I Remember, Mama: Complicity, Mendacity, and Other Desert Cities

Once, as I recalled here before, I had the audacity to tell a well-known biographer, whose student I was, that I had no respect for writers of other people’s life stories.  Unless content to be mere chroniclers, recording activities and recounting events, they are fabricators of interiorities that, I was—and am— convinced, are unknowable to anyone other than the single occupant of that interior.  For all our confidences and intimations, we are ultimately unreadable to one another.

In order to turn life into story, biographers must impose a logic beyond chronology, a pattern to make unreason rhyme.  They connect the dots on a timeline to create causal relationships designed to account for people’s behaviors and actions: because she couldn’t face her past, she couldn’t live with herself; because she lost her brother, she lost her trust in family; because he was in truth insecure, he became a make-believe gunslinger.  Without being supplied with at least a hint of what we call “motivation,” we reject stories as lacking in psychological depth and moral complexity.

Back when I gave my professor a piece of my mind—proffered, mind you, with a smile—I thought of the biographer’s determination to make sense of other people’s existences as sheer hubris.  Now, I am more inclined to look at biography as an act of desperation.  Nothing is more disconcerting, more silencing and disabling, than the blank we have to call potentiality in order to face or overwrite and deface it.  We cannot—will not—settle for zilch.

Secrets and duplicities, intimacy and detachment.  Like all family dramas worth relating to, Jon Robin Baitz’s stage play Other Desert Cities measures the distance between folks who are biologically—and often physically—closest to each other: the flesh, the blood and the closeted skeletons of kinfolk.

Approaching Palm Springs (and Other Desert Cities)

Baitz’s American stage family, the Wyeths, could hardly be more traditional: a mother and father, married to one another, a daughter and son, offspring of that union.  Then there is the dramatically expedient extension of that nucleus; in this case an alcoholic, don’t-give-a-damn aunt whom the audience looks at as a go-between, not only between characters but between those characters and ourselves.  It is a well calculated constellation, this, as Other Desert Cities does not just explore relationships but the act of relating, of putting that relationship and all those relations into words, and of questioning the words and the unspoken.

Though most of us couldn’t live with Aunt Silda (Judith Light, in the Booth Theatreproduction), we love her for what we are encouraged to read as her forthrightness and free spirit.  She, we assume, would be the person most likely to tell the true story of that family, as compromised as her memory and judgment might be after years of swilling the kind of spirits from which she is unable to free herself.

Hello SildaThe way I remember Palm Springs

After all, we cannot expect to get the inside dirt from her sister Polly (Stockard Channing), a staunch yet tarnished Republican who is terrified that her daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) has written a tell-all autobiography threatening to tear the façade right off the family’s sunny Californian home.

Yes, Silda tells it like it is.  Criticized by her class-conscious sister of wearing knock-offs, she barks back:

Honey.  News-flash: you’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew! We’re Jewish girls who lost their accents along the way, but for you that wasn’t enough, you had to become a goy, too.  Talk about the real thing? Talk about ‘faking it.’ Honey, this Pucci is a lot more real than your Pat Buckley schtick.

As it turns out, neither Silda nor Polly are what we are led to believe them to be; and this is Brooke’s lesson, too, as she tries to piece together the life story of her lost brother, a left-wing radical whose act of terrorism forced Nancy Reagan pal Polly and her ex-Hollywood star husband Lyman (Stacey Keach) into retirement in the desert.

Desperate to figure out who or what made her brother Henry what the facts don’t quite tell her he was, Brooke turns from writing fiction to biography.  Yet, in her attempt to expose the truth, she ends up with yet another version of the story rather than a definitive one.  “She presents us as ghouls who drove [Henry] to become sort of a murderer,” her anguished, disconsolate father protests to his son (Thomas Sadoski), the “ADD riddled, junk-food-addicted porn surfing Trip Wyeth,” as Brooke calls him to his face.

“Christ, there’s something so vicious about what you’re doing here, Brooke, don’t you know that?” Lyman exclaims.  Vicious and necessary, Other Desert Cities argues.  And futile? As suggested by the closing scene, which may strike some as perfunctory or incongruously sentimental, Brooke’s ordeal—and the ordeal to which she put her family—has served a purpose.

What may seem like a coda or anticlimax I took as the point of the Baitz’s drama.  As a biographer, Brooke has failed.  She has been taken in, taken story for life and secrecy for guilt only to become complicit in her family’s cover-up.  As an autobiographer, though, Brooke is to be envied.  She has learned something about herself that she didn’t know before she came to investigate the lives of those around her.  We may be unknowable to each other—but we can learn to know ourselves.

4 Replies to “I Remember, Mama: Complicity, Mendacity, and Other Desert Cities”

  1. No, it's not you. I think I said as much in reply to yourprevious comment. I was forced to give up my domain name for this blog and links to older posts are not recognized at present. There's nothing I can do about it at the moment, I'm afraid.

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