I subtitled my memoir, The Nancy Who Drew, “The Memoir That Solved A Mystery,” because that’s exactly what happened. Through the writing and the telling of the stories and experiences I remembered and could explain, I recalled an event I could not explain. A minor episode that seemed unconnected to everything else. It had been an intriguing event, but it stuck out like a sore thumb. I decided the best tactic would be that of omission. How crazy that this bit I deleted would later turn out to be the incredible revelation my finished manuscript would pivot on! My life, in fact, would pivot on. Or my past life, I should say. But of course I didn’t know any of that then.
This was the tidbit: I was twenty, living in London, and my boyfriend took me to the British Spiritualist Society located in Belgrave Square at the time. I had no interest in mediums and psychics in those days, and was just going along to please him. He had booked me a private session with a medium called Nan Whittle, who gave me the startling news that the actor Leslie Howard was “looking after me.” I couldn’t fathom why this would be. Nan Whittle didn’t offer further details, and I was too dumbfounded to think of any questions. Leslie Howard had been dead many years, but he had been a famous actor. I was a nobody. The only thing I had in common with him was my hoped-for profession, as I was studying to be an actress too. Perhaps he enjoyed looking after actresses from the other side?
Decades passed without any further enlightenment. By the time I began writing memoir I was almost fifty. The idea of Leslie Howard having anything to do with me seemed as absurd as it had thirty years earlier. It was an interesting story, but it didn’t fit in with the narrative I was telling. Not in any way, shape or form. Or so I thought.
Something major had to happen before I took the trouble to look up how Leslie Howard died. Something like 9/11. Because, like millions of others, along with the grief, was the anger at what happened. Anger stirs things up. I no longer recall what particular thing caused me one night to wonder how Leslie Howard met his death. I knew he had died in World War II. That his plane had been shot down. I assumed he had joined the RAF. For some reason I had pictured his plane going down over Germany. But now I looked it up on the web and learned the truth. I learned even more when I found an out-of-print biography written by his son. I’ve done my best to explain all this in my book trailer:
Meanwhile, I can’t help wondering why more memoir writers haven’t become aware of unasked questions, or questions never answered. I can’t have been the only one. I didn’t start writing memoir to find answers, but it happened anyway. How can it not when you suddenly find yourself delving deeper into your story. Asking yourself why this and not that? Could there be a better way to Know Thyself than by writing memoir—or a journal. It doesn’t have to be for publication, but knowing you will eventually put it before other readers is a great incentive for excellence. Do other writers not have questions they don’t know the answers to? Do they just leave their mysteries on the shelf? Or do they not think they have any mysteries…
When we start the uncovering process, we can’t help revealing ourselves. In the revealing comes the revelations. Joan Didion is quoted as saying, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” I’m totally with her on that.
I’m currently working on a second volume of memoir, unearthing new clues as I travel down the dusty lanes of memory. I’ve had my big revelation. But how I got there is another story…
And finally, Dear Reader of this blog, if you know of another memoir where a mystery is uncovered or solved or even admitted to—please let me know. Thank you!
This is all very exciting. I hope that volume II is proceeding well, Nancy, so that we can learn more about this intriguing mystery.
No, I didn’t know that. I’ll have to look it up!
Actually, one of my favorite lines of Leslie Howard was in “Pimpernel Smith” at the end when he says to the Nazi general who’s about to shoot him, “We’ll be back. We’ll all be back…”
How fascinating! One of Leslie Howard’s favourite characters was Peter Standish in “Berkeley Square”, the man who travels back to the 18th century to meet his ancestors. Do you know that film? Peter and Helen share a statuette: it is a crux ansata… the symbol of eternal life.