As you all probably know already I’m a big fan of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She does the most remarkably insightful interviews and the movie and book reviews are also really good. It’s one of the ways I keep up with the world.
Anyway, last week (this is unusually timely for me) she interviewed a young woman named Sarah Polley. Polley is an actress and filmmaker and her most recent work is a documentary called “Stories We Tell.” (It actually just played at the Seattle International Film Festival, but I’m sorry to say I missed it.) It’s an exploration of Polley’s own family history. In the course of it she interviewed her siblings and her father (a Canadian actor named Michael Polley), among others, at length. (Her mother died when she was 11, which is obviously long before the movie was made.) What she focused on was a running joke/rumor in her family that Michael Polley was not her genetic father. (There’s press coverage of the film in many other places on the web, should you want to read more.)
Except it turns out not to be a joke or a rumor at all. In fact, Sarah Polley’s genetic father is another man (also interviewed in the film) with whom her mother had an affair. And though it sounds like it was a common conversation within the family (not the affair, but the question of genetic fatherhood), no one–including Michael Polley–really knew until this film was being made. Indeed, Sarah tells Michael Polley that he is not her genetic father in the course of the documentary. The film explores the various reactions of the people involved.
I don’t mean to suggest that this film is some definitive word on the relative importance of the genetic relationship vs. the social one. It’s a personal story. For some reason there have been a lot of personal stories on the blog recently, about all manner of topics and I always find myself thinking the same things. On the one hand, they are concrete instances of whatever it is that is being recounted. It’s always important to pay attention to the real experiences people recount. But on the other hand, they are necessarily anecdotal and individual. You cannot be confident that any of them are representative. You cannot assume that other people will have the same experiences. Thus, I think you have to approach personal stories willing to learn but with a grain of salt.
So all that said, Polley’s story is fascinating. (This might be a place I should add a spoiler alert, I guess, because I’m about to talk about the reactions.) You’d expect (or at least, I expected) that this kind of revelation would rock the whole family–and particularly Michael Polley. After all, this a family built around a false assumption (I’m close to saying “a lie,” but maybe that’s a bit too far.) Surely the wife/mother deceived everyone by presenting the child of an affair as the child of the husband?
I’ve written here in many contexts about how important honesty is–and about the problems engendered by the failure to be honest. The classic version of this story I carry around in my head is one where the revelation (27 years late) is damaging for most of those concerned.
But that is not this story. In this story the revelations are not shattering. They are revealing, of course, but what they reveal is a generosity of spirit that is quite amazing. I wonder, though, if it is also extraordinary.
In any event, I am left thinking this is a counter-story–one that contradicts my standard narrative. And it does make me think. The mother here (the one person whose account we cannot have as she is long dead) chose a course I’d ordinarily condemn. She hid the truth. But it seems, according to the people closest to her, to the ones with the most at stake, that this was not a bad thing–not the wrong thing to do.
Of course, she wasn’t prescient. She couldn’t foresee the future. She didn’t know how or when the truth might come out. And there are many ways that this story could have ended badly. But in fact, it didn’t end badly. Maybe, given all the circumstances as she knew them at the time, she made the best choice. That’s rather a startling thought for me.
I’d really like to see the movie. And if anyone else does, I’d love to know what you think. But in the meantime, the interview has given me reason to revisit some truths I hold fairly dear.