The biographer’s dilemma

The other day, I read a review of the new biography of Barack Obama. Sorry, the author’s name escapes me. But now that I’m ensnared in writing a biography myself, I’m hyperaware of other people’s efforts, looking into their strategies and methods for chronicling the life of another human being. I’m always interested in the why: Why this man? Or woman? Why now?

With Obama, the reason is obvious. His story is extremely timely, and irresistible. I think that’s  the real key to a successful biography: The story. Biographers have to be storytellers too, but in a much more rigorous and honest way than novelists. And within that story there needs to be some kind of revelation, something we haven’t heard before, or knew about. In this book’s case, it’s Obama’s romantic life, the woman he shared his life with before Michelle, a white woman. The media is sure to play this up as a bombshell, something I’m uncomfortable with, the idea of race playing a role in hyping or promoting a book. In my corner of the world, mixed-race relationships are no big deal at all, so I’m hoping that’s not the only revelation this book offers. The other woman, however, regardless of her race, seems to be a very interesting person in her own right, and I would love to hear her side of it all, eventually.

Since my biography is of a rather obscure man, I don’t have to worry about such revelations.  Life can be simpler when you’re celibate, and I’m pretty much convinced he was to the very end. I admit, the journalist in me was inappropriately eager to dig out a small indiscretion or two, a bit of scandal to add color and texture to what seems at times a spiritually flawless life. I may still stumble across something, but now I’m hoping passionately not to. Unfortunately, in these times, when you’re researching the life of a priest, you do have to face the possibility of finding evil,  forcing yourself to check those ominous lists of known pedophiles and molesters, because finding him on one would kill the project in its tracks. I could never write about a pedophile, no matter how wonderful his life otherwise might be. And no reader would put up with it.  Thank God that for me, this hasn’t been the case.  I do keep reminding myself that such priests—such monsters—were definitely in the minority, despite the vastness of the damage they caused.

With smaller, less serious sins and dark spots, balance seems to be the key. I discussed this with my biographer friend Michael McGregor: Simply present the subject truthfully, as he truly is–quirks, faults, errors of judgements, good deeds and all–and if you’re skillful enough, it all leavens itself out, giving a complete portrait of a person who  is neither all goodness or all bad. He just is. The best biographies tell a good story, but they also tell the truth.

My guy, as truly good as he is, does have just enough interesting flaws and annoying character quirks to keep him from becoming the marzipan-saint. I can still be honest about him, without really offending anyone or doing him an injustice. As long as I tell the truth…

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