The memoirist is simultaneously character and creator, actor and author, vulnerable yet intent on controlling the reader’s emotions. The author must speak and act convincingly as a character, and as narrator, they must step effortlessly out of frame and chronology to tell readers what the author claims to have understood only later.
When a memoir is adapted to a movie, however, as was Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the narrator is no longer the author; he is only a character, and possibly no longer even the main character. His point of view is no longer the point of view, and what the audience sees is not in his control. He has to hit his marks on the story arc the screenwriter has drawn for him.
This is not to say that an adaptation always denatures a memoir. It helps if the original is a journey: point A to point B, with promising territory in view at the end. It’s more than fine if the map shows that here be monsters, too: people who hurt you, or want to; the death of loved ones, the loss of home; your own self-loathing, your inability to forgive yourself and others. Cheryl Strayed’s immensely popular memoir, Wild, was a natural for the movies; it had all of the above, along with great scenery that we could now actually see, and a sorrowful, determined heroine, not quite up to the task she had set herself but refusing to give up. The book is deeper and darker than the movie, but the movie is not shallow or false.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City bears some resemblance in backstory to Wild. Both authors suddenly, tragically lose their mothers—Strayed’s mother dies of cancer, Flynn’s kills herself—and both have fathers they cannot bear to be near; both start using drugs to numb the pain.
By his own description, however, Flynn’s journey is more like Captain Ahab’s than Cheryl Strayed’s. He is obsessed with his father, Jonathan, a monstrous creature who has carelessly wounded his son in the past and now defines his life and every move. The comparison is not an exact matchup, however; Flynn doesn’t want to kill his father as much as he wants to kill the possibility of becoming his father.
Jonathan Flynn, absent for almost all of his son’s childhood, reappeared suddenly when Nick was a young man and had moved to Boston after his mother’s suicide. Jonathan didn’t acknowledge his long absence; he simply said he’d been kicked out of his apartment and needed Nick to come over and help him put his belongings in storage. Nick obliged, then Jonathan disappeared again. Two months later, he reappeared with the same nonchalance, this time at the homeless shelter where Nick worked, looking for a bed and a meal.
An unpublished novelist who considered himself an undiscovered genius, Jonathan appears to feel no shame and shows no interest in his son other than as an audience for his claims to greatness. Nick is barely hanging onto sanity himself, still destroyed by grief over his mother’s suicide, for which he feels responsible. Jonathan enters the tragedy as a reverse deus ex machina, unconcerned with saving anyone but himself.
Reading the book is like following Flynn through a haunted house, his memory palace. He opens the doors, one by one, and whatever is inside each room hits us full force because there has been scant buildup, at most a feather’s brush of expectation. Chapters, usually no more than four pages long, don’t follow a linear chronology. This structure is brilliantly suited to the genre. In life, memories appear unpredictably, and not in sequence; fragmented, but complete in themselves; and meaningful, but not self-explanatory, or attached to meaning, but only by a long umbilical cord.
Flynn’s memoir won its author a PEN award and was optioned by the successful and prolific screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and filmmaker Paul Weitz. Weitz, who directed American Pie, About a Boy, Little Fockers, and many others, worked for eight years to make the book into a movie. Flynn was his occasional collaborator on the screenplay and eventually a producer on the film. Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, and Julianne Moore signed on to play Jonathan, Nick, and Jody. The Motion Picture Association of America would not approve the memoir’s title for the movie, so it was released in 2012 as Being Flynn.
More than a title was lost in the move from page to film. The powerful narrative voice, which drove the memoir and transformed Flynn’s shit-storm of a life into gold, was disappeared.
Take, for example, a scene from Another Bullshit Night, where Nick is working from the shelter’s outreach van. He knows he may find his father sleeping outside, because Jonathan has been barred from the shelter for abusive behavior. Nick is panicked that he might find him—because then what? He has refused to take him into his own apartment. Jonathan’s parting words to him had been, “FATHER MURDERER! FATHER MURDERER!”
I drive slowly past a blanket shaped like a man—here is a man, shaped like a blanket, shaped like a box, shaped like a bench. Easy to miss. If this is my father, if I leave a sandwich beside his sleeping body, does this become a family meal? Is this what it means to be holding it together? Is this bench now our dinner table? Are we inside again? Am I coping? How’s my driving?
