The Trouble With Autobiography

Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux examines other authors’ autobiographies to prove why this piece will suffice for his

Autobiographies invariably distort, insists author Paul Theroux, at his home in Hawaii. (Susan Seubert)
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I was born, the third of seven children, in Medford, Massachusetts, so near to Boston that even as a small boy kicking along side streets to the Washington School, I could see the pencil stub of the Custom House Tower from the banks of the Mystic River. The river meant everything to me: it flowed through our town, and in reed-fringed oxbows and muddy marshes that no longer exist, to Boston Harbor and the dark Atlantic. It was the reason for Medford rum and Medford shipbuilding; in the Triangular Trade the river linked Medford to Africa and the Caribbean—Medford circulating mystically in the world.

My father noted in his diary, “Anne had another boy at 7:25.” My father was a shipping clerk in a Boston leather firm, my mother a college-trained teacher, though it would be 20 years before she returned to teaching. The Theroux ancestors had lived in rural Quebec from about 1690, ten generations, the eleventh having migrated to Stoneham, up the road from Medford, where my father was born. My father’s mother, Eva Brousseau, was part-Menominee, a woodland people who had been settled in what is now Wisconsin for thousands of years. Many French soldiers in the New World took Menominee women as their wives or lovers.

My maternal grandparents, Alessandro and Angelina Dittami, were relative newcomers to America, having emigrated separately from Italy around 1900. An Italian might recognize Dittami (“Tell me”) as an orphan’s name. Though he abominated any mention of it, my grandfather was a foundling in Ferrara. As a young man, he got to know who his parents were—a well-known senator and his housemaid. After a turbulent upbringing in foster homes, and an operatic incident (he threatened to kill the senator), Alessandro fled to America and met and married my grandmother in New York City. They moved to Medford with the immigrant urgency and competitiveness to make a life at any cost. They succeeded, becoming prosperous, and piety mingled with smugness made the whole family insufferably sententious.

My father’s family, country folk, had no memory of any other ancestral place but America, seeing Quebec and the United States as equally American, indistinguishable, the border a mere conceit. They had no feeling for France, though most of them spoke French easily in the Quebec way. “Do it comme ils faut,” was my father’s frequent demand. “Mon petit bonhomme!” was his expression of praise, with the Quebecois pronunciation “petsee,” for petit. A frequent Quebecois exclamation “Plaqueteur!,” meaning “fusser,” is such an antique word it is not found in most French dictionaries, but I heard it regularly. Heroic in the war (even my father’s sisters served in the U.S. military), at home the family was easygoing, and self-sufficient, taking pleasure in hunting and vegetable gardening and raising chickens. They had no use for books.

I knew all four of my grandparents and my ten uncles and aunts pretty well. I much preferred the company of my father’s kindly, laconic, unpretentious and uneducated family, who called me Paulie.

And these 500-odd words are all I will ever write of my autobiography.

At a decisive point—about the age I am now, which is 69—the writer asks, “Do I write my life, or leave it to others to deal with?” I have no intention of writing an autobiography, and as for allowing others to practice what Kipling called “the Higher Cannibalism” on me, I plan to frustrate them by putting obstacles in their way. (Henry James called biographers “post mortem exploiters.”)

Kipling summed up my feelings in a terse poem:

And for the little, little span
The dead are borne in mind,
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.

But laying false trails, Kipling also wrote a memoir, Something of Myself, posthumously published, and so oblique and economical with the truth as to be misleading. In its tactical offhandedness and calculated distortion it greatly resembles many other writers’ autobiographies. Ultimately, biographies of Kipling appeared, questioning the books he left behind, anatomizing his somewhat sequestered life and speculating (in some cases wildly) about his personality and predilections.


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