Death, writing and the unknowable
Thoughts arising from the deaths of three people, including a Friend
Many people die every day: it’s a feature, not a bug, of human existence. When a person dies… well, there are many different arguments about what happens after that but there’s no easy way to talk to the dead (many would argue that it’s impossible to converse with the deceased) and so when a person is no longer alive all you have are memories and artifacts from their living years.
Three recent deaths have struck a chord with me:
an uncle who passed away after struggling with COPD for several years
a friend of the family who was diagnosed with dementia, declined rapidly over the course of a year, and died a few days ago
the death of actor Matthew Perry, best known for playing the role of Chandler Bing on Friends, whose cause of death is not 100% confirmed but who had a history of alcohol and drug addiction. Perry was about three months younger than me: when a member of my generation passes away I tend to notice.
This is a small sample of the people who have died in 2023 (that number will be in the millions by December 31) but they are tangible examples that I can relate to.
The first two men were not writers (to my knowledge) and so they will live on in the artifacts of their lives (i.e. their possessions) and the memories of the people who knew and loved them - probably hundreds if not thousands of people. I firmly believe that these were authentic men who were themselves, day in and day out.
In the case of Matthew Perry, he lives on in hundreds of hours of television and movie programs, plus interviews and articles, plus his recent autobiography, in addition to the other means of remembrance that I’ve mentioned above.
Asproves over and over again each week at Noted, you can learn a lot from the notes and journals that people leave behind. You can draw conclusions from how people work and you learn different things from their personal thoughts recorded in their journals. In my case, you’d probably read about the minutiae of my life, like what I ate for supper, how I felt about work on a particular day, and so on. Our emails, letters, blog posts, essays and online comments divulge small pieces of ourselves, the ones that we are comfortable sharing.
In the case of Matthew Perry he went the extra step of writing an autobiography (disclaimer: I haven’t read it but I’ve read about it) that provided a window into his thoughts and feelings at different points of life. We can read in amazement (and disbelief) about the internal struggles he fought during most of the filming of Friends, battling both alcohol and drug addictions which were not apparent to those of us who watched the TV series. He (or Chandler) seemed to have everything together, except for the character’s foibles which were designed to show how maladjusted Chandler could be. But other than the occasional weight loss and weight gain, Perry seemed to have himself under control.
And yet… did we get everything in his writing? Was the Matthew Perry of the autobiography any more real or accurate than his portrayal of Chandler Bing? What details did he leave out? What details did he exaggerate or change in service of the story he was trying to tell in his memoir? To be fair, we really don’t know but we generally assume that a person’s autobiography contains their honest recollections of their life.
I’m not writing this to debate the merits of this actor as a person: he was incredibly talented, IMHO, and struggled with tremendous medical challenges. His work is his work. But this timely example strikes me as a reminder that the persona we show to the world does not always reflect our inner selves. Our writings are a supplement to the actions we perform to the rest of the world. For the long deceased, writings are often all we have since we can’t interrogate them in person. We just need to remember that the words on the page passed through internal (and possibly external) editors and the writer might have anticipated that other people wrote them.
Are journals and other personal writings a worthwhile way to learn more about a person? Absolutely. So is having a deep and honest conversation with them or seeing how they react to the events in their lives. When we don’t have the personal experience words will have to do. But in all cases, it helps to remember that we often try to play a character that we want the world to know without showing the actor behind the role.
R.I.P. to the three men I’ve written about in this essay, I hope that the balance of your lives was ultimately positive.
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