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Family Histories

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Roxana Robinson

family histories

Dr. William Beecher Scoville was a distinguished neurosurgeon, head of Neurosurgery at Hartford Hospital, president and founder of several organizations, author of over 100 scientific articles, a mentor and pioneer. Despite professional recognition, he’s been mostly unknown to the public until recently, when the journalist Luke Dittrich’s new book brought him into the public view.

Actually, Scoville had already been brought to the public view, though in a less direct manner. He was the model for a character in my 2008 novel, Cost. I drew on Scoville for the portrait of Edward Lambert, the 88-year-old neurosurgeon and family patriarch. Luke and I were drawn to Scoville for different reasons, but one we shared was the fact that we had information about him that no one else could have: he was our close relative. He was Luke’s grandfather and my uncle.

All writers draw on their own experiences, and their own families, for their work. We can’t help it, no matter what we’re writing about. Our first encounters with the world came through our families, and we learned how to respond to it through the responses around us. Our experiences shape us as human beings, which comes even before our being writers. So the way we see the world is shaped in part by our family members—who may be scornful of scholarship, or sentimental about holidays, or Puritanical about emotions. Whether we’re novelists or journalists or historians, those responses play a part in our views of the world.

We go on to follow our own paths, but the family has formed us. We know those characters better than we’ll ever know any others. We draw on the things that are best-known to us, consciously or unconsciously, during the rest of our writing lives.

For most writers, if you write about your family you may be intruding on your subject’s privacy, but you won’t be infringing on another writer’s territory. And most people’s family members live in the private realm, so that writing about them discreetly—giving them different names and putting them into a novel—won’t reveal family matters to the world. 

But my family—Beechers, Scovilles, Trumbulls, Dawsons, Morgans—has members who live in both the public and private realm. This isn’t uncommon, of course, (and we have no-one really famous among us, no presidents or billionaires) but what’s uncommon is that we have so many writers. This means that we may end up writing about relatives who are public figures, which becomes complicated. 

Writing candidly about your family is difficult to begin with. How can you be objective? How should you present yourself? Whose is your voice, and what is your relationship to your subject? How can the reader trust you? Everyone knows that no-one is objective about her own family; you may be too forgiving, or too harsh.

Those are problems faced by any writer. But in our family these are multiplied by our own ubiquitousness, so that two of us may write about the same relative, creating a kind of Chinese puzzle box.

Dr. Scoville is a part of our family history, but he’s also a part of medical history, and his story is compelling and in some ways terrifying. My uncle was involved in the history of neurosurgery, and in particular the dark chapter of lobotomy. Today this is considered inhumane, but at the time it was seen as the medical vanguard. 

Luke and I were both drawn to the shocking, absorbing aspects of this piece of medical history. But we had different intentions in our writing: I was exploring the psychological consequences of my Uncle Billy’s personality, within the private context of a family; Luke was exploring the professional consequences of his career, in the public arena of medicine.

Luke’s book, Patient H.M. A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, explores this subject. He focuses on a famous experimental operation performed by Scoville on Henry Molaison, a young man with grand mal epilepsy. The operation destroyed Molaison’s ability to create short-term memory. Luke sets out in detail the scientific context of the operation, and the consequences of it, and those of my uncle and his career, in the world of medicine.

My novel, Cost, is the exploration of three generations of a family as they cope with heroin addiction and Alzheimer’s. Edward Lambert, the patriarch, is a retired neurosurgeon, and his character has played a large part in shaping his family. Edward is brilliant, egotistical and relentless—characteristics which have served him well professionally, but which may have done serious damage to his family. (Let me say at once that no-one else in Cost is based on my uncle’s family, nor is its narrative based on theirs.)

I can’t remember how I happened to let Uncle Billy audition for Edward, but once I began doing research I was hooked. I’d never about known this dark side of his story—his involvement with the horrific medical fad of lobotomies, nor of the public health crisis after the War, the recklessness of surgical experimentation, the egos involved.

