Noah Brand talks about the curious perspective of reading about himself in his stepfather’s memoirs.
As a kid, I used to close one eye and look at the sight of my nose on one side of my vision. It boggled my tiny mind to think of how everything I’d ever see in my life, I’d see past that same nose. Everything I’ve ever looked at has had that nose in peripheral vision.
It’s how we form the stories of our own lives, trapped inescapably in our own perspectives. The edge of our vision is always bound by our nose. Even when other people tell you about yourself, give their perspective on your story, it’s still the version they choose to communicate to you; it’s still about you on a certain level.
Thus, it’s been an interesting experience for me to read Belonging, a memoir by my stepfather, Robert Fuller. It’s a short, very readable account of his journey through several careers and lifestyles, including college president and citizen diplomat, on his way to his current role as an author focusing on issues of dignity. Seeing myself in the background of many of these stories is a perspective I’ve never seen before.
Seeing yourself as part of someone else’s story is different from having it be about you. It’s probably a useful tonic for my ego, honestly. Versions of the story that I approved might have omitted the fact that I evidently needed a diaper change right before a major speech in Moscow, which threatened to disrupt the event. But for every awkward cutting-room-floor moment like that, there’s something like this:
Indeed, wherever we went, Noah’s presence had helped break the ice. “Citizen diplomats”—for that is what we began calling ourselves as our numbers mushroomed during the 1980s—make greater inroads if they leave their attaché cases at home and take their kids. Everyone we met on the train wanted to gush over Noah and, to his annoyance, run their fingers through his strawberry blond hair.
Again, in a version of the story intended for my ears, this might come off as flattery, a parent emphasizing to his son what an adorable baby I was. (For reference, I’m the little moppet peering out the train window there, and my mother Alia is the lady in the front.) In a story for others, though, in which I’m merely a minor player, the perspective lends greater sincerity.
Most of all, reading the entire book lent me a sense of context, of seeing myself existing in a continuum of experience that predates me and will continue after me. It helped me see how I interact with others and how I exist in their lives.
It’s a common truism that we’re all the heroes of our own stories, but it’s valuable to understand how one is a supporting character in other people’s stories. Reading about myself in someone else’s memoir helped clarify that distinction for me in a way I rarely feel. It’s an experience I recommend.