On The Inadequacy Of Memoir To
Encompass The Truth
by Francisco Goldman
…And suddenly a hare ran across the road. One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they goingThe flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
—“Encounter,” Czeslaw Milosz
My wife, Aura Estrada, died in Mexico City on July 25, 2007, after breaking her neck the day before while bodysurfing at a beach on the Pacific Coast. She was thirty, and we’d been together for four years, married for two. Aura’s mother and an uncle blamed me for the accident, and even threatened me with prison. It is understandable that her mother, having lost her only child, in her unimaginable grief, maybe even maddened by grief, would blame me. But I was close to mad with grief myself.
The day of Aura’s funeral I scribbled a note that I intended to put into her coffin, but then I couldn’t, because the coffin was sealed, a window over her face. In the note I thanked Aura for the happiest years of my life, asked her forgiveness for failing to protect her from that wave that killed her, and promised that instead of killing myself, I would fulfill these promises: I would get a book of her writing published. I would start a literary prize in her name. I also vowed to live each day in a way that would honor her.
I still have that note. It wasn’t until I started writing this, and I looked at it again, that I realized one of the promises I’d remembered making wasn’t, in fact, written there. I’d promised Aura that I was going to write a book about her and about us, a book for her.
Why write a book at all? Because I had no other way of processing what had happened. According to grief experts, if you’ve witnessed the death of your beloved in an unexpected, sudden, and violent way, and if that beloved was what they call “an attachment figure,” the person who really was the greatest source of happiness and meaning in your life, then you are prone to traumatic or complicated grief; if your beloved’s family also blames you for the death, inevitably causing you to internalize that burden of guilt—which you may well have done even without the blame—that will probably complicate matters even more. Neurological imaging reveals the lesions trauma inflicts on the brain’s pathways. That is one reason why traumatic grief, when you are really inside it, harrowing as it is, is so trippy. The wall between night and day, between subconscious and conscious, breaks down. Over a year, I was diagnosed not just with PTSD and situational major depressive disorder, but also with minor psychotic episodes. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean I think that you’re schizophrenic,” my therapist reassured me. The key word was situational. It had been brought on by a situation, not by my own predetermined biology. I could get over it.
So that was the mental and emotional state in which I began to write my—our—own libro unico. “What is a libro unico?” asked Roberto Calasso, the Italian writer and editor at the publishing house Adelphi, in an essay about the founding of the Libro Unico line of books. I am not sure how to translate libro unico precisely—a unique, a singular, an only or an isolated book, an exception, a book that is a complete departure from a writer’s more aesthetically self-aware books, or in some cases an author’s only book. “Definitely,” wrote Calasso, “a libro unico is one in which it is immediately noted that something has happened to the author, and he has ended up depositing that something in a text.”
“A book that was written from inside a delirium” is how Calasso described Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, the first in the Libro Unico collection. “Nothing like it in the life of Kubin before it,” he wrote, “nothing like it after.”
I don’t remember the moment I began to write what became Say Her Name. It was December, six months since Aura’s death. I’d fled Brooklyn for Berlin, a city I’d never been to before, though Aura had. Recently I found an email that I sent to a friend on the day after Christmas.
i’m here in berlin… have actually started writing a bit, am writing a novel about aura, so far its pretty much the way things happened but its rigged up to merge into beautiful fiction i hope, its the first writing i have done since july. if i am going to feel this sad all the time, i might as well dance with that sadness, and see what comes out of it. its not as if i would be capable of writing anything else.