Here is the essence of the memoir in fewer than one hundred words: a moment that is not so much a description of action or emotion as a monologue in a Beckett play. Flynn is in pain, but he’s applying pressure to the wound with one hand and writing with the other.
Weitz chose a different bit of narration for a scene when Nick is working outside the shelter. We hear Nick’s voice: “I asked to fill in on the outreach van. Can’t stand to be in the shelter where my drunken jack-in-the-box can appear at any moment.” He loads blankets into the van with a co-worker and tells him Jonathan is just a con man, not his father: “Nothing to do with me.” We see Nick walking from bench to bench by a busy street, speaking gently to the men huddled on park benches. He offers them sandwiches, asks if they want to come inside.
That’s it. Why Weitz chose a voiceover that explained the action rather than letting us inside Nick’s pain is puzzling, and indicative of the film’s missteps.
This is not to say that Being Flynn is devoid of feeling. Rather, it is devoid of variation of feeling. Jonathan yells and boasts; Nick takes blow after blow from life with little change of expression.
Reviews of the film were mixed. Those who didn’t like it didn’t hold back: Joe Morgenstern, in the Wall Street Journal, declared that “(the) emotional content was manifest as an absence.” Most critics who liked the movie reserved their praise chiefly for the actors, especially De Niro, who was clearly having the time of his life. In a genuine instance of art imitating life, he owns every scene he’s in, which is to say most of the movie, and when he isn’t on the screen, we wait for him to appear. He is Prospero and Caliban together, both master and monster.
Overall, Weitz was blamed for the movie’s failings; it’s possible that after so many years of immersion in the script, he could no longer distinguish between his intention and what actually appeared on screen. For example, in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, he said Jody is meant to “hang like a specter” over the entire movie. But Julianne Moore is given so little screen time—only a few scenes that add up to 8 minutes in all—that I wondered why she even agreed to take the job. For about 10 seconds of those 8 minutes, she appears as a spirit, visible only to Nick, first in the homeless shelter, then in their childhood home, where she killed herself. She is calm and smiling. She is clearly a specter, yes; but what does it mean? If you were reading the script, you could stop and think: I see. She’s letting Nick know that she’s there with him, that he’s not alone. But as a viewer, you don’t get to freeze-frame, stop, and figure it out. And you shouldn’t have to.
In the same NPR interview, Weitz said he wanted to capture the “themes” of the memoir: Are we fated to become our parents? What is the relationship between creativity and ego? Themes, however, flourish in the confines of a book; they have to be transformed into action to survive a movie.
The epilogue added to a later edition of Another Bullshit Night is titled “Aftermath (one year later), questions often asked, and some possible answers.” It’s a pastiche of questions Flynn got from interviewers after the book came out, such as, “Do you give money to panhandlers?” and, “What did you feel the first time you saw your father homeless?” He answers to the best of his ability, until the final question:
“Do you still blame yourself for your mother’s suicide?”
The response: “Do you really think I’m going to answer that here?”
He couldn’t answer it, anywhere, until he watched the making of Being Flynn, and wrote a second memoir, a sequel of sorts to Another Bullshit Night.
The Reenactments is the last panel in Flynn’s triptych of mirrors—the book, the movie, the book—each one reflecting, expanding, and illuminating Nick’s story.
It is a singular book. Interspersed with a fresh retelling of the first book are searching (and well-researched) meditations on the nature of art, reality and catharsis, Aristotle’s Poetics, and the neuroscience of memory.
Unlike Another Bullshit Night, The Reenactments received scant critical notice and no prizes. But if it is true that we create narratives to make sense of our lives, perhaps this is the book Flynn had to write—not least to take back ownership of his story.
Well before the movie had come and gone in theaters, the real Jonathan was no longer a threat. Although still an alcoholic, still deluded about his future as a great novelist, he was off the street and safely stowed in an apartment, where he could be taken care of.
But Jody continued to hang like a specter over Flynn’s life, without bringing him solace. In The Reenactments, he makes an analogy between her death and the phantom limb experienced in an arm or leg that has been amputated. In Flynn’s lexicon, reenactment is the “practice of empathy”:
On Ash Wednesday we give something up so we can empathize with Jesus, just as we reenact the crucifixion each spring (these constant resurrections, these passion plays), so we can witness, again, his suffering.
