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All's Well that Ends Well, and Other Pitfalls of How We Talk About the Past
Victoria and I recently moved to a larger apartment; last night was the first night the children spent with us in our new place. Heloise and David have brand-new beds and bedding, and they each have new squishmallows for comfort and company. (If you don’t know what those are, you don’t have children or young teens in your life. Google as needed.)
This morning, my son raved about the quality of his sleep in the new bed. As we walked to the car minutes later, my ten-year-old declared, “Sometimes, I’m glad you and Mom got divorced. I love Victoria, and I know I wouldn’t have her if you and mom were still married.” I told David it was a very sweet thing to say and reminded him that it was still okay to be sad that his parents aren’t married anymore. “I know,” he said brightly. “I can think more than one way about something.”
I’m proud of him for that.
All’s well that ends well. It’s not just a Shakespeare play, it’s a standard way of reinterpreting our past in the light of the present. It presents a tricky lesson my children are just starting with which to wrestle. If there is something good in your life that you love, then there must have been something good about the circumstances that led to the arrival of this thing you love. Put another way, if the outcome is good, why quibble with the process?
If only it were that easy! As a dad with an extremely colorful (and easily accessible) history, and as a ghostwriter who helps people reckon with their own pasts, I am keenly aware that the joy of Now does not cancel out the pain of Yesterday. More to the point, I know it’s dangerous and cruel to insist that to properly celebrate the joy of Now, it is required to minimize the unhappiness and hardship of Yesterday.
My son is getting his first taste of “both/and” thinking. He realizes he can be sad his parents divorced -- and love his stepmother. David can wish his parents were still married without betraying his stepmom, and he can rejoice in his time with his stepmom without feeling as if he is betraying his mother. He says, “I can think more than one way about something,” and he deserves encouragement in embracing that dualism. Sooner or later, he will have friends who were forced to choose as David wasn’t; he will meet people scarred by cruel familial dichotomies, raised with the tenacious lie that to love one person is to betray another.
And yet. Suppose I were to say, Bunnies, I think it worked out rather well that I cheated on your mother with my students. It was rough at the time but look at the lives we have now! Look, your mother has forgiven me! Look: Victoria and your mom are genuine friends! We vacation together and laugh together. How could you possibly wish for anything to have been other than what it was? Is this not the best of all possible worlds?
I assume you’d regard that as a pretty dreadful thing to say to one’s children. It would be wrong to say it, both because it would be a manipulative way of trying to talk them out of their pain and anger-- and because it would advance the absurd and offensive argument that infidelity and dishonesty are only bad if nothing pleasant ever happens in the family again.
To say that the sins of the past are washed clean by subsequent happiness is to weaponize human resilience as a justification for profound selfishness. It is nonetheless a remarkably common thing for both nation-states and individuals to do. As a ghostwriter, when I see that justification slipping through a client’s story, I call it out. Better your hired writer tell you that rationalization won’t fly before the public gets a chance to mock you for a transparently self-serving defense. My own life is apparently not going into a memoir, but my past does inform how I work with clients. Happy outcomes do not justify dishonest or selfish processes, and one can express one’s tremendous gratitude for the present without excusing the past.
My friends and clients from explicitly Christian backgrounds, on the other hand, need gentle encouragement not to interpret their stories through a bog-standard “once was lost, now am found/was blind, but now I see” lens. To own one’s mistakes as the workings of sin while celebrating one’s present as a result of God’s amazing grace aligns your life with the great hymns, but it tends to slight the kindness and generosity of all those human beings who forgave and assisted you. It is wonderful to give Jesus the credit for your most surprising and undeserved redemption but do save some praise and gratitude for your incredibly patient ex-wives.
The logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc is another other pitfall for memoirists, ghostwriters, and for that matter, anyone coming to terms with a complicated past. Loosely translated, it means “After this, therefore, because of this.” Sometimes, people deploy the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy in the ways I suggest above – to justify the bads of the past by the goods of the present. Other times, they use it to suggest that experience is an endlessly beneficial teacher.
