Can she really be known, she whom we romanticize?
We can research her family tree, the number of children she bore
and with whom, the climate in which she lived—Did it rain a lot?
Was their social unrest? We can guess what kinds of foods
she ate or the kind of frocks she wore. Did she go about her tasks
oblivious or fully engaged and, if engaged, what was she
passionate about? Art? Politics? Premonitions? Did she have a pet
she loved more than humans? Was she capable of true love?
What were her dreams? Did she write them down? Did she know
how to write? How to read? Did she spend a lot of time gazing,
masturbating, gardening, studying poisons and their effects?
Or was her time not her own, on any given day? Did she have
to sneak pleasure? Did she think she was deserving of fun?
Did she hold a grudge? Did she giggle when nervous?
Did she have many secrets? Did she burn her diaries?
Or did someone else burn them? Or did she keep all her secrets
on scrolls of memory so that when she died those scrolls died too?
What were the big issues of her day and what did she have to say,
if anything, about them? Did she think life was rigged?
Was there a trauma from which she would never fully recover?
Did she keep to herself? Or did she seek out friendships?
Did she fear men or desire them, or both? Did she desire women?
Did she act on her desires? We can approximate the kind of soap
she used, but how did she touch her own body? With tenderness?
With no-nonsense purpose? Would the world have been different
if she hadn’t been born? Did she shape events or did events
shape her? Is there knowledge—hers—lost forever?
How can we really know? How can we really know
anyone, even in the here and now? How can we not foist our biases
on the past? How can we trust the motives of the biographer,
the preconceptions she brings to the project? Is she self-actualized?
Was her subject self-actualized? If so, how did that come about?
Did she spend most of her life fooling herself?
Did the biographer? Do the powerless take an ironic stance?
Do the powerful? Or does this story have little to do with power?
The biographer hopes her book will make a good film—a live actor
spending a day without electricity so she can get this life just right.
DENISE DUHAMEL is a former contributor to GMR and the author, most recently, of Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). She is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.