All my discoveries, of course, were colored by my knowledge of the man. He was handsome, charismatic and dashing, with his thick slicked-back black hair, patrician nose, gleaming new sports cars. His white linen jackets, his elegant modern house. My mother adored him, we all did. So I began with a sympathetic bias. 

Compassion is not a bad way to understand someone, as Chekhov shows us. I needed to know how my uncle could act like this—do things so drastic, so irreversible, so apparently brutal—and still be human? Compassion was the way to understanding. 

For a novelist, what happens inside a family is the most powerful story there is: look at Tolstoy and Shakespeare and Woolf. The family is the crucible. I wanted a man whose power would be enormous (the father’s always is) and would be so intrusively commanding that it would continue to affect the family through the generations. Edward is self-centered, intelligent, brilliant and arrogant, traits which have powerful effects on his wife and his children and his grandchildren.

Edward’s egotism plays a significant part in the family dynamic, in which his daughters shift away from him, putting distance between themselves and their powerful father. The continuing tension, between love and resentment, play a large part in what happens within the family. And it doesn’t stop with one generation.

Learning about my uncle gave me access to a personality that would provide this power and charisma. I could see the man’s strengths and his vulnerabilities, and offer them to the reader.

As researchers, Luke and I were careful about facts. But as relatives, we have very different sources: our memories. And of course they diverge. 

Let’s start with my uncle’s death: he was on his way to our house when he died. He wasn’t driving in reverse on the highway, as Luke reports. He was in the middle of a complicated intersection between 202 and 287 when he realized he was about to miss a left-hand exit. He made an abrupt left turn across traffic, and his car was hit broadside by the car in the next lane. The inside door handle protruded inward just at the level of his heart. When the other car hit, the handle hit his chest with a catastrophic impact. His wife, in the passenger seat, was unhurt. In Luke’s version he’s reckless; in mine he’s merely rattled. 

You see how it works? How proprietary I’ve become? Persuading you that my story is more believable? He was coming to us for the birthday party, and my aunt spent the night with us afterwards. My mother drove over to pick her up from the hospital. Don’t you think I’m the more plausible narrator?

My memories of Uncle Billy’s first wife are very different, too, from Luke’s. He thinks she was lobotomized by my uncle. But I knew her after the divorce, in her sleek modern apartment in New York. She was elegant and self-possessed, and invited me there for tea. When I was working at Sotheby’s she came to an American Paintings sale and bought a watercolor. She was hardly incapacitated. I find Luke’s theory hard to believe: is that because I’m protective of my uncle’s memory, or is it an objective response? It’s hard to know.

Family memories will always vary, but usually they aren’t about public figures, nor are they published for the world to read. Both Luke and I did scholarly research, which means we each became, proprietary about our versions of this man. Scholars and biographers will always feel proprietary over their subjects—but usually it’s not because they share the subject’s DNA. This is an unanswerable, though not necessarily impeccable, kind of credential.

I have to say that I’m no more reliable than Luke on this. My version of the accident could be wrong, misremembered or misreported. It’s just a family story. 

My uncle was part of a dark and underexamined part of medical history. We in the family need to know this and come to peace with it, just as we all do about people whose stories we’ve heard. Whom do we choose to judge? Whom do we forgive? You the readers will make your own decisions about whom to judge, and about which stories ring true.

But this is where stories come from: our experience in the world. In the end, all stories are family stories. It’s just that most of the subjects aren’t related to you. 

About the Author

Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson’s most recent novel is the widely praised Sparta, about the difficulty of going from peace to war. Robinson’s other award-winning novels include Cost, Sweetwater, This Is My Daughter, and Summer Light; three collections of short stories: A Perfect Stranger, Asking for Love, and A Glimpse of Scarlet; and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Four of these were chosen as New York Times Notable Books, two more as New York Times Editors’ Choices. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Daedalus, One Story, The American Scholar, PEN Journal, Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. Her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.