In 2009, my mother’s youngest sister went missing. She was in Maui. I was in South Africa. My mother, in Chicago, stopped receiving her sister’s Saturday e-mails. The process that followed lasted a year: my sister and I—the two youngest of six—searched for my aunt from afar; my sister flew from Seattle to Maui to search in person; and then we hired a private investigator. The final step was a formal grid search; when that turned up nothing, investigators concluded she was gone. They said we’d likely never find her remains.
Her name was Deborah—Aunt Debbie. She was a writer, an artist, an actress, a long-time waitress. She was not famous. She hadn’t been published, but she had sold artwork and spent her twenties on stage. She was the black sheep of the family, the relative many people didn’t (and still don’t) understand.
And yet, I always thought I understood her, even at a great distance. I’d grown up being told I looked or acted like her. We were both the youngest, with older sisters who were more like mothers, and we often felt different from everyone else. More intimately, we both longed to find our respective places in this world and to live lives sustained by art. But then she disappeared.
In the summer of 2013, I started a new search—this time for life. Using two hundred handwritten letters as my map, I became an explorer, a detective, a collector of quotidian details. I surfed couches across Illinois, New York, Washington, Oregon, Louisiana, and Virginia, all more than once. Eventually, I traveled to Hawaii. I had an idea of what I was doing, but I also had no clue. I traveled light: my computer, an audio recorder, camera gear, a stack of notebooks, a few days of clothing, and a copy of Into the Wild.
Jon Krakauer’s book was, of course, a deliberate choice. Into the Wild tells the story of Chris McCandless, a young man who shed his material possessions and slid off the grid, eventually dying of starvation in Alaska as a result of a foraging mistake. Although Krakauer never met McCandless, he saw himself in the young man, whose body was discovered inside an old bus on Alaska’s Stampede Trail in 1992. I had first read the book a decade before I set off in search of my aunt’s story. I remembered it as a book of narrative reconstruction. Reading it again, I realized that wasn’t the case at all. Krakauer re-traces McCandless’s travels and constructs a book of evidence: interview transcriptions and excerpts from McCandless’s correspondence, diary, and other writings. From these loose and fraying threads, Krakauer weaves the wanderer’s story together with memories from his own life.
As I followed in Debbie’s footsteps, I turned to Krakauer for guidance, seeking the confidence to write about a missing woman in whom I saw myself. By mid-summer, my copy of Into the Wild grew dog-eared, margin-marked, and color-coded, much like the books by Tolstoy, London, and Thoreau found in McCandless’s pack. It seemed the only model I would need.
That is, until I watched the genre-bending documentary Stories We Tell. The film transformed how I understood my project and purpose.
Stories We Tell follows actress and director Sarah Polley’s search to know her deceased mother. The film explores family secrets and questions our ability to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Polley uses formal interviews, integrates voiceover of her father’s memoir, and breaks the convention of the fourth wall. The camera toggles between interviewees and interviewer, capturing Polley’s process of discovery. Although Polley allows us to see how point of view affects each telling of her mother’s story, she also allows her mother to represent herself through home movies. At first, this footage registers as an artifact of the past; by the end, however, careful viewers realize it is actually a reconstruction of the past—fictionalized memories.
Stories We Tell pushed me to go beyond Krakauer and further explore family stories and epitaphs using experimental form. With help from essayist Eric LeMay, I created a shortlist of storytellers who could help me question my process and approach: poet and classicist Anne Carson, the poet and essayist Maggie Nelson, visual artist and author Rachel Lichtenstein, writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair, and noir crime novelist James Ellroy.
Nox, by Anne Carson, is the least traditional—an elegy for her brother, who’d dealt drugs and eventually fled the country to avoid jail time. Decades later, after his death, Carson created a scrapbook of one letter, a few postcards, and recalled telephone conversations—the entirety of their interaction after he disappeared—bound together by an ancient Greek poem and her memoiristic annotations. Her investigation was intellectual over factual, not really an effort to discover specific answers about Michael’s life. Carson handed her publisher this cut-and-paste book, and, incredibly, cut-and-paste is how it remained. The result: a color-printed, cardstock accordion (in a hard case), replete with images of staples and tape.
Like Carson, Maggie Nelson sought to tell a story with limited artifacts. Jane: A Murder explores the life and death of her aunt, killed in the late 1960s, years before Nelson’s birth. It was assumed, both publicly and within the family, that Jane was a victim of serial killer John Collins. Driven to understand Jane, to whom she was oft compared, Nelson pairs passages from her aunt’s diary alongside her own poetry—edging toward a kind of co-authorship that tells both stories as one. (Just as Jane was released, a DNA match led to the arrest of a new suspect and the reopening of Jane’s case. As a result, Nelson wrote The Red Parts: A Memoir, a hybrid of investigation, courtroom reportage, and memoir.)
Like Krakauer and Polley, Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair pull back the curtain to show process. They co-wrote Rodinsky’s Room, a journey to understand a reclusive Jewish autodidact who disappeared in the late 1960s. Lichtenstein’s story starts with Rodinsky’s untouched apartment in a London synagogue. Chapters alternate between the authors; Lichtenstein recounts her efforts to “find” Rodinsky; Sinclair critiques Lichtenstein’s search and provides a historical analysis of London’s East End. Between these threads, a third author is implied: Rodinsky himself.
These works all explore the ways in which point of view affects our idea of “truth,” but no one experiments with this like noir crime novelist James Ellroy. In My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir, Ellroy tells the story of his mother’s murder in four sequences: the reconstruction of his mother’s death, based on her case file, and the historical narrative of Orange County crime in 1958 (written in third person); the memoir of a boy losing his mother (first person); the profile of a detective in the Unsolved Cases Unit (third person); and Ellroy’s present-day search for answers (first person). As Ellroy shifts between the factual and the personal, the reader is left to ponder the distortions that arise from the simplest change in perspective and, ultimately, to question the nature of truth.
Each of these stories inverts itself to illuminate the process by which the story is being pieced together. Cinematically, the camera isn’t exclusively aimed at Michael or Jane or Chris; rather it follows Carson and Nelson and Krakauer on a journey of discovery. Each storyteller is showing readers the seams, exposing the process and the unspoken questions: What is a fact? How do we know something is true? And what is truth, anyhow?
Each of these works has taught me to accept ambiguities rather than digging endlessly for a certainty that doesn’t exist; to stretch the limits of form; and to embrace the possibilities of co-authorship, even with the missing.
As I interview my aunt’s friends, co-workers, and family members, I now realize I am crowd-sourcing a portrait of her that no one person would recognize—from a rural childhood, to the stage in New York, to the days she was married to the lamp repairman, to the year she squatted in New Orleans warehouses, to her years of work in an arts theater, to a decade of seesawing off and on the grid.
I have boxes of collected items, hours of interviews, hundreds of images, and a dozen filled notebooks. But there are too many holes in my aunt’s story for a traditional narrative. These are the spaces in which we let Carson compare the myth of her brother Michael to the parable of Lazarus; where we’re willing to sit with Lichtenstein as she questions her Judaism; when we accept the fine, almost blurry, line between Nelson and her aunt as characters. In accepting the holes of my aunt’s story, I allow her to lead me down a path of exploration rather than fact.
Today, my writing room is wallpapered with maps and letters and images. Like the writers before me, I am floating through the visual, visceral process of my search. All the artifacts I’ve collected, all of the conflicting details, all of these torn and jagged edges of memory are—I remind myself—the only understanding I will have of my aunt. In the final telling, I am not a judge; I am a curator of her story, through my story, and the people, places, and things she left behind.
* Illustration by Anna Hall