One story begets another: personal narratives by a father and daughter

untitledI have been preparing a presentation for an upcoming conference on the medical humanities essay A Patient Examines his Doctor by literary critic and writer Anatole Broyard.

While working on my dissertation a few years ago, Broyard’s writings on illness were on my radar but I had not delved into his essays. I was inspired to re-visit his collection of essays, Intoxicated by my Illness, after listening to a talk by a physician about the lessons she learned from Broyard’s reflections on his relationship with his physician. Having now read the essays several times, I am beginning to see Broyard’s work as a literary guide on compassionate care. In mining his experiences in the “foreign country of illness” – in particular, his feelings of  isolation and alienation — Broyard examines “what sort of doctor he wants to have, and to talk to, and be with.”

With Broyard’s ideas in my mind, I happened across a very different but equally compelling story. It is the backstory of Broyard’s own life — a complex legacy of race, identity and family secrets. While well-known as a writer and literary critic during his lifetime, Broyard became a subject of controversy after his death when it became public that he was of Creole ancestry and had concealed his racial identity to everyone except his wife and a few close friends. His story was explored by Black theorist Henry Louis Gates Jr. in an article for The New Yorker in 1996 entitled, The Passing of Anatole Broyard and the controversy reached across the border into Canada through an article by Robert Fulford in the Globe and Mail.

Demonstrating the veracity of Arthur Frank’s contention that stories beget more stories, an intergenerational narrative of race and identify was born when, several years after his death, Broyard’s daughter wrote her own memoir, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets. In this book, Bliss Broyard struggles to make sense of her father’s decision to keep his background an “open secret” and explores the conflicting emotions and troubled losses he left behind.

While she is not able to completely reconcile her father’s actions, she comes to appreciate his decision within the context of prevailing cultural narratives of race and ethnicity that shaped her father’s life and might have led to such a decision. Responding to the question of what this newfound ancestry means to her, she challenges our assumptions about identity saying, “I may never be able to answer the question What am I? Yet the fault lies not in me but with the question itself.” (For more insights read her New York Times interview.)

In resisting the rigidity of identity categories, personal narrative allows us to explore the intricacies of personal history, family dynamics and identity. Whether it is using one’s story to map the unfamiliar and frightening terrain of serious illness or as a vehicle to explore the troubled legacy of race, inequality and loss, memoirs do not lend themselves to easy endings and simplistic analyses. This makes memoir an invaluable resource for thinking about identity — and for constructing personal stories that are generative for ourselves and others.

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