One of my earliest memories is painting in my living room at age four. My dad takes the brush off me, paints something on the mini easel and, dissatisfied, crumples it into a ball and throws it in the trash. Clearly unhappy with his lack of artistic ambition and perseverance, I encourage him to have another go. "Paint daddy, paint!" I cry.
Except, actually, I don't know if I remember this. What I do know is that it makes the ending of my father's memoirs, and I've read it enough times to construct it into a memory. Even if it's a secondhand one. Another early memory of mine is of going into Waterstones, picking out a copy of the book, reading the last pages, and being intrigued that my life was briefly referenced somewhere anyone could access.
Writing about family has been my dad's forte for a while. After publishing The Scent of Dried Roses in 1996, his first published book—a memoir about depression in his family—he proceeded to write columns for various papers and then three years ago, he was given the job as family columnist for the Guardian. And that's when my life started to get chronicled in the national press.
I was given a pseudonym and the pieces I'm explicitly in he will run past me, but to be perfectly honest I wouldn't have minded being named outright—I was so used to the personal becoming public that I had stopped objecting to it. Emotions were something penned weekly and dissected, and I was brought up feeling I had a language to discuss them, as well as not caring if they were publicized. If being repressed and British messes you up, then this was the opposite. For better or for worse, the columns have opened up conversations—conversations that we wouldn't have otherwise had.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not some fucked up over-sharer who can't wait to tweet about my own personal angst. It's more that I don't feel my thoughts or experiences belong to me any more than they do the other people who read about them. And I'm OK with that. I don't have a problem if people read those articles about me, because in an age where I—like pretty much everyone else—have curated my character through various different social media sites, the articles are only one of the many versions of me that exist online.
Obviously, having your dad write about you for a living isn't for everyone. But I suspect being confident (and a bit arrogant) has made the whole ordeal a lot easier. Humbler, more private friends have told me they'd hate it. My younger sister, subject to the same circumstances as myself, is, on the whole, less of a twat so I asked her how being written about felt. "I always read the articles because they kind of fascinated me," she told me. "But it felt like he rarely wrote about me because I was one of the less temperamental children. To be honest, if he did write about me, it was with rose-tinted glasses. I think he likes the contrast of the easy children and the hard children." I might have been a pain in the ass, but an irritating daughter is a surefire way to making some dollar in the family column business.
I've reconciled myself to the reality of being written about, but there's still been the occasional piece that's pissed me off. There was the "You-are-either-a-daughter-or-a-girlfriend piece," which used a Little Mermaid analogy to talk about how I'd gotten a boyfriend and how this was a profound shift in my life which was kind of absurd. A piece in the Observer Food Monthly, which featured a nice double spread of me looking disdainfully at a pea, upset me only because it detailed my childish attitude to food. Not nearly the most explicit thing that I've had written about me, but it exposed something I was ashamed of.
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The Observer piece got a fair amount of attention from people I knew, but, contrary to what you might think, I've never had friends come and tell me they've read about me (although inevitably they must have). I've had men try to impress me by reading my father's work, which is fucking weird when you think about it. For most people though, when the information becomes contextualized rather than abstract it seems more invasive, and so people who know me avoid it. I asked some exes of mine whether it was ever an allure to background check me, Guardian style. "I don't think it would've crossed my mind to like, research your past," one said. Another told me: "At first there was always a temptation, but it was too personal and insincere so I avoided it. As time went on it became less of an oddity for me—it's clear to me now how his own perception of who you are reads more like fiction than documentary."
It is exactly this sense of the unreal that limits any problems I have with being written about. Having a turbulent relationship with my father has drawn my attention to the subjectivity of our respective memories, and the fiction that our memories become for us. They're fragments of an incomplete narrative. We've had arguments that have been triggered from the articles, sparked by how he renders his conceptions of the truth. Make no mistake: being confronted by the interior thoughts of your father—by how he views things—can be heartbreaking.
There is a certain privilege in the way my father can write about his life and family with little-to-no criticism. Women are critiqued for talking candidly about themselves and their personal experiences, but men like my father have been doing it for years and no one's thought it was self-obsessed or indulgent. As a consequence of the articles, I've picked up (inherited?) a penchant for the biographical style and I'm glad: I write about myself because the personal is political, and I refuse to feel bothered by doing something men have done for years.
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