Who They Are
Justine Picardie’s Truth or Dare: A Book of Secrets Shared is a collection of short memoirs from 12 internationally recognized writers—Nick Hornby, Zoe Heller, Julie Myerson, Esther Freud, William Fiennes, Sabine Durrant, Rachel Cusk, Andrea Ashworth, Alice Sebold, Jon Ronson and Sophie Dahl—with the aim of revealing a particular truth. The pieces are revealing, each provocative in their own way, but unlike the game around which they’re structured, not because of embarrassing confessions of shameful thoughts or experiences. Instead, the writers have each elected to explore certain truths within their lives. This is less about confession, and more about who these writers are and how they got that way.
The book begins slowly, with “Open Sky”, a 70-page deliberation by Andrea Ashworth (One in a House on Fire) on a trip with her partner through the Nevada desert. Ashworth takes a just amount of time uncovering her childhood with an abusive stepfather and a browbeaten, sometimes unstable, mother. It’s a perfect introduction to the book, immediately removing any notion that it might be scandalous or gossipy as its provocative subtitle suggests. Ashworth’s matter-of-fact style, too, sets up the book’s direct and unsentimental language:
My throat stings, salty with unwept anger. How can it be? How can it be allowed? How were my stepfathers able to threaten us, all those years, with carving knives and pans of boiling water and letter bombs? Why did nobody do anything about it? I stare at the rock in my path.
Not all the pieces are as quite so brutal, like Jon Ronson’s account of a holiday with his son in the middle of his mother’s arrangements for a family-portrait-with-a-difference.
Ronson’s family with its celebrity-worshipping matriarch, concerned golf-loving father, mysterious brother, and Randy Newman-obsessed Jon, the writer who (according to his mother) no one’s ever heard of seems tailor-made for quirky Arrested Development-like TV. The piece centers on the portrait, with Jon’s understanding of his folks’ desire to commemorate their winning the coveted AA Welsh Hotel of the Year competition for their Welsh lodge waning considerably when he’s asked to pick three celebrities he’d like to appear in the picture with him—Dad’s already picked Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Meanwhile, Ronson and his wife attempt to show their precocious son, Joel, the best Christmas ever with a trip to Lapland (paid for by the Guardian), complete with snow, toboggan rides and a visit with Santa. Joel wants to go to a museum instead and threatens to repeat the word “shit” over and over if his dad does not comply. Ronson eventually convinces his son to stop saying shit (“Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy didn’t say shit in Narnia”) and that Lapland will be great—after they just get one perfect photo of Joel with Santa for the Guardian cover.
Joel, it seems, is as reluctant as Ronson to be turned into art, so dad finds himself resorting to bizarre acts of coercion to get his son to co-operate. It all works out in the end for both families, and what begins as a fish-out-of-water story of a man trapped in a weird family, becomes a fascinating comparison of not-so-different parenting techniques. Just as moving as Ashworth’s piece, Ronson’s funny side of self-examination reveals that the embarrassing and the silly are powerful life influences alongside struggle and pain.
Fatherhood is actually a bit of a theme throughout the book (Ashworth and Ronson discuss fathers and children, along with Zoe Heller, Nick Hornby and Julie Myerson), but its Sabine Durrant’s “At Sea” that is perhaps the most compelling. Durrant’s piece is less the revelation of a secret and more an account of something secretive she once did—search, behind her mother’s back, for information about her fighter pilot father via his old friends and war archive listings. As she learns more and more about her father from those who knew him, she realizes it’s information she can only get from her mother she really wants, about Michael “Mike” Durrant as husband, father and family man.
A moment at the Yeovilton airbase museum in which she stumble across a picture of her father, for example, reveals Durrant’s need to fit her father into her (and his) family:
It’s of only four men, standing casually in flying suit. One of them is my father. Maybe I haven’t seen photographs of him at this age before. But something about the eyes, the eyebrows, the chubbiness of the cheeks—they’re the features of my youngest son. It’s like looking at Joe. And the feeling I get—a terrible, heartbreaking pang of tenderness—is so strong I find I’ve put my hand to my mouth.
Picardie suggests in her introduction, that to write personally and with unrelenting honesty is “an act of bravery on the part of a writer, to say, yes, this is how it is; this is who I am; this is what it means to be me.” Her writers dare to tell their truths in markedly different ways—Hornby (relating the pressures of life with an autistic child), Heller (exploring life with a serial-dating dad) and Dahl (discussing her first boyfriend) use a deal of humor in their pieces, while, like Durrant, Sebold (discussing her famous rape), Ashworth and Cusk (discussing body image and aging) tackle their respective issues with a more serious tone—that come together to reveal their own truth: that all of our secrets are relieved, even just a little, when shared.