Dealing with Black Holes in Your Narrative

While TBC couldn’t attend every panel at the Compleat Biographer Conference, with assistance from New York correspondent Dona Munker, we offer capsule reviews of seven, including this one.

Sooner or later, most biographers find themselves confronted with a “black hole.” Moderator Anne C. Heller defined this as an area in the subject’s life about which no information exists, an area about which the biographer cannot get—or is denied—access to the information, or a seeming discrepancy or contradiction (“a myth”) concerning a crucial action or episode in the subject’s life that the biographer can neither confirm nor deny. Then she asked panelists Neil Baldwin, Deirdre Bair, and Carol Sklenicka to discuss how some of the black holes they’ve encountered.

Baldwin said that although he found that he couldn’t actually plan for black holes, he has often discovered that “looking at something from the outside” gave him the perspective to take better advantage of information that he did have and work around the missing data. In cases where little specific information exists, for example, he recommended “working on contextualization to segue from one clear episode to another,” thus bridging gaps that can’t be filled.

Sometimes filling a black hole with a vital piece of information comes at a price. Deirdre Bair was almost finished with her first biography, Samuel Beckett: A Life, when she obtained access to a collection that included letters Beckett wrote just before leaving Ireland for Paris at the age of thirty-six. Although the poet himself always recalled that he made the move with his mother’s blessing, Bair felt that this memory “didn’t ring true.” When she found a letter Beckett had written at the time to a trusted friend that said, “If I don’t get out of Ireland soon, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown or I’m going to kill my mother,” she decided that she couldn’t let a false memory about something so important stand and rewrote the entire book.

What to do when family members or friends refuse to talk freely? In such situations, Bair and Sklenicka advised biographers not to lose heart: If someone is willing to see you but is not forthcoming, Sklenicka suggested, “asking about what you do know, then “seeing if they contradict you or not.” Bair said, “If people won’t talk to you, keep after them. As time goes by and the book gets written, they’ll see that the train is leaving the station, and nine times out of ten they’ll want to jump on.”

Of course, sometimes a crucial gap can’t be filled, circumvented, or finessed, as when a subject has burned all the correspondence. In such a case, Baldwin suggested, the writer should “be up front with the reader” by explaining the obstacle in an introduction or preface. With less momentous lacunae, on the other hand, sometimes it’s wiser to stop trying and wax philosophical. “At some point,” said Sklenicka, “you have to distinguish what is important and what is not. You’ll never know everything.”

—Dona Munker