Ellen Douglas: Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell


Ellen Douglas
Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell

IF YOU BURIED a Faulkner novel and let it decompose for about 50 years, Mississippi author Ellen Douglas's family tree might spring up in its place. Douglas's eccentric relatives all seem to live in crumbling plantation manors, with a pile of skeletons in every closet and a first cousin in every bedroom. In Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell, Douglas rummages in a closet or two and unearths a treasure of family secrets.

Douglas, now 77, had to wait until most of her relatives were in the ground to begin digging for the truth. Forty years ago, when she asked her family's permission to publish her first novel, they agreed only on the condition that she use a pseudonym and never reveal her true identity. Half a century and seven books later, she has outlived their disapproval. As she explains in Truth, "everyone who cared about these events is dead. I do not believe that any living person can be hurt either by the truth or by the fiction in my stories."

No longer weighted by obligations to the living, Douglas is free to exhume her clan's guilty past. In the second of four short pieces, "Julia and Nellie," she pieces together the rumors surrounding two of these naughty relatives, sisters who become divided when one defies her Catholic family and the conventions of good breeding by carrying on a secret affair with her first cousin.

Though spinster sisters and consanguineous philandering may seem like typical Southern gothic fare, Douglas deftly avoids drifting too far into Faulkner's lurid shadows. These are true stories, after all, and her affection for the dead demands honest, sympathetic storytelling. In "Hampton," she tries to trace her lineage by talking to the black man who served his entire life as the family's butler. As she presses into his private world, he resists, choosing at last to take his secrets to the grave rather than spill them out onto the pages of a white woman's memoir. Rather than allowing fiction to take over and bundle the story into a neat exorcism of Southern guilt, Douglas accepts the material on its own terms, letting the dead man's silence speak for itself.

Like all stories, Douglas explains, hers are a "tangle of truth and lies, facts and purported facts, imaginary and real events." In Truth's final and most complete story, "Second Creek," she reaches back more than a century into the tangle in an attempt to unearth the great crime which lingers at the edge of her family history: a massacre of slaves near the end of the Civil War. As she searches, however, she finds that all those who remember have died and those who might have passed on the truth have forgotten. She is an old woman now, and the Old South is long gone. In outliving her family, Douglas has also outlived her stories.

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