Thursday, February 26, 2009

Biography : Forgetting

"People get old, they forget."

Mark Ruffalo, in the role of Detective Dave Toschi, says this to Jake Gyllenhal, in the role of Robert Graysmith, towards the end of David Fincher's Zodiac. This is the problem with trying to piece together a book after many years. People get old, they forget.

It's been eight years since Paul Avery passed away on Orca's Island, north of Puget Sound. It's been forty-one years since the height of the Zodiac investigation, also traditionally thought of as the height of Avery's career. Thirty-five years since Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Avery is a modern figure and yet plenty of time has passed to facilitate forgetting.

People get old, they forget.

The death of memory is just a fact in biography. We have to deal with the fact that there are infinitely more memories than can be captured, and we can only hope that the small snapshots we do manage are among the most striking. "I'm sure I don't know the half of it," one of Paul's colleagues told me one day, "and the half I do know I've forgotten."

We biographers are pretty remarkable writers. We must make sense of life. Nothing can be more daunting. We often cannot make sense of our own lives but we must sort out files and files of stories, gossip, e-mails, phone conversations, articles, books-- all written by friends, enemies, family, colleagues, exes, spouses, children, rivals. Wading though all of these stories, all of this time, we know that the frailty of the human mind is working against us. Time is working against us. People get old, and sometimes they forget.

Yet, we still manage to find the essential human being. We (hopefully) make good judgments, we (hopefully) ask good questions and we eventually catch a glimpse of who they were.

And then we try to convey that in writing. But that's a whole other story.