Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Writing About Character Flaws

John Allen Bagley

What if your star character was kind of a character? Here is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote about my great-grandfather.

John Allen Bagley began drinking socially during his service as Attorney General of Idaho, in 1902. He was a big fish in a little pond, and keenly aware of it. Although he was highly respected and admired in Idaho, Idaho was considered a primitive and rough place in the larger context of the United States. John was associating with educated and privileged society from the east, probably a little intimidating for a young man of humble, pioneer stock. It is easy to imagine the temptations he faced as a naive Mormon boy from Montpelier. He could not have known that alcoholism is a disease and that for an alcoholic "social drinking" is impossible. He developed an addiction to wine.

Modern medicine indicates that the same gene is responsible for migraine headaches, motion sickness, depression and alcoholism. A person with that gene can suffer from any or all of these problems. Descendants of John Allen Bagley should realize that a tendency to addiction could be genetic. Did John suffer from depression as well? The circumstances of tragic death and sorrow during his life suggest that possibility.

Some members of the family remember hearing rumors that John used laudanum, as well. Laudanum was a popular drug at the time, recommended by doctors as a pain killer, sleeping medicine and anti-depressant. It was self-administered, cut from a brick the size and texture of a pound of butter, and then diluted or "cut" with a small amount of alcohol.

Laudanum is a solution containing morphine, prepared from opium. Later, a milder but similar solution became paregoric, a regulated medication. If John did use this drug, perhaps for migraine headaches, it is likely he became addicted to it. Alcohol and laudanum would actually contribute to the very conditions they supposedly cured.

John's grandchildren had a very different experience with him than those who knew him well as a younger man. Marie Bagley was afraid of him. Gerald Bagley recalled that "he smelled funny," and Melvin Bagley said his father, Hawley, had to "carry Grandpa home from bars when he was drunk. He seemed cold and uninterested in us kids."

Some of his grandchildren thought he was mean, and that he became frightening and angry when their father would not bring him wine. John's choices probably seemed justifiable to him in the beginning, yet the consequences of those choices may have rendered him unable to escape. Alcohol and drug addiction, even if entered into innocently, could certainly have changed John's personality.

Marjorie Turner, another granddaughter, said her brothers Stuart and Ben had opposite memories of John Allen. His son Loraine gave him work in his Salt Lake law office. Loraine's son Ben remembered his grandfather as "almost a bum, begging clients for quarters." The other son, Stuart, remembered John as always looking dapper in a starched white shirt and suspenders. John apparently struck people in very different ways.

John Allen Bagley has been described as poetic, brilliant, honorable, eloquent, warm, capable and loyal to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has also been described as a boozer, womanizer, "scheming backroom politician," and "a damned drunk." The real man was probably neither as good or as bad as he is portrayed. Like most of us, he was most likely somewhere in between. His life should be viewed with perspective, balancing the admirable qualities with the objectionable details, tempering our judgement with our personal shortcomings, appreciating his worthy contributions and perhaps pondering his mistakes.

It's fun to play the devil's advocate. I think there's something heroic in just about everybody when you know get to know them, warts and all.


~Discussion question:
What kind of details would you want left out of your biography? Have you ever torn pages out of your diary? Why? Do you regret it? How have you reacted to secrets you discovered about folks you love? (Comment anonymously if you want to.)

That's the write idea!


Jessica said...

I have considered tearing out pages of my diaries, but I am afraid that I would lose my connection from who I was to what I am. And even if high-school drooling over boys is embarrassing to my adult self, it's who I was. And let's be honest, I still drool over my hubs. Old habits die hard.

Kay Dennison said...

I really think no one will really care too much since they don't while I'm alive.

J, K, L, and D said...

I actually just threw away some of my diaries & journals from high school when we moved, this past summer. I had held onto these items for a long time, but, looking back into them, I realized that I am quite a different person than I was 10+ years ago (thank the heavens above, my mom says). And a lot of my writings were angst-filled...I just didn't want to be remembered that way. Poor, dead trees. I wasted you in all those little journals...

tawnya said...

I write first and foremost for me, so tearing things out won't get rid of anything except accurate details!

Mrs. O said...

I think one of my first entries as a 12 year old was about the rage and sense of injustice I felt towards my mom. Ripped. it. out.

I wish I hadn't, my daughter is now that age and it might be good for me to reread it and try to see things from a 12 yr old's perspective.

I had a very prickly great aunt who finally rediscovered her faith as a senior (and became infinitely more pleasant) - once I'd heard about her childhood, I could understand how she came to be that way. I think our stories are important to pass on to those we love.

Misty said...

