The Limitations of Autobiography: Jill Ciment on Continually Revising the Past

When author Jill Ciment was seventeen, she had an affair with an art teacher in his forties. Their affair eventually became their marriage, their mostly happy marriage, which was how it stayed for nearly five decades, until his death in 2016 at the age of ninety-three. But wait, should it be called “their” affair? He was married, with children, so wasn’t it his affair? When a single seventeen-year-old girl dated someone exclusively in those days—this was the 1970s—she wasn’t having affair. She was going steady.

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What to call her relationship—then and now—is one of the central questions in Ciment’s unflinching memoir, Consent. At once searching and beautifully resolute, Consent seeks to reexamine how and when the relationship began in the context of how and when it ended: just a couple months shy of the MeToo movement’s seismic cultural shift. Doing so required Ciment to reconsider and in many cases challenge the content of her 1993 memoir, Half a Life, written when she was in her forties and her husband, Arnold, the art teacher, was in his eighties—a book that details the beginnings of their courtship.

What she unearthed upon revisiting Half a Life were more than a few half-truths. She had written, for instance, that she had kissed him first, but upon further reflection, reflection made in large part possible by the MeToo ethos, she found that he had been the one to initiate. After forty-five years of marriage she was forced to confront the formative moment of their love, the genesis of their courtship: “Was my marriage—the half-century of intimacy, the shifting power, the artistic collaborations, the sex, the shared meals, the friends, the travels, the illnesses, the money worries, the houses, the dogs—fruit from the poisonous tree?”

I do think that when you’ve gone through an experience, and you go back and look at it, how it ended up changes how you see the beginning.

A great deal of the Consent pokes and prods at some of the passages in Ciment’s first memoir, an exercise that at times makes Consent a kind of anti-memoir. Excerpts from Half a Life are reproduced and combed over in pursuit of more accurate truths. It not only calls into question the craft and content of Half a Life but in some ways all memoirs. “The point of view in a memoir is curious,” Ciment writes. “The writer must trick the reader (and herself) into believing that she actually remembers how she felt decades ago. A memoir is closer to historical fiction than it is to biography.” And: “The reader should not necessarily trust setting—place—in a memoir. Too often, it is distorted by nostalgia (the honey-colored meadow that is no more) or by trauma (the ominous shadow under the dank basement doorjamb).”

The book asks a lot of important questions and, perhaps thankfully, does not provide many answers. It dwells in that liminal space between agency and manipulation, between cultural concerns and personal happiness, present and past. Maybe more than anything, though, it’s simply a very complex love story. 

As someone who also wrote a book featuring an age-gap relationship and the existential questions that arise many years later when thinking back on it—a novel, We Do What We Do in the Dark, whose opening line very much resembles the first line of this article—I was curious to know how Ciment approached her project.


Michelle Hart: I want to start by asking how and when you arrived at the idea of revisiting some of the events of Half a Life?

Jill Ciment: Very simply, it took my husband dying. I probably would never have revisited the earlier material had he not died. He passed away in 2016, the day before Trump was elected, and just before the MeToo movement began growing into a kind of significance. And as I listened to all these tales, I became more attuned, I started looking back and thinking, “Wait a second, our relationship wasn’t quite like that.” To me, our relationship and our age difference was like some sort of comic miracle that happened to us.

But there’s a moment in my first book when I go and seduce Arnold. The question in this new book then essentially became “Who kissed who first?” In one memoir, I have me as the aggressor. Yet looking back at it, I realized that wasn’t true. He’s the person who grabbed me and kissed me. After I sleep with him, he doesn’t call me for like, a month, and I have a total breakdown as only a 17-year-old can. I’m crying and I’m driving by his house. About a month later, he sends a letter asking me if I’ll ever return to class. I’m living at home, so he’s got to deal with eluding my mother. I don’t know how to interpret this letter—maybe he only wants to be my teacher. And I’m heartbroken again. I don’t call him, but then he calls me.

In Half a Life, I treat this as a kind of comic, star-crossed-lovers moment, but now when I think about it, a 47-year-old man who slept with his student, who didn’t hear from her for an entire month and then calls her house because she didn’t answer the letter he sent…I thought about 17-year-old girls now, daughters of friends of mine, being in that place, and I thought, “Whoa boy, did that cross a line.” With Consent, I wanted to see how, in a certain sense, we sort of conspired to tell one story of our relationship when there was an entirely different story. And that’s what got me to write the memoir.

MH: I’ve been thinking of the book as a sort of anti-memoir. There are myriad times throughout when you challenge the craft and conventions of memoir as a genre, or at the very least examine the artifice of memoir writing. Point of view, tone, setting—these things are almost inherently corrupted by the act of trying to capture how something felt at another time. Was that part of your project, this illuminating the limitations of autobiography?

JC: It was, absolutely. I wanted to reexamine my first book as if I was a critic, like Janet Malcom, taking a piece of text and examining it in the context of something larger. Also, when I finished Half a Life, I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to rewrite it. A lot of your best material as a memoirist comes from your youth. After that, you’re just sitting in a room writing. A good way to do another memoir is to rewrite the old one, to look at that same period from a different point of view. But yes, doing that called into question all memoirs. I want to say to the reader, “When you finish Consent, don’t believe that either.” Just because I looked at that material again doesn’t mean in 20 years that I won’t look at it again and think that there was something amiss.

MH: How do you think we should reconcile the potential falseness of memoirs with the pleasure and value we get from reading them?

JC: Memoir is an active memory. When we read memoir, we have to take into account the person who is writing, and the circumstances they’re writing under, as much as the memories themselves. That’s the only way to reconcile it. If you were to revisit something that’s happened to you 10 times at 10 different periods of your life, you’re going to see it differently.

Actually, that’s what interests me about your book, even though it’s fiction, how you revisit the core story from a different perspective. That experience of reflecting on an event lasts much longer than the event itself.

MH: Right, yeah. The majority of my novel centers on the main character as a teenager, which carries with it a kind of inherent solipsism. Any ending that kept her at that age almost negated or precluded the reflection necessary to make that experience truly meaningful. So, I had about two-thirds of the novel written when the MeToo movement really took off. And what interested me the most was how MeToo allowed women to recontextualize past experiences, to reexamine those experiences with new language. How would the adult version of my character see what happened to her as a teenager? Would the current cultural conversation change her idea of this very complicated relationship that occurred in the past? It was then the whole novel broke open for me.

I’m curious: On a more personal note, did you find it difficult to reconcile the pleasure and value of your relationship with the sort of moral demands of our current era? Did you find yourself defensive or disparaging of your past self? Did it taint how you saw your relationship at all?

JC: No. After a 45-year-old relationship and marriage, the first six months of it seems like a really long time ago. Sometimes I try to imagine what Arnold would think if he was alive now, reading this thing post-MeToo. He was a feminist. He deeply believed in feminism. He was an honorable person. He probably would be upset and shocked that he had stepped over the line in that way. However, I think the part that would have truly disturbed him most about the new memoir are the parts where I write honestly about his career going up and down. I mean, I did not fall in love with a powerful man. He was powerful to me, because I was 17, but he wasn’t powerful in the world.

MH: One of my favorite lines in Consent is when you write that you were the only sugar baby you knew who lived with a sugar daddy without sugar.

Over the years, as you talk to people who’ve read your work, you realize they’re not reading the book you wrote.

JC: Our relationship made him powerful in the world in the end, because he grew as much as I grew in it. He went from being a kind of failed artist to someone who I think is an amazing artist. I think, as a man, he might have been more embarrassed by me showing him as a failure at work than him crossing a line of impropriety.

Of course, looking back, there are many times he stepped over the line, but I also think I knew what I wanted. I wanted to have a relationship with him. I really felt like I would not have been as whole a person had I not felt the love of an older man. I think I really needed to feel that psychically, emotionally, and intellectually, in order for me to not have spent my life feeling like a victim of my father. That’s what I went after, and that’s what I think healed me. Maybe it’s completely perverse. It’s definitely murky. Maybe it could be seen that I was manipulated, but I never felt manipulated. And I really have given it a lot of thought. It doesn’t mean that his behavior was okay. It meant that what I wanted and what I got was what I wanted and what I got.

MH: One of my favorite elements of your memoir is the use of rhetorical questions. It’s something that would be almost universally panned in a workshop setting or by a less discerning editor. Rhetorical questions so often have no rhetorical value. But here they feel absolutely vital: “Does a story’s ending excuse its beginning? Does a kiss in one moment mean something else entirely five decades later?” Or: “Were my acts selfless, or was this the price I was willing to pay for my own eternal youth?” Was that a conscious decision on your part? Did you have to wrestle with yourself (or your editor) to resist turning these questions into answers?

JC: Did I have to wrestle with myself? There are no answers to any of these questions. If I had tried to answer them, then the book would have been a polemic. I would have been making an argument. Asking those questions is more interesting than reducing these kinds of relationships to victim and abuser.

MH: I’m going to be honest: it makes my job as an interviewer kind of difficult! I want to ask you questions but I also don’t want you to answer my questions.

JC: Take the question of whether a story’s ending excuses its beginning. That could be the motto of any marriage, whether the marriage goes sour or not. But I do think that when you’ve gone through an experience, and you go back and look at it, how it ended up changes how you see the beginning. I don’t know if the ending excuses how it began, but it changes your perceptions of what followed from it. In my case, the ending was so moving to me that it was hard to be angry about the beginning. Watching someone you love die is a really extraordinary experience and it puts the rest of everything you do in a different context.

MH: How so?

JC: When you fall in love, you think you have this entire future ahead of you. But when I fell in love with Arnold, I knew that he would die way before me. I spent my whole life preparing for it. But you can’t really prepare for it. I remember a widow once took me aside and said, “Don’t bother to rehearse grief. There’s no way you’re going to get it right.” When you watch someone die, you can just feel the energy, the spirit leaving its physical being, a person moving out of their matter. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s powerful to witness. So, after that, you think, “Oh, he called me at my mother’s house?”

MH: Towards the end of the book we learn about the process of having one of your novels adapted for film, a novel influenced by your relationship with Arnold. You write that the “sensation of hearing myself read another person’s version of my story felt akin to confiding a dream to a distracted therapist who then gets all the facts wrong as he misinterprets it.” Are you worried something similar will occur with this book’s publication? Or are you more interested in presenting the facts and allowing people to interpret them however they want?

JC: I truly believe that every single person reads the same book differently. Over the years, as you talk to people who’ve read your work, you realize they’re not reading the book you wrote. They’re never reading the book you wrote. They’re reading their own version, and they’re projecting their own emotions onto it. It’s a conversation. Just because you’re conversing with somebody, it doesn’t mean they are going to understand you. And that’s okay.


Consent by Jill Ciment is available from Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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