Thursday, July 29, 2010

Surviving Amelia: or as Elvis says 'Accidents Can Happen'

Some people believe that everything is fated. Some religions teach us that. I think this is human, the desire for order. We want to believe that we have control even though everything that happens around us proves otherwise. We also seem to believe that we do everything we do for a reason, I think this is because human beings are certain that change is possible. Yet now that I've matured a bit I wonder, does any of us really change all that much? Our vision of who we are is at odds with reality in this respect. Or so it appears to me. I look at the image of myself on this website and I hate to admit that I'm more like that little girl than not. And I look at my children and see personalities that were vivid the moment they were born. Yes, there are small changes, people can learn how to be less fearful, or more. They can learn how to take chances and find that taking chances makes them happy. They can learn to appreciate food, music, art, writing . . . they can enrich their lives. And they can fall in love and open themselves to someone else, or not. . .all these things have an effect. . . still.
The basic temperament, the basic person is there underneath it all. The question is what you do with that.

What was Amelia like when she was young. If you believe her sister's version, she was always the leader, always up for experimenting, always willing to take risks. She always empathized with the plight of those less fortunate. If you believe her sister she was always "Amelia." But of course this novel is about the versions of truth we tell ourselves. I don't buy Muriel's story. I think it too tidy and too convenient. What I do think is that Muriel protected her sister by writing such a neat version of their history together.

I think of this, the sisterly bond and I think of how best friends, best friends who are women share the same sort of bond. We protect each other, and we manage somehow not to see how the other person is clearly. Particularly that is, when we're young. There's something about being young that obscures the truth. It's a fortunate thing too because it gives us an opportunity to become close to people we might otherwise avoid as too risky, or too intimidating, or just too damaged. We see their potential when we're young. We see what they might become.

Muriel knows what her sister became, so her story is told in reverse. It's interesting to deconstruct it and imagine what really must have happened. Nothing is perfect. Nothing is simple. Nothing is tidy in life. It's the untidiness that fascinates us.
If I can get that right, then I have done my job.


  1. I suppose Muriel's story-neatening process had more to do with what she left out than what she put in. It's a pretty safe bet that she and Amelia did some typical silly, mean, and self-centered stuff like other kids. Is this the kind of untidiness you explore in your novel? I do think she was probably entirely truthful in presenting young Amelia as always up for experimenting and risk-taking. There's research indicating that the propensity for risk-taking is neurologically-based -- i.e., some people are more wired for it than others -- though the specific behavioral forms it takes is subject to learning.

  2. I definitely see Amelia as a risk taker, what I explore is the contrast between the perfect sister Muriel presented to the world and the truth because no one is perfect, indeed far from it. I'm really interested in that, in the distance between those two points. Amelia is so careful about what she exposes herself, there's definitely room to imagine conflict. Plus evidence that there was the typical older sister/younger sister divide. Of course some of what I explore is fiction, it has to be, but I definitely think it must have been a difficult relationship for Muriel. I think it interesting that she spent so much time honoring Amelia's memory, yet in her book she talks about a real before/after scenario. Amelia as her sister and then Amelia married and famous. I could go on you see . . .

  3. "Our vision of who we are is at odds with reality..." I agree, and this interests me. It seems there is this gap of delusion between our self-image and our actuality. Sometimes I think that the path of life can be not so much towards greater achievements or more experiences, but towards greater self-honesty, an unveiling of long cherished delusions that had been mistaken for reality. A peeling away of the onion layers of narcissistic self-protection, an increasing exposure and vulnerability and honesty and "realness" both internally and interpersonally.

    I also agree that our basic temperament doesn't have a lot of wiggle room and is set like concrete. Yet I also feel that profound transformation is possible in other ways, that it's possible to undergo a change of heart, a shift in perception, an opening of the mind, that it's possible to shed an exoskeleton of limiting notions...Enjoyed this post Naomi, intriguing questions and observations.

  4. Colleen, your comments ring true to my ear. Though I've gone through several profound shifts of perspective in my life so far, I still recognize the basic person I've lived with since earliest memory.

  5. Rose, concerning your response to my comment above, what effect do you see Amelia's fame having on the sisters' relationship? (Other than not having much time to spend together, that is. Once they were both married and living their own lives, they wouldn't have had as much time together even if one of them weren't famous.)

  6. Honestly, I think it may have given Amelia the opening she always wanted.I think it gave her an opportunity to create both physical and emotional distance, my sense of their relationship is that they were much more alike when they were young. When they lived in Boston they spent time together, but I think Amelia already was pulling away. You note that she didn't tell her sister that she was chosen for that first flight, she only told Sam Chapman. There's some evidence that she thought Muriel would talk too much about it, about her. And Muriel's book is really so divided, there's their youthful closeness and then there's "Amelia," famous and extremely distant.

  7. And Colleen, thank you so much for your response. It is hard to know what is hard wired in us and what we can change, but I do hope we are able to change in important ways.