I was kind of a jerk in high school. I think that the scariest part of blogging/social networking/going to the grocery store is running into people who knew me back then and don't know me now. I'm a completley different person (granted I'm the me I am now because of the me I was then, but stll...). I'm just glad I didn't keep a journal back then. The details that I do remember even without the nitty-gritty written down are enough to raise my blood pressure.

Kristen said...

what a great topic! I have some parts of pages in old high school journals that I have scribbled through and blacked out with permanent black marker. Recently I have considered ripping them out so that no one even can try to decipher what was written there. It was just some really awful things, details that no one need know. But I don't think I will. I hope no one will be able to read those words. But I do hope that whoever sees it one day will, as you say, temper their judgement with their own shortcomings. I want my descendents to know I wasn't perfect. And also that there is always hope to change and become better. My hope is that by seeing the whole picture through my 50+ journals I've written in so far, they can put their own challenges in perspective and be gentle with themselves.

Gordita said...

I'm choosy about what I write these days. But when that DVD of my life is shown someday in the sky, I hope all the tantrums are edited out. I think I might work on editing them out of my life from this point on.

Unknown said...

i love finding out about all my relatives. but honestly, i've never kept much of a diary. although, i have wanted to go back and delete blog posts. does that count?

polly said...

i love to read about our relatives. it's good not to judge. we have no idea what caused his behavior. i think your comment about his being somewhere inbetween is great. he led an interesting life, and we still talk about him, so that says something!

Heffalump said...

I threw away whole journals from high school not because they were embarrassing, but because they were too depressing. I was going through a really tough time emotionally and so the journals didn't have much about events, just a lot of woe is me and life is awful stuff. Reading them made me get depressed again, and although I don't mind my kids knowing that I struggled with depression, there was nothing even remotely uplifting about what I had written.

Heather Scott Partington said...

I kept everything. I have family members who write but who have instructed people to burn all of their journals the second after they die. It's amazing to me how guarded people can be. I figure I'll be gone by the time someone reads anything potentially embarrassing... not going to hurt me! (Plus having a blog is like the opposite of keeping secret journals and then burning them, right?)

The Grandmother Here said...

There's a theme running through these comments. When we were in high school we were not grown up. We did dumb things. We are past that now -- mostly. Way back then my mother told me, "Don't put anything in writing that you might someday wish to deny." Today's version is "Don't text anything you wouldn't want to see in the headlines." Remove your own warts if you like and become a better person.

Tiffany said...

There are quite a few things I wouldn't want to share with my children. That makes me a little sad.
When I was a teenager, my mom wrote me a letter and in it said, "be selective enough of what you do and with whom you do it that you will want to look back often". She is wise and I love her. I wish I had come to that conclusion when I was much younger.

On a side note - my ancestors on my mom's side come from Bennington Idaho, a few miles from Montpelier. I'm sure my great grandparents (Silas and Ida Wright) knew your ancestor! They lived in that community their entire lives.

crissy // mama boss said...

I've never torn a page from any of my journals, but I think I have ommitted details of my life because I was thinking about who might read it in the near or distant future.
I don't think I would want people to know about certain choices I've made. I think I would rather people see me in a more positive light. Although, when I really think about it, I don't think people would really think less of me if they knew certain details that I keep to myself. But they bother me, and I am my harshest judge. I think I've convinced myself if other people knew, they'd feel the same way about me as I sometimes do, even though I know in my heart that it's not true.
Maybe, when I'm 90, I won't care as much..?

Bev said...

torn pages out of a diary? Nope -- but I admit to throwing away an entire composition notebook written during a particularly painful period of my life.

Do I regret it? No. In a way it was like being able to "cast out demons"

have I finally recovered from the incident? I think so

I discovered while doing family research that my grandmother's unmarried aunt at sometime had a child (at least someone who paid for her gravestone had it engraved with her name and the word "Mother") it only fascinated me more

having done some really bad things myself, I try really hard not to judge other people that do bad things, but look for the "WHY" behind their actions

Sheri said...

I've never kept diaries because I'm sure I'd just tear the whole thing up! I've always torn up pictures of myself and since I don't have grandkids, I won't have anyone asking "Why aren't there any pictures of granny?"

If there is anything I've learned from my own depression, it's not to judge others. We do not understand ANYONES circumstances or genetic dispositions.

I just put an obituary online at The woman had committed suicide and I chose not to include that fact for fear someone might JUDGE the deceased. We cannot understand so we should not judge.

Melissa said...

I always tear pages out of my diary--but it is because I mess up and I don't like mistakes. I regret every tear of the page and most of my journals and notebooks have about half the pages remaining. I've started to glue pages together just so it doesn't look so empty. It is not because of the content but because it looks so ugly.

I want my daughter to know most things...but there are things I want to keep private from everyone.