By AA PATAWARAN
I may have found the secret to happiness.
It is in reading biographies.
In biographies, everything is worth telling, whether it is Edgar Allan Poe dying in the gutter next to an Irish pub in Baltimore, alone and penniless, or it is Baltimore-born Wallis Simpson, in a Mainbocher silk crepe grown, exchanging vows at last with Prince Edward at Chateau de Cande in Monts, France.
In reading biographies, you find your way into the secret lives of people otherwise considered great or charmed or different. You chance upon all things ordinary about them like how they craved for their parents’ attention or how they loved cotton candy growing up or how insecure they were about their body.
Like you, they were not exempt from pain. Diana Vreeland was forever marred (or motivated) by her mother who told her, when she was young, “It’s too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and that you are so extremely ugly and jealous of her.” Babe Paley, the most glamorous of the New York swans, the “ultimate trophy wife,” met with a car accident in 1934 when she was 19, running away from home. As a result, she lost all her teeth and disfigured her face, needing reconstructive surgery that left marks she had to cover for the rest of her life in heavy makeup.
Biographies get you in touch with humanity in all its guises and you realize that, while we are so different, we are all the same. It doesn’t matter how high up you get or low, life throws at you what it does and, often, despite power or prayers, despite money or hope, you are not in control.
So I’d like to think this is the secret to happiness. The more you know of life happening to other people, the better prepared you are for what it may throw at you. Plus, of course, every life is a lesson, replete with cautions and consequences, you can learn without having to directly suffer the blow.
Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written. —Mark Twain
It’s not about schadenfreude, but reading about the intimate details of other people’s lives, even the worst of their fates, can be reassuring, even empowering.
Take, for instance, the common cold, whose very name suggests that it spares no one. Yet it’s so common you can brush it off. But for someone like Frank Sinatra, only one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century, the common cold was a tragedy of sorts.
As reported by Gay Talese for Esquire, in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” one of the most celebrated magazine stories ever published, “Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche, but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, who drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability.”
The thing with pain and loneliness and discontent or any emotion is that they affect us in close to eight billion different ways. But you only know your pain. And you might be inclined to think, “It’s just a cold,” when someone like Sinatra, tormented by the sniffles, would appear to be at the end of the world, while people like Talese, dispatched from New York to Los Angeles to profile the legendary singer, only to find him “under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” would find a way to carry out his duty against all odds.
Empathy is among the benefits of reading in general, but especially reading biographies. I always wondered why J.D. Salinger, author of the only novel I’ve read over and over, who spoke so powerfully to me through The Catcher in the Rye, could be such a recluse I nearly concluded that he was Holden Caulfield grown up, grown old, with a pathological contempt for other people, and no Phoebe to save him.
And then I came across the book J.D. Salinger: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, in which I gobbled up the brief profile called “Ten Minutes with Salinger,” written by Chicago schoolteacher Greg Herriges, who drove all the way to New Hampshire only to get the legendary hermit to answer—in the rain outside his Cornish home—the burning question of whether or not Salinger was still active writing.
“I’m a writer. What do you think I do?” said Salinger, drenched to the skin and unwilling to invite the intruder into his house. “But my communication with the public is through my fiction.”
If you immerse yourself in these biographical details, you have a better understanding of how life works for different people. Though it’s all in the back of your head, sometimes removed from your day-to-day, it’s what you need to understand why you sometimes seem so unreasonably terrified of the cocktail crowd. It’s what you need to appreciate yourself for braving the crowds anyway. You could say “I must be made of sterner stuff,” even just to yourself, in fact the best person to hear it.
Life is a gift on certain days, a curse on others. It’s the same for everyone, even for Salvador Dalí, who grew up “the King of the Household,” worshipped by his parents, only to be bullied at school because, dressed like a royal at a state primary school where most of the children were poor, according to Catherine Ingram in This Is Dalí, he was a magnet for ridicule. But would he still be Dalí if his life had not been like that? As he confessed in his memoir The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, he learned “to view his isolation and loneliness as a sign of his own superiority.”
Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally as an obsession is a league of its own to me, particularly its film adaptation renamed Schindler’s List. I was crazy about anything that has to do with the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler included, whose biographies and documentaries and even Mein Kampf I devoured trying to understand how anyone could be so evil and how I could tie all that up with my resolve to banish the devil from my belief system, having decided that God was all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful, therefore no one and nothing could defeat God in any battle, not even over Hitler’s soul.
The biography is an inspiration to regard life as more than just a collection of random events, designed as it is all at once to be a product of will, the result of half chances, the consequence of thoughts and actions, the outcome of circumstances dependent on the turn of the wheel, the toss of the dice, the flip of the coin, the changing of hearts, minds, and souls at will or at whim or by default.
Life, no matter what happens, is a story that unfolds scene by scene, of which we are by turns or all at the same time creators, protagonists, villains, and audiences just watching in the wings. It doesn’t have to be a story that needs to be told, let alone written, but wisdom begins where its many elements come together in a single yarn. Because in our story we are the hero, it has to make sense to us why, how, and ultimately what for. Sometimes, all it takes is to connect the dots.
Maybe it won’t lead us to happiness but, whether we are looking ahead or looking back on our deathbed, it should lead us to our purpose, the reason we are here on earth, and maybe that is more important than happiness, if it is not the same.