Memories Aren’t Enough: Why Sometimes Only Fiction Can Solve the Mysteries of Life
Emily Schultz on the Importance of Slanted Truths in Storytelling
The spring I was fourteen, I watched my mother slip into a coma over the course of an hour. The day began with “Mom has a flu,” but it was to be only the start of a 10-day battle for her life against spinal meningitis.
It was the kind of “everything changes” moment that all families have. How much a fiction writer invents is an individual choice, but until I typed the line some thirty years later, “When Agnes had visited Mia in the hospital, she could tell Mia didn’t remember her,” I had never once touched this memory.
The moment I write that line for my novel, I’m instantly transported to my parents’ living room, a small-town ranch-style house decorated for the ’80s. I’m alone with my mother who is sick and doesn’t know who I am. How long did I wait to call someone? It was minutes, but my memory gives them the shape of hours. I still grapple with what I did and didn’t do that day.
As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—”In moments of chaos or violence, many of us become immobilized. But in writing fiction we’re in total control.
Unlike my mother, Mia wakes up combining her memories with films and actors and her friends have to come to understand her, in order to find out how she ended up in her coma. There are other differences: Mia doesn’t live in a small-town ranch house. She lives in a multimillion-dollar Connecticut estate. Her friends end up solving the mystery of her coma—which is not accident or illness, but an intentional act of violence. For my mother, the cause of her illness and the fact that she survived remain a mystery, the kind we can never solve in real life.
No one else in my family fell sick. There wasn’t a surge in cases. We had no idea where the illness had come from.
Like a movie, I’ve always remembered what happened in pieces—images and sounds, slightly out of logical sequence. It was that weekday gulf between 4 and 5 p.m., when parents and friends’ parents were not yet home from work. Where were my brothers? Lacrosse practice, work, away at college? They could tell you; I can’t. For me, there’s only the foggy, frightened look on her face: the moment when I knew she saw me as a stranger. And how when I touch her, her skin is fire.
I remember the panic, the weight of the wall phone receiver in my hand as I tried to call for help. I dialed my next-door neighbor (not home), a friend whose mom was a nurse (not home), the family I babysat for (not home), and was about to dial 911 when my dad arrived. In moments of chaos or violence, many of us become immobilized. But in writing fiction we’re in total control.
As it turned out my dad didn’t know what to do either. He tried to help her sit up, and eventually, he dashed outside for help. A doctor who lived four houses down rode with her in the ambulance, missing the birth of his son, but keeping my mom alive. She was taken to a hospital two hours away. This wasn’t a mythical Thornton Wilder town—house calls were long gone—he was just a good person who answered his doorbell.
My father came home very late that night and said, “Hopefully we’ll know more tomorrow.” When I pressed him, he said, “I don’t know.”
My dad was always truthful. Too truthful sometimes, as I am. I was still a child, still writing in a diary gifted by my grandparents several years earlier. It had the movie Annie on the cover. It’s a surprise that I used it—in my memories, I’m of course cooler than this. My dad looked suddenly older as he took his shoes off. Although, memory is faulty. Maybe that conversation didn’t come then, but a few days later. In the diary, there’s a large gap between entries. Ten days of uncertainty. Each day, Dad would leave from teaching, drive directly to the hospital. Was I afraid to go, or did he not want me to see my mother that way?
Life was divided into 90-minute spans. I recall sitting on a brown floral couch in a darkened living room, watching horror films on VHS at my friend Julie’s, how she would grab my knee at the scary parts to make me yelp. Onscreen, the scary parts are funny. What we watched mattered less than being all alone with my fear. Pop culture melds with the most important moments in our lives, sometimes becoming inseparable as our meanings become tied to it. There should be a word for this meshing of movie and experience: celluliving or being film-flipped. That spring I lived in the dream of my experiences, and sought stability from predictable plots and fake blood.
When I saw her again, my mom had lost weight and her wrists had bloomed blue: bruises where the orderlies had tied her down. A plot twist, I couldn’t have predicted that—that my mom who knit, gardened, sang, and worked as an admin assistant at a college helping adults go back to complete their high school diplomas—might also be violent. I lingered in the doorway, uncertain she was the same. Even my older brothers were still worried and it showed in their faces. But she was alive and more affectionate than we were used to. She kept holding Dad’s hand.Even at our most vulnerable, we are fighting to understand.
My mom has a distinct memory after she woke of being introduced to a nurse, and saying somewhat angrily to her, “I know who you are—you’re the one who got soap in my eyes when you washed my hair.” The nurse was shocked.
This was partly why I knew I had to give my character some awareness, even if it was a gradual building—an untangling of truth. Even at our most vulnerable, we are fighting to understand.
My mother had perceived things through the coma. The first thing she asked for were her eyeglasses, followed by her cigarettes (it was the ’80s, after all). She could also remember co-workers who came to sit beside her, and thinking, Why are you here, seeing me in my pajamas?
In the Annie diary, finally, “Mom’s coming home from the hospital this weekend. She had an infection called menengitus [sic].”
Years later, a close friend fighting brain cancer told me about his own coma dreams, which included being on an airplane: all the doctors and nurses were flight attendants. “Mr. Croft,” they would say, “Can I get you anything?” and “Are you comfortable? Do you need a pillow?” He made it another two years. My mom is still here—79, a survivor of breast cancer twice, in addition to the meningitis once. She is still gardening.
I have two photos from the time around my mother’s illness. For one photo I paid a stupid amount and posed for a Polaroid with a cardboard cutout of Freddy Krueger, captured during a school trip. I’m tensely happy. In a photo from my eighth-grade graduation, I pose with my mother, effecting the same expression as I did next to the star of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The same smile, even though it means different things. No single image can document the difference between your perception of reality and the real thing, but these two come close.
These facts, half remembered, take 1500 or so words in this essay, but to create a fictional version of this moment from my life took 220 pages, a half-dozen characters, and situations I’ve never experienced. I think the variance in the two can be explained by the end of Dickinson’s poem: the truth is better when it dazzles gradually.
After all, with our phones we access a steady IV drip of Things That Happened. But there’s little time left after for us to think about Why They Happened.
I hope that’s the space where fiction can still step in.
Sleeping with Friends by Emily Schultz is available from Thomas & Mercer.