Some time back I wrote about a documentary I wanted to see called “Stories We Tell.” It was made by a young woman named Sarah Polley and it is autobiographical. I’ve now had a chance to see it and it made me think.
Polly is the youngest of five siblings. (I use this term loosely as you will see.). Her mother, apparently a quite dynamic figure, died some years ago, For many years there was a family joke that her mother’s husband–the man who Sarah Polley referred to as her father–was not in fact genetically related to her. For whatever reasons, Polly decided to investigate. The film is not so much the story of her investigation as it is the story of what all the players involved make of it all.
Actually, it isn’t really what all the players make of it. The one viewpoint most obviously missing is that of the filmmaker. For while she is very frequently present and even writes scripts for some of the characters, she hardly says a word about what she thinks.
In any event, the movie is not designed as a suspenseful is she/isn’t she sort of story so I don’t know that I need to give a spoiler alert. Polley is indeed genetically unrelated to the man she calls her father. Her mother had an affair during the marriage and became pregnant. (Because she was also engaging in sex with her husband it was possible that Polley was genetically related to him and he certainly believed this to be the case.). Thus, the family joke turned out, to everyone’s surprise, to be true and not a joke at all.
Among other things this means that two of her siblings are actually half-siblings. (The other two were always known to be half-siblings as they were from her mother’s earlier marriage.). But this actually seems of no consequence to anyone. It also turns out that Polley has another half-sibling–an offspring of the man who is her genetic father. That does turn out to be important as it establishes a bond between the two women.
But two things were most striking to me. First, the discovery of the truth does not seem to really disrupt the family. Indeed, the husband seems extraordinarily accepting of the story. He clearly loves his daughter (and I call her that because in the context of the movie it seems clear to me that she is his daughter) just a he did before. His primary response to the man who had an affair with his wife is pity–because he never knew the joy of the child he had helped to create. Though Polley meets this man and establishes some sort of relationship with him, it is nothing like father/daughter. And so Polley’s father is perhaps correct.
Now I know many of my readers would take this view–that the loser here is the genetic father. But I think we also typically expect that the deceived husband will hardly feel lucky. And yet he does. And perhaps this should give us pause, too.
The second striking thing is why the woman–who might well have suspected the child’s actual parentage–chose to stay with her husband. The answer, it seems, is the other children. Had she instead chosen to identify her lover and recognize his parentage, it would have created yet one more fracture in the family. And it is not hard to see that she might judge the better course to present the child as the child of her husband and raise her within the unitary family. Which is what she did.
Of course this is only one story and there may be nothing typical about it. But in fact, I am not sure we know what the typical story would like. Maybe all we get are atypical stories. In any event, at the end of the day it seems clear that in all meaningful ways the husband here is Polley’s father. Maybe this just reminds me again that the questions afterwards are different than the questions before. This is an “after” story. Choices were made and lives were lived. We can learn the truth looking back, but we cannot change the past. And so we (society? The law?) must grapple with things as they have come to be.
I’m off to pack for some holiday travel. You may not hear much from me until after the new year. All the best of the season to all of you. I await the return of light!