He has a problem with empathy, he says:
Each year, on the anniversary of my mother’s death, I never put myself in her place, I don’t know if I should—painkillers, ocean, gun—I simply return to the place I found myself in, the moment I heard she was dead.
On set for the entire production of the movie, Flynn was surprised to find himself in the role of emotional fact-checker and on-the-spot creative assistant. During filming, Flynn watched Moore perform Weitz’s version of his mother’s suicide, take by take. In a pause in the shooting, Weitz took him aside and asked,
. . . if I have anything for him, by which he means do I have any input on what we are seeing. What I am seeing is my mother on the day of her suicide, a day I’ve only imagined, endlessly, not having been with her on that day.
He doesn’t have anything for the director. Nor does he explain why in the final cut of the film, Jody kills herself off-screen, in her bedroom. (The real Jody first tried to drown herself, then shot herself in the heart, sitting on a wooden chair in the kitchen. Painkillers, ocean, gun. Flynn kept the chair, its back blown off so that it resembles a stool with jagged stumps attached to the seat.)
Weitz looked to Flynn to verify the film’s authenticity, but he also explained to Nick that film audiences demand a reassurance that the hero will move forward and find a resolution to his grief. In order to create this “obligatory scene,” Weitz conflates conversations Nick had with his father over years into one tidy moment, creating a mosaic out of shards. He sets the scene in Nick’s apartment—a scene Flynn calls “the day that never happened, … the day I invite my father inside my apartment and we have a talk about my mother (I never invited my father inside).”
Nick admits he thinks he has a drinking problem, and Jonathan responds, “A problem? I feel for you. Must be problematic.” De Niro sounds flip, even callous. But to Nick—the real Nick—watching this scene is “a hinge—one of many—that opens a door.”
The on-screen Nick confides in Jonathan that he is responsible for his mother’s death. She found one of his unfinished short stories, in which someone very like her appears to be failing as a mother, and she mentioned it in her suicide note.
De Niro delivers the punch line of the scene: “The question is not why she died when she did; the question is why she stuck around as long as she did.” The real Nick Flynn had heard his father say this before. But, as he is watching the filming, the observation comes as a revelation. His mother stuck around for him, as long as she had the strength. He writes,
In life it took twenty years to release this energy—I spent each day, for twenty years, trying to unlock this door, but each morning I’d find it, once again, locked.
Jonathan assures him people never kill themselves because of a story someone wrote. But didn’t Nick almost kill himself because of a story, the one he told himself?
Flynn mentions Aristotle in The Reenactments so often that the philosopher is practically a character in the book. Catharsis is a running theme, and Flynn shows a subtle understanding of that vexed term. For Aristotle, catharsis is a process: a way of releasing pain from the story that has grown around it, like cutting away the scar tissue from an old wound. Releasing the pain is not the same as healing the wound. (As a young man, Aristotle assisted his father, a physician.)
The ancient Greek word for the act of creation is poiesis (from which the word “poetics” is derived). It can describe “making something” (a vase, say), or “making something up” (a play), or both. Weitz did both: he made a film, and to make it work, he invented a scene that never happened. By not sticking to the facts, he unlocked a door that Flynn had been trying to open for twenty years. We don’t know if he went through the door, or what he saw there—only that it was a relief to find it open.
In a 2010 commencement speech at Bennington College, Flynn said, “Aristotle, in his Poetics, never promised catharsis for the makers of art, only for the audience. The makers, on the other hand, have to find a way to become the person who can write the poem they need to write. (Stanley Kunitz said that.) This could be cathartic, or it could destroy you. But you can’t go into it hoping for catharsis.”
Flynn did not go behind the scenes of the film hoping for catharsis. It came as a shock, and it hurt. By becoming an audience to the making of the film, Flynn found a way to become the person who could write The Reenactments, the book he needed to write. Being Flynn may have been a failure as a film, but it allowed the real Nick Flynn to face his pain, reconsider its causes, and probe his wounds without passing out.
Aristotle has plenty say about the power of invention and the relation of poiesis to reality, the dominant theme of The Reenactments. In the typically maddening, highly condensed prose of the Poetics, he pronounces that “fiction (poiesis) is more true than inquiry (historia).” A more nuanced and enlightening translation might be: Making things up brings you closer to the truth than trying to find out what happened.
Flynn doesn’t mention this line. Perhaps he didn’t see it. Or didn’t need to say it.