Yesterday was the 28th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death. The anniversary brought up strong and conflicting emotions in me. Ever since I read Somebody to Love, I’ve tried to avoid thinking about Queen, Freddie Mercury, or the HIV/AIDS epidemic–and failed, on all counts. Reading the book was such a disagreeable experience that it’s colored much of the rest of the year. It even sent me into a minor depression for about a month.
If you haven’t read Somebody to Love–spoiler alert, if you can “spoil” a nonfiction book–the book alleges that Freddie Mercury hid multiple positive HIV tests from his partner, Jim Hutton, for over a year. They did not use protection until after he told Hutton, about two years into their relationship. (Read Chapter 41 of Somebody to Love, or my review, for further details.) If true, this allegation might destroy Mercury’s reputation, but the authors never confront this evil, alleged act–knowingly or half-knowingly exposing another person, maybe multiple people, to an incurable, untreatable (at the time), generally fatal disease. (I keep saying “allegedly” because I don’t know if it’s true–and I don’t want it to be, to be honest.)
There’s a similar problem with David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest. According to Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, a biography of Wallace by D.T. Max, Wallace tried to push Mary Karr, his then-girlfriend, out of a moving car. Max mentions this without elaboration; he doesn’t contextualize this with other allegations of abuse from Karr or other partners of Wallace. Karr elaborated on some of Wallace’s other abuses, including following her five year-old son home from school, in a recent Tweet. She claimed that Max (and the New Yorker) didn’t include these issues, despite her offering letters to verify them.
Wallace also considered murdering Karr’s ex-husband. When discussing this incident in an interview, Max said that “I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality” but that “[Wallace] was also this open, emotional guy, who was able to cry, who intensely loved his dogs. He was all those things.” On the one hand, the guy loves dogs; on the other, he pushes women out of moving cars and stalks them and their kids (which no woman thinks is hot–sorry, Arthur Fleck!). You say potato, I say “I’ll fucking KILL YOU” on your voicemail. Even if you change your number. Fascinating, no?
I wonder if this is a general problem with biographical writing. I’ve never written one–and never will, God willing–but I imagine it’s hard not to develop a great deal of empathy for your subject, especially when you’re one or two years in to a multi-year project. Would you dedicate three to five years of your life to writing about H.P. Lovecraft, for example, if you were repulsed by his racist and anti-Jewish beliefs? You may love Oscar Wilde’s work, but imagine spending years on a biography, only to find that he groomed adolescent boys, some as young as fourteen? What about Eric Gill, who molested his own daughter? How, psychologically, can you deal with these extreme facts, especially when you’ve invested so much time and effort in getting to know this person? When you write a biography, you try to get to know a complex human being with many different attachments, loves, desires, and relationships. Now you have to assimilate this fact into your picture of them. Not easy to do.
This isn’t to say that you have to be a fellow traveler to write a biography of someone who did something evil, violent, or vile. You might want to shed light on a historical era, a political movement, or a school of art. You might love the art but hate the artist. But it might be something to watch out for when you’re writing about someone. Even if you like them, they might have done something awful. And someone you generally dislike, or someone who seems evil, might have also done something genuinely kind. The good doesn’t blot out the bad, or vice versa.
Feature photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.