Here’s an excerpt from a Facebook Messenger conversation I had with a former student a couple of years ago.
Mentee, a then-27-year-old-woman, messages me: "I'm going through a Hugo phase."
Me: "You're hooked on Diet Coke? You're chewing #2 pencils?"
Mentee: "Lol. I'm chewing many, many cute boys right now. I'm probably drinking too much too."
Me: "That sounds not unfamiliar."
Mentee: "I figure all of it ends well, though. I mean, you are who you are because of everything you did. If you hadn't made all those mistakes, you wouldn't be as wise and cool as you are, right?"
Me: "You are an outrageous flatterer. I love it. But seriously, maybe whatever wisdom I have is IN SPITE OF all the shit I did rather than BECAUSE OF it."
Mentee: "You said that before. But how else do you learn about life except by experiencing it?"
Me: "I don't know that you do. But did I really need four divorces to figure out a truth about relationships? Did I really need to go to rehab that many times to figure out I can't drink? Did I need to sleep with that many people to figure out that I probably am happiest in a monogamous relationship?"
Mentee: "Well, obviously! You did need it!"
Me: "You think we do everything in order to learn something?"
Mentee: "Yes, yes, yes! I have a theory."
Me: "Hit me."
Mentee: "My mom and my dad have been married 30 years, they love each other, and I know my mom was a virgin when she married him. So, she knew what she needed to know about love without needing to experience other men. So, my mom is one type of person. Other people, like my sister, have one or two wild experiences, something fucked up happens, and THEN they figure out what they want. They are quick learners. Then there's you and me, prof. We have to do everything over and over again. We want a certainty that only comes from repetition."
Me: "I admit I like that last phrase."
Mentee: "Of course you do. I got it from you!"
I don’t remember the context in which I told my students that a particular kind of “certainty comes only from repetition,” but it sounds like the sort of thing I spouted too easily and too often when I was a prancing, preening professor of history and gender studies.
I was troubled by that exchange with my mentee. I meant what I told her: whatever wisdom I possess is as much despite my mistakes as because of them. I also was troubled because it was clear she wouldn’t believe it. We are told that actions speak louder than words. It was clear to this young woman that I had survived some very foolish actions with both my health and my relationships with loved ones more or less intact. If I said, “Joanna, I recommend you do as I say and not as I did” she would call me out as a hypocrite. I wish, in retrospect, that I had been a little less afraid of being called a hypocrite and a little more afraid of what a young person I cared about might do using my past as justification.
I believe in the power of storytelling. I’m trying to make my living helping other people tell their stories. For a while, including on this Substack, I made a little bit of money telling stories about my own past. The stories that were most explicit tended to get the highest numbers of views, and that encouraged me to write more, mining my memories for the outrageous, the titillating, and sometimes, the wince-inducing. I stopped when I realized that besides getting attention, there was insufficient upside for me and my family in what I was writing. Sharing salacious stories came at a cost to my loved ones, a cost that might not be fully realized until my children are old enough to dig through the archives and read every anecdote. I have decided that I can find words to explain my life to them without painting quite such vivid pictures. To paraphrase an old Yeats poem, oversharing is “the day’s vanity;” having your children read the overshare will surely lead to “the night’s remorse.”
The thing about telling the stories of our past is that, as with any creative work, the moment we share our stories they cease to be entirely ours. People will read into our words what they will, misunderstanding our intent as surely as we misunderstand song lyrics on the radio. I may think I’m saying, “I’m bloody lucky to have landed on my feet after all this, so please don’t make my mistakes” – and the reader may very well decide I’ve said, “It was a fun ride, and if you don’t mind the heartache, why not try the same?” The very act of surviving to tell a story means that something ended up well, otherwise you wouldn’t be around to tell it at all. I’ve drawn that conclusion from plenty of autobiographies, whether the author intended it or not.
The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy is built into the structure of both how we tell and how we interpret memoir. Deconstructing that fallacy is essential to honest writing. It is also, as it happens, essential to loving parenting.