Author Jennifer Fleischner blogs about finding stories and being found by them.
Last month a friend and I rescued a cat that had been left lying in a plastic shopping bag outside of a restaurant on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan where we were having coffee. It was one of the coldest days of the new year, and the cat was clearly hypothermic and having seizures, which was why she hadn’t jumped out of the bag. The neighborhood vet we took her to would not treat her unless we paid their $500 “good Samaritan” bill. We took her in a cab downtown to my vet, who took her in at no charge, nursed her back as far as she could come, and ended up adding her to his personal menagerie of otherwise unwanted animals.
My mother used to make fun of me for being the kind of person who “always” brought home stray cats. She claimed I did this beginning in second grade. I vaguely remember that first cat. I certainly remember the more recent ones, which I think of as the camp cat, the college cat, the first job cat, and so on. My mother made no effort to hide her view that most of my friends, including my husband, were strays.
I have come to realize that as a writer I am also a rescuer—not of stray cats, but of people in history whose lives have been obscured or erased. It began innocently enough with college and graduate school essays on characters in novels, especially in Austen and Dickens, whose spirits were routinely trampled upon but who, by dint of a great internal effort, rebelled against their oppression. The characters tended to be silent, watchful women, still figures like Anne Elliot (of Persuasion) and Amy Dorrit (of Little Dorrit), whose families thought of them as intimate, useful servants, when they thought of them at all. Propelled by desperate misery out of silence into speech, the characters I wrote about, and wrote about repeatedly, invariably found their voices and reclaimed their lives.
After that, I began writing about the memoirs of actual nineteenth-century women whose lives were ensnared by English and American slavery. Slaves by definition were people who had been forcibly erased—socially, politically, and economically. Most slaves left no paper trails, no record of who they were, what they felt, what they thought. Those slaves who aren’t invisible to history struggled to make themselves heard and seen.
One of the most eloquent of these women was Harriet Jacobs, a North Carolina slave. Her abusive, violent master spent years attempting to render her sexually compliant. He also wanted to force her into a compliant silence, both to ensure his power and to protect his reputation. He didn’t just want her to keep quiet about his relentlessly menacing threats to subdue and rape her: he wanted her to eradicate the memory of abuse, to “forget” and “never think of it.”
The women I have written about were remarkable—extraordinary in their courage, intelligence, and resilience. They sprang themselves free from slavery, fled north, found work, and eventually broke the silences that had nearly suffocated them. Harriet Jacobs wrote her autobiography at night over the course of several years after days spent taking care of her northern employer’s children. She worried about not being a good enough writer. She was afraid that telling about her sexual history—she became a neighboring white man’s mistress to escape the clutches of her ruthless master—would make her an outcast in respectable society.
Breaking the silence had consequences. Another autobiographer, Elizabeth Keckly, who bought her own and her son’s freedom, and became Mary Lincoln’s White House dressmaker and confidante, was attacked in the press for “telling tales” about her employers. She was devastated by the attacks, losing a good deal of her business and her friendship with Mary Lincoln, who never forgave her for writing her book, which included letters Mary had written to her.
I feel as if I have never completely chosen my subjects; that they have always chosen me. I find them by accident, like strays, after reading something unexpected that sparks an interest, uncovering a story that speaks to my heart and mind. I don’t think that this is unique to me in any way. Most writers find their projects when something deep within begins to resonate with something outside of them or the other way around. The work begins to take shape before you’ve noticed it, and if you nurture it a little, it doesn’t leave you alone until you’ve written it back into life.
Jennifer Fleischner is the author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of a First Lady and a Former Slave (2003), Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women’s Slave Narratives (1996), and other works about women and slavery. She is also the author of several books for young readers, including an historical novel about Elizabeth Keckly’s son, called Nobody’s Boy (2006). She is currently a Professor of English at Adelphi University and lives in New York City.