The revelation that Paula Broadwell had been sleeping with David Petraeus while she wrote the four-star general’s biography (whose title, