“As a writer, nowadays, you owe it to your readers to set yourself the most difficult challenge that you have some hope of being equal to. With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that the next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have to dig even deeper and reach even farther or else, again, it won’t be worth writing. And what this means, in practice is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself. Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life. Which is to say: your autobiography.” – Jonathan Franzen, On Autobiographical Fiction
When I was a kid I used to lie to people. I would pretend that I had parents, that they were away, that they were busy professionals. I think part of it was denial, but a large part of it was trust. I wouldn’t tell friends or teachers about this until I knew I could trust them.
This was actually a lot of fun. When you’re a kid it’s fun to have secrets, especially one as big as this. But it could be heavy too, of course. I think when you survive this kind of stuff at such an age, it kind of eclipses your sense of self. I’m not an expert but I think this is a kind of “survivor’s guilt.” I had moments where I felt like I would spend most of my life living the shadow of what had happened when I was six.
Permit me to spend this blog post writing a bit about myself. Not necessarily just myself, but I want to take some space to write a little bit about how the process of making this personal doc has affected me these last few years. So I guess I’m actually going to write about myself-making-the-doc, to keep it at least somewhat related to the goal of this blog.
I started shooting this project when I was 22, fresh out of my internship at Kartemquin Films. Looking back I had little idea what I was doing. I had a vague sense of needing to capture this story, but no real clear plans that it was going to be a documentary, much less the project that Unbroken Glass is now. I was motivated by a tremendous curiosity. A tremendous desire to know more than the scant, fading details I had about my parents lives.
It was going to be a project that I’d maybe only show my siblings. Maybe if they or I had kids, one day I could show them this to satisfy that natural curiosity of wanting to know where you really come from, wanting to know the story of you up to this very moment, stretched back as far as can be remembered. So that was the value that this could have.
As I grew up, I got more comfortable lying about it. When you’re younger, parents play such a huge role in how you relate to other kids. “What do your parents do?” More opportunities to lie. I experimented with telling the truth. Once in college I told a very middle-class girl the truth almost the moment I met her. She didn’t believe me, she thought I was joking. I think it was because I had cultivated a pretty jokey persona in general, (which I think I still have to this day), and hearing such an intense story, especially so soon after meeting someone, didn’t seem to fit in with her conception of me, or her conception of the kind of kids she was going to meet in college.
So even at age 22, I was pretty uncomfortable with the truth. I think at some point I decided that I would no longer lie. When asked, I would tell people about it, but it’s a weird thing to volunteer.
After several years where I would interview people in spurts and then subsequently sit on the footage, I started thinking about putting this together. Since I had started shooting I probably always suspected that there might be value in making this a documentary for beyond just my family. At some point the story was bigger than just my family. I thought, (and still think), that there are people out there who have probably been touched by the same demons: death, suicide, mental illness, silence. Maybe there would be some virtue in telling this story publicly.
One of the difficulties was realizing how much of my identity and my self was wrapped up in this story. Being an orphan and surviving the trauma of losing my parents was a huge part of whom I was. Telling it publicly was giving it away. In some way giving myself away. What was left of me after these secrets?
And I couldn’t lie to people anymore.
There was a period right after I decided to make this a real honest to goodness documentary until recently where a big part of my identity was the struggle to make the film. I think a lot of first-time filmmakers probably go through something like this, a feeling that you’re laboring in solitude on a project that other people, (funders especially) don’t seem to really appreciate. Stasis. Looking back I realize that I was kind of stuck. The project actually wasn’t moving forward, I was sitting on a lot of footage, getting a lot of grant rejections and generally feeling kind of paranoid and isolated and angry. Everyone tells you to not take it personally, but every grant rejection felt like a rejection of me and my parents story.
That was kind of who I was. I might not have been able to be secretive and special about being an orphan anymore, but I could wear these things as some kind of badge.
There’s a lot of footage from this period where I complain a lot about how I don’t actually want to do this anymore. I complain about how I just want to quit and go back and live my life the way I used to. I was functional. I had freedom.
In the last year, through persistence, but mostly through great collaborators, the project has moved forward. I brought on board a co-producer who turned out to be one-in-a-million, Patrick Lile. I’ve been working with my good friend and collaborator Matt Lauterbach going through the footage and actually making the film. Recently we had a fundraiser where we showed some work in progress. People came! It was exciting. People actually seem to want to hear this story, an exhilarating feeling for any first-time filmmaker.
And that brings me to part of what I’m going through these last couple of weeks or months. After 22 years of living with this, and years making it into the movie, it finally feels like it’s moving forward. We can see the end. The film is going to get made and we’re all going to move on. That’s not to say it’s not going to be challenging or feel impossible again, but it’s a new stage where I’m able to consider not only the film being finished, but what life after this film might be like.
And that’s where the Franzen quote comes in. There was and is a real moment of worry that after I make this film, what of myself will be left? What more can I hope to do, now that this story, so essential to my identity is given to the public?
That’s what I find so enriching about Franzen’s thought, there is always more self to discover. As a filmmaker and an artist, there’s a need to continually reinvent and explore yourself through the work you make, not just a personal doc, but really any doc or serious pursuit. In fact, maybe as Franzen suggests, that’s what makes it a worthy project, one that challenges and expands your very notions of self.
I’m still not sure what exactly is going to happen when the doc is made. Part of me is full of trepidation when I think about this film reaching an audience. That story that I used to carefully guard and only tell a handful of people that I trusted will be given to the public. People will make their own sense of it, draw their own conclusions about my parents and me. And I won’t be able to stop them.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next, the projects I used to fantasize about when I was mired in stasis with this one. It’s exciting to consider the stories that have yet to be told, the adventures that have yet to be had. Sometimes when I show clips of this film people ask if the process has been cathartic. I’m not sure if it was making the film or simply growing up, but I can say that I’m in a better, different place now then when I was when I began this project. And once the project is over, I’m looking forward to doing what Franzen exhorts: to dig deeper, reach even farther, all while working on the story of my own life.