Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Friend

I just finished reading Christopher Reeve's autobiography, Still Me, as well as Reeve's other book, Nothing Is Impossible (a shorter book, which to me reads like a supplement to Still Me).

I'm usually skeptical about biographies because I'm never sure how "true" they are even if the writer is the person himself. Because a person can have a completely different idea of himself than the people around him. And other people tend to judge a person based on appearance, background, beliefs, personality, etc., but do they really understand who that person is?

The thing that convinced me to read Still Me was finding a Superman IV video interview of Christopher Reeve from 1987. (See here.) As I was watching, I realized something: This was the first time I'd seen Reeve just talking, just being himself, at a time when he was still healthy and whole. For the longest time, all I pictured of Reeve was either him as Superman or him in a wheelchair. Either way, it's especially hard to see the real person underneath. Though I liked and admired him for his achievements as a superhero both on- and offscreen, I always wondered if my perception of him was true.

it wasn't until I saw Christopher Reeve for myself, beyond his reputation or his image, that I felt like I could trust his autobiography-because I felt like I could trust him. The interview was brief, but it nevertheless gave me a glimpse of Christopher Reeve the person. I found this particular interview to be honest, straightforward, and interesting, which is also the impression I got from his book.

Trust is key. If you want me to read a biography, I better be able to trust the author, whether he's talking about himself or someone else.

For me, biographies differ from history novels because history seems more open to interpretation. This is what happened. This is what we learned. And yes, we could get into the whole debate about how history is biased, skewed, and distorted depending on who's writing the history books, but let's not, OK? All I'm saying is, history is meant to be analyzed, studied, examined and re-examined. Otherwise, how would we learn from it? So, of course, there's going to be many points of view, and each perspective is going to contribute something different. The same may be true of biographies to a certain extent, but still, learning about events is different from getting to know a person.

There's a line from Superman: The Movie that perhaps best illustrates my point. After Superman (i.e., the man himself, Christopher Reeve) rescues Lois when she falls from the helicopter, Lois asks, "Who are you?" His answer? "A friend." I believe that reading a good biography is (or should be) like making a friend. Like saying hello. Like sitting down and having an in-depth conversation. Human beings aren't events to be analyzed. They are defined by relationships. And even if you're reading about someone who's dead and gone, there is still the possibility of human connection.

The funny thing about biographies, to me, is that they often reveal more about the biographers than they do about their subjects. I believe that oftentimes how a person is perceived says more about the observer than the person being judged. But this makes autobiographies like Still Me doubly interesting. I think I learned more about Christopher Reeve by "reading between the lines" of his story and how he wrote about events than by what had happened in his life.

And what a reader takes away from a biography says a lot about the reader too, depending on what you learn from it and how you feel about it. When we pick up a biography, we're basically asking the same question Lois Lane did: Who are you? The book is the answer. This is why I'm so picky about biographies. I'm not so concerned about THE truth as I am that every relationship I establish with another human being, even if just through a book, be as true as possible. I want an honest answer to that essential question. Because the friends I make are my choice, and I don't choose them lightly. Perhaps all this hair-splitting about history vs biography was just to say: Choose your friends wisely.