“Is This How it Really Was?”: Exploring Lives Through Private and Public Writing

Four years ago, quite against my better judgement, I began research on the life of American evangelical icon Elisabeth Elliot. I had a special needs son, a baby daughter, and a husband who was embarking on a rigorous professional program. I was two moves into a schedule of moving every six months to two years for the foreseeable future. But Elliot, whom I had briefly researched for another project, wouldn’t go away. I woke up at night thinking about her. I wanted to know more, and there was nowhere to go but source material.

When she died in June, 2015, Elliot left 25 published books, countless magazine articles and speeches, 20 years of bi-monthly newsletters, 13 years of radio programs, and a lifetime of journals and correspondence. Her body of work holds particular interest for life writing because of the tension it reveals between public and private writing. As a very private person who spent most of her life under the public gaze, Elliot inhabited this tension from childhood.

Perhaps in part because she was a “reticent” child with few friends, Elliot was a journal-keeper from an early age. She was also an early public writer: contributions to the family newspaper were not optional. When she went to boarding school at 14, a thousand miles from home, Elliot tried to write home twice a week—one letter to “the family”, and one post-card to her mother. The family letter was forwarded to other absent siblings so that everyone was kept informed. Despite what seems now like a virtual flood of communication, at one point her older brother gently scolded Elliot for not sharing enough with their mother. “I know that’s what she yearns for—that we children tell her everything. . . . this is one practical way in which you can show your love to her. So do tell her all.”[i]

Letter writing, with its blurring of public/private, was a constant throughout Elliot’s life. She continued writing her mother—sometimes marked PRIVATE for good measure—and “the family” as her siblings scattered across the globe. She sent expurgated versions of these letters to extended family, and public letters to financial supporters. As her audience grew, she received increasing quantities of fan mail, and spent a substantial portion of each workday writing back. Alongside it all, she wrote in her journal.

Reading the journals and correspondence reveals subtle differences in the way Elliot recorded events for personal use or public consumption. As the telling becomes more public, it becomes more controlled. It’s easy to think of apparent discrepancies between private and public tellings as “true” or “false,” but that understanding rests in part on a misconception of the act of writing. Writing assigns meaning and imposes narrative in order to exist. And there are conflicting goals on each side of the reader/writer exchange. The reader hopes for an authentic connection with the writer; the writer experiences the added necessity of maintaining a private self. For Elliot, the decision to filter what came to the public gaze, even when that public was her family, was quite conscious. “[T]he things that we feel most deeply,” she wrote, “we ought to learn to be silent about. . . .”[ii]

A biographer herself, Elliot wrote about the friction between what the public wanted and the private realities of the self from the other side of the exchange. She deplored the tendency to include only the facts which fit a preconception. When she wrote her late husband’s biography—drawing heavily on excerpts from his own letters and journals—she declined to leave out the “warts,” despite his public status as a modern-day martyr: “I have not ‘delicately censored’ anything at all which I felt would contribute to the faithful portrayal of the whole man as I knew him.”[iii] Since the journals included not only stirring spiritual meditations but fairly explicit accounts of struggle with sexual desire, this must have shocked the more traditionalist members of her audience. Of the research and writing process she wrote, “Again and again I found myself tempted to ask what my readers would want this man to be, or what I wanted him to be, or what he himself thought he was—and I had to ignore all such questions in favor of the one relevant consideration: Is this true? Is this how it really was? And of course this is the question that any writer, of any kind of literature, has to be asking all the time.”[iv]

During her lifetime, Elliot resisted attempts to biographize her—an understandable response to the tension between working in a medium which is largely (and increasingly) public, and the natural desire to control access to oneself as an act of sheer self-preservation. She pointed would-be biographers back to her heavily autobiographical work. It can be tempting, for writers and readers, to treat autobiographical writing as the most authentic way of accessing a life. Private writing in particular offers the promise of showing the subject unfiltered, “as s/he really is.” But as I sift through the material in Elliot’s own corpus and interviews with those who knew her, I am struck by how necessary it is to see her through others’ eyes as well as her own. In the end, even the authoritative myself of private writing is incomplete. I can never know myself as I am experienced by others—by my parents, who have known me longer than I have; my siblings, who know best what it was like growing up in our family; my husband, who has lived longest with adult me; my children, who see me when no one’s looking; my friends, who know me through their own lives. But each of those selves is true, just as my private self is true. I think that is why we read, and write, biography—holding up mirrors again and again from different angles, resisting preconceptions, hoping to see, finally, “how it really was.”

Lucy S. R. Austen is a writer, editor, and author from Washington State, USA. A graduate of the University of Washington, she has worked as editor of Spring Hill Review, a journal of Northwest culture. She is currently at work on a biography of Elisabeth Elliot. She tweets at @LucySRAusten.

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc (CC0 1.0)

[i] Phillip Gillingham Howard to Elisabeth Howard, Papers of Elisabeth Elliot, Collection 278, Box 3, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton University.

[ii] Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1984) page 60.

[iii] Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) page 12.

[iv] Elisabeth Elliot, Who Shall Ascend (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) page xii.

 

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