• Extractor of Secrets, Discloser of Secrets: On the Complex Role of the Biographer

    Debra Dean Considers the Therapeutic Effects of Telling Our Stories

    A mutual friend had suggested that my next book should tell the story of the mid-century Flemish American artist Jan Yoors and the two childhood friends who agreed to share him in a polygamous union. I had come to Greenwich Village to meet the surviving widow, Marianne, to see if our friend was right.

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    The door was two steps down from the sidewalk and marked by a buzzer labeled Yoors Studio. I rang and a voice answered, surprised, a little wary, as though we hadn’t had this appointment for weeks. A moment later, Marianne opened the door. A sturdy woman of eighty-four years, she was dressed in a long skirt, wool socks, and a paisley shawl, with her silver hair pulled back into a neat bun. In a chirping Dutch accent, she welcomed me inside.

    I did not expect to see you, she said, as she led me down the dim hallway. Another snowstorm had rolled into New York, and the mutual friend who was to introduce us was stuck uptown. She confessed almost immediately that she had hardly slept the night before, she was so knotted with anxiety.

    We passed through a heavy door with iron hinges and into the atelier. Huge snowflakes drifted down onto the sloped skylight, and soft light filtered through a wall of windows made private by a bamboo thicket. Sheltered from the weather, birds twittered and hopped near the glass. Inside, the room was tranquil, green with ferns and fig trees and dominated by her late husband’s art. Larger-than-life nude sculptures reclined about the room. High on the walls hung enormous, jewel-colored tapestries, bold as Matisse cutouts. I had the sensation of having crossed over a threshold and into another time.

    I was only the most recent in a long line of people—artists like Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, diplomats from the United Nations, socialites and filmmakers— who had found their way to the Yoors’s studio. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, guests lounged on pillows on the floor and sipped Turkish coffee, listening, rapt, as Yoors seduced them with accounts of his travels with the Roma and his wartime exploits in the Resistance.

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    However, hidden in plain sight as he spoke, was another story, one more complicated and private. While he talked, Annabert and Marianne sat side by side in front of an enormous sixteen-foot loom, quietly weaving into form the magnificent tapestries Yoors had designed. With their long braids and demure ankle-length skirts, they looked enough alike to pass for sisters, so when an explanation was necessary that is how they were introduced. Yoors reasoned it was nobody’s business but their own, so the two women kept silent. But for as long as she lived, Annabert saved and chronicled everything—thirty years of diaries, newspaper clippings, and photos—in the belief that someday the rest of their story would be told. Now, Marianne was honoring the wish of her best friend.

    As we looked through photo albums and Marianne talked, the day slid into evening like honey, the snowy night sky a luminescent oyster shell. I had a childlike urge to curl up under the stairs and stay there.

    Unlike a therapist, I had made no pledge to keep what she was telling me in confidence; on the contrary, my intent was to publish these disclosures.

    Over the next year, I returned to New York periodically, and we would spend six or seven hours a day with the tape recorder running. Marianne was eager to talk and untiring. She easily repeated Jan’s stories and once we had exhausted those, I asked questions that took her off script and into the territory of events and feelings she had referred to only glancingly or in some cases had never spoken of before.

    She recounted the deaths of her sister and mother when she was a child. She recalled watching hundreds of paratroopers landing on the beach behind her house when Germany attacked Holland in 1940. She described coming home from school one day and being taken by the housekeeper to a stranger’s house where, inexplicably, her bedroom furniture had been moved, and her slow, stunned realization that her father was Jewish and had gone into hiding. She described the war years, being passed from one caretaker to the next, and the terrible nervousness she had developed. Details emerged that had lain dormant for more than seventy years.

    At the end of one visit, she tried to persuade me I should stay longer. My husband, I said, was just fine on his own for four days, but beyond that he wasn’t a happy camper.

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    “You need a second wife,” she pronounced, in the same matter of fact tone one might advise getting to bed earlier or taking vitamin supplements. And here’s a measure of how far I had entered into her world: it sounded reasonable, at least worth considering.

    It took me a while to recognize the mutual obsession that was developing between us. When I was back home in Miami, we would Skype a few afternoons a week. Other days, I researched, read, and transcribed our interviews. At night, I dreamt of the Yoors family. With my friends, I turned every conversation to another anecdote about the three of them. Current events continually reminded me of the history they had lived through.

    And on Marianne’s side, telling her story had become a form of therapy.

    After the war, she had reunited in England with her best friend, Annabert, who was newly married to an artist. Annabert asked her to model for her husband. Initially, Marianne was reluctant, and when she finally agreed she kept a bed sheet firmly clutched around her naked body. As Yoors sketched, he told her his war stories and asked about hers. “For the first time in my life I felt heard,” she told me. That intimacy led to further intimacies, to letting the bed sheet drop and to falling in love with the man who wanted to hear her stories.

    I spent the decade of the eighties in New York and, like practically everyone else I knew in the city, I was in therapy for many of those years. I’m familiar with the seduction and power of telling another human being one’s deepest secrets. I had just never expected to find myself on the receiving side of the equation, as the confessor. At first, I worried that I wasn’t qualified for this role, but an acquaintance who had recently begun his own counseling practice assured me that listening required no special talent. A sympathetic ear can be healing all by itself, he said.

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    Telling her story had become a form of therapy.

    The sticking point was that though I was growing increasingly fond of Marianne, my primary purpose there was not to be of help. And unlike a therapist, I had made no pledge to keep what she was telling me in confidence; on the contrary, my intent was to publish these disclosures.

    Almost two years passed before I dislodged a huge secret she had kept from me: Jan had added two more women to the household in the last years of his life. Marianne had felt this as a huge betrayal, and nearly forty years later she was still angry. Nevertheless, she didn’t want that part of their story to be told. I had my selfish reasons to accommodate her; this new wrinkle entirely upended the narrative I had constructed and would, I anticipated, make it harder to sell. Nevertheless, I told her I couldn’t possibly leave it out; one of the women had resided in their household for ten years and had held Jan in her arms as he died. I was writing non-fiction, I explained, and we couldn’t pick and choose among the facts.

    Once Jan’s betrayal was out in the open between us, it was nearly all she wanted to talk about. Though she understood that none of what she said was off the record, the urge to unburden herself overpowered her reticence. She would call to tell me about some remembered slight or disagreement that had kept her awake the previous night. Occasionally, she would interject the proviso that this or that should not be in the book, and I would have to remind her again that this was not our agreement. When she answered that she trusted me implicitly, I recalled with some discomfort the image of a twenty-year-old Marianne wrapping the bedsheet around her body, and her reluctant exchange of modesty for the comfort of being heard. It bothered me to now be the one asking her to lower the fabric a bit more, to expose herself to further scrutiny. The fact that she had sought this didn’t lessen my ambivalence, my desire to protect her from my own prying. But years in, we were bound together and neither of us could turn back.

    We finished our phone conversations now with endearments.

    Over time, as Marianne continued to talk, her anger at Jan exhausted itself. One day, out of the blue, she announced that she was no longer mad at him. “I must have been in love with him,” she mused. “Yah, definitely.” She said this with a newfound equanimity, as if she were recalling the plot of an interesting story she had read long ago. “If I think, it would always be Jan. I could never dream of another man. Always Jan. So there must have been something very, very, very intense.”

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    She had come around to an acceptance that this chapter was simply part of their story, and it was okay if I put it in the book. If we were therapist and patient, perhaps this would have been the point at which we brought the sessions to a close. She had reached some kind of closure, I had all the material for my book, and I needed to guard my time to write it. But she was reluctant to give up my undivided attention. She began to leave messages, saying she had remembered something important. It almost always turned out to be an inconsequential tidbit she had already shared, but even when she had something new, I didn’t want to hear it. Whatever it was might force me to reshape the narrative again. Like a guilty lover when an affair has run its course, I tried to let her down easy. I held out the carrot of the book’s publication, which could only happen if I were left to finish the book.

    I did finish it eventually, and when the pre-publication edition was printed, the galleys that are sent to reviewers, I had one sent to her. It would be the first time she had read any of it—with no small effort, I had held her at bay through the writing and editing to keep her from trying to negotiate changes. Now, I spent anxious days worrying how she might receive it. The manuscript contained material of a deeply private nature, things she had not told her children or her friends. Would she feel that I had betrayed her trust? This may be one of the worries that biographers of dead subjects don’t encounter. On the other hand, they are left holding the haunting questions that there is no one to ask.

    Fortunately for both of us, Marianne was thrilled with the book. Jan would have hated it, we agreed, because his life was built upon secrets and he had been zealous in protecting them, but she had initially taken up this project for Annabert’s sake, and she felt her best friend would approve.

    We still talk every few months, but our conversation now is more quotidian, what we are reading or watching, the state of her health, the fractious world of politics. Perhaps we sometimes miss the intensity of the hours we once shared, the very specific intimacy of revealing and receiving the person’s story, the pleasures of a shared obsession, but in place of these there is now friendship and a book.

    Debra Dean
    Debra Dean
    Debra Dean is the author of four critically acclaimed books that have been published in twenty-one languages. Her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. Bestselling author Ross King calls her most recent book, Hidden Tapestry, “one of the most remarkable artistic stories of the twentieth century.” A native of Seattle, Debra and her husband live in Miami, where she teaches on the creative writing faculty at Florida International University.

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