Friday, November 16, 2012

Worth remembering

Winning a National Book Award tends to give an author quite a lot of credibility. I don't know Andrew Solomon at all; it's entirely possible that most of his writing is backed up through meticulous research and a thoroughgoing desire to ensure that the narrative he presents is accurate in both fact and larger meaning.

I've known Jeff Hansen for nearly 30 years. He was a friend of mine in college and although I'd lost touch with him over the years, we've renewed that friendship in the past few years, once I discovered that he also lives in the Twin Cities. He's a brilliant guy and he's done some substantial work as a writer and educator. So I'll admit up front that I have a dog in the fight. And there is a fight, because Andrew Solomon wrote the following about Jeff:
"In the meanwhile, the family has also had to deal with Jeff's bipolar illness, which manifests itself from time to time in florid psychosis. Betsy has had to warn group-home staff that they can't assume Jeff will be sane at any given time."
This passage appears in Solomon's latest book, Far From the Tree, which has received favorable reviews in, among other places, the New York Times and the New Yorker. The problem is, the passage doesn't square with what I know to be true about Jeff. But we'll let Jeff explain:

National Book Award winner Andrew Solomon writes this about me in Far From the Tree, a book blurbed by Bill Clinton. He is discussing my ex-wife, Elizabeth Burns', and my relationship with our profoundly autistic daughter. Solomon cannot possibly have anything other than an ex-spouse's hearsay evidence for this extreme statement, because I have never been diagnosed as psychotic at all—not even close.

In fact, I almost solely supported my family financially and emotionally for the 20 years of my marriage. If you need evidence, I would be happy to provide it to you. Andrew didn't even bother to ask.

There's more, a lot more, at the link. I suggest you read it all.

I've met Betsy, but I don't know her well. I do know that there was more than a little contentiousness involved in her marriage to Jeff and its subsequent dissolution. And, as I said earlier, Jeff is my friend so I have a dog in this fight. I am not unbiased in this matter. Not in the least.

What I do know is this -- when a writer makes a claim of this importance in a book that is certain to reach a large audience, it would be a very good thing to get the other side. Solomon, for whatever reason, did not choose to do so in this instance. And as a result, he's wronged Jeff in a profound way. And the larger lesson? Do not assume that what you read is accurate, even if the author wins National Book Awards. Most narratives have a counter-narrative.