Jr.’s plane was lost mid-flight. It’s one thing when memoir follows acquaintance or friendship, but it’s yet another twist when life details precede meeting.
Spending decades among artists, as well as journalists, it’s safe to assume that there will be more biographies and memoirs from which I am only one degree removed (in her second book, Leave The Building Quickly, Cindy Kaplan twice refers to her brother’s best friend, but I remain frustratingly unnamed). Indeed, as our information era makes personal data ever more accessible, perhaps my comparatively singular experiences will become commonplace for everyone, no matter who they are or what they do. If that comes to pass, then the dissonance I feel at having lives of those I know – or may soon meet – so readily available will dissipate. That’s when, to imbue a cliché with new meaning, everyone’s life becomes an open book.