Blog: a professional autobiography

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biography

03.01.2014

“When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin,” wrote Carolyn Heilbrun in Writing a Woman’s Life. When I read her book in 1988, I determined to write about that adventure one day. That day seems to have arrived, but I have been troubled for a long while by the question of what form the narrative should take. I also have a deep distrust of the genre, because autobiographical narratives are notoriously constructed of lies or, at best, unconscious distortions to improve the story. In Natalia (Levi) Ginzburg’s memoirs Le Piccole Virtú, I missed an involvement with the events of her life, as if, instead of being a protagonist, she had been a witness. The form of the diary felt even less genuine, because I have never kept one, and a “letter to a young whatever” involves playing the irrelevant role of the wise, wizened authority. J.M.Coetzee’s Summertime, in which a fictional biographer interviews people who had been close to a fictional dead author also named J.M.Coetzee gave me a hint: by fragmenting the narrative I could at least frustrate the temptation to seek satisfying closures to all troubling events.

But why even attempt an autobiography, professional or otherwise, when all of one’s work is biography? Perhaps, in my case, it is an impulse to make sense, retrospectively, of the parallel worlds I inhabited – those of architecture and feminism. These worlds did overlap, sometimes with very productive and other times disastrous results. But I also (perhaps irrationally) harbor the illusion that my fragmentary reflections may be useful to other young women and men engaged in their own adventures.

Here then is my first fragment of memory: I knew I wanted to author my own life when I professed architecture in 1970. Testing different lives, I had enjoyed dwelling in other practices: poetry, drawing, art criticism and theater. Staying with architecture was a choice I felt I had won from other choices, and one that I have struggled to sustain. Yet at the beginning it was an escape route from a scripted life.

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