When Is Close Too Close? Writing About People We Know

* Foot note.

So, let's say there's this young guy named Thomas Williams. Daddy is a salesman, who travels as much as possible, and drinks, both at home and on the road. 

Mama, the daughter of an Episcopal priest (read someone of high social standing) and a music teacher, is miserable in her marriage. 


Edwina's parents--note their gentility.

Note how disassociated the nurse, Ozzie, seems from the family group. I wonder who is taking care of Ozzie's children? 

Edwina's oldest child, Thomas, gets seriously ill and nearly dies sick when he's still very small. There she is, living with her parents her drunkard of a husband (when he's home) a slightly older toddler (daughter Rose, sixteen months older) and a kid who has come so close to dying that it takes him a year of being housebound to recover. Edwina is living with her parents throughout this time. His big sister and mother devote themselves to entertaining him. Along with Ozzie, his colored nurse, they make his restricted life bearable. 

Thomas is--well, there's no other way to say it--effeminate. Daddy hates the boy and beats him, trying to push him away from being a nancy-boy. He's very close to Rose, in fact, they're almost twins, but Mama is disappointed by Rose, who is not at all vivacious, and is in fact, nearly crippled by shyness. 

All Mama's focus, all her energy, all her love, goes into Thomas.  And because the family moves so many, many times (due to Daddy's wild behavior when he's drunk and Mama's desire to find a more socially appropriate address for her gentility, Thomas doesn't really find a place in the world until college, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. There, he is a social maladept, but becomes the first freshman ever to receive honorable mention in a writing contest. 

His junior year, when he's twenty-one, Tom fails a ROTC exam. Furious, his father pulls him out of school and sticks him into a job at the International Shoe Company factory. Tom hates the job, hates it, and yet--he's grown up around his mother's pressured gentility. At the factory, he has to face the realities of their lives. 

Still, he can't wait to get out of the job. Every weekend, he works to write one short story, staying up all night with black coffee and cigarettes and his typewriter. Enough of this pushes him to a nervous breakdown, at the age of twenty-four. Daddy's drinking and crazy temper leads Mama to push him out, though they never divorce. At twenty-nine, he enrolls in Washington University in St. Louis, and two years later, has moved on to the University of Iowa, where he finishes his uncompleted undergrad degree for a Bachelor of Arts in English. And all this time, he's writing stories and plays, a lot of plays. He studies at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York City, co-writing a collaborative play called Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! and it's produced, in Memphis Tennessee. "The laughter enchanted me," Thomas writes later. "Then and there, the theater and I found each other, for better or for worse. I know it's the only thing that saved my life." 

For his writing career, our brilliant, obsessive, effeminate Thomas decides to change his first name to something more memorable. He works a string of jobs--as a laborer, mostly-- to support his writing, though there is that horrible stint as caretaker of a chicken ranch outside of L.A. It isn't until 1945 that his first play is a hit. It's based on a short story called Portrait of a Girl in Glass. It's a memory play, about his big sister, Rose, but it's also about a young man named Tom who hates his work at a shoe warehouse, and a guy named Jim, who used to be a high school hero, but has gone downhill from there. Most of all, the play play pillories his mother, Edwina, called Amanda in the play. His mother is still alive. "Well, Mrs. Williams," asks the star who so brilliantly plays this tragic monster, "How did you like yourself?"


The mother in the play is unable to view her children as separate from herself and she talks, frantically all the time, "about her gentleman callers, the DAR, salivary glands and the fine art of mastication. Her silences were worse. She had a way of looking at her children to register a deep disappointment." 


Well, Mrs. Williams, how did you like yourself? How she must have felt. 

And yet, those of us who write must write. Demons on the page. Transformative work. What are the ethics of this? Mothers are fair game? What about children? 

What do you think? 

* (please note: throughout the following, I am using the language of the times for certain minorities.) 


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