Lillian Hellman's memoirs: "Writing is oneself"
Recknagel, Marsha Lee
Isle, Walter W.
Doctor of Philosophy
Following Lillian Hellman's death in 1984, friends and foes alike came forward to dispute the truth of Hellman's account of her life presented in her memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time and Maybe, A Story. Two camps emerged: the critics who believed there was no excuse for lying in non-fiction and those who believed that by its nature autobiography is a process by which one shapes one's life, and Hellman, they argued, only re-worked her story to a greater degree than most memoirialists. The evidence is substantial that Hellman dramatized her life, creating an image of herself by both adding and deleting important information. In 1986 William Wright published Hellman's biography in which he exposed her literary inaccuracies and documented her personal flaws in detail. There was much discrepancy revealed between the "self" Hellman had presented in the memoirs and the fiery-tempered, mean-spirited woman Wright portrayed. Yet Wright failed to draw any significant conclusions about why Hellman would have felt the need to fictionalize an already fascinating life. I focus on the psychology, on why she would have falsified and distorted her rendition of her "self." Several patterns emerge in the memoirs in the form of language, structure, and recurring themes that suggest that Hellman had severe conflicts around the developmental issues of separation and individuation. Her external self-assurance and bravado, it is argued, actually masked a weak sense of self-identity; and she used the writing of the memoirs as a means of writing through these problems, although rarely on a conscious level. During various stages of the writing process Hellman achieved certain psychological resolutions, correcting some original, unsatisfying developmental dynamics by creating characters and situations that imitated certain childhood configurations. Through the re-defining of her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, she re-defined the childhood Oedipal phase of development; and when she writes of her childhood friend Julia, making up as a best friend a woman she apparently had never met but who in fact existed, Hellman relives the pre-Oedipal stage; she writes herself into a mother-daughter configuration with Julia, differentiating from the mother when she creates and then destroys Julia. Hellman emerges from the experience more autonomous than before, having written herself into a stronger sense of self.
American literature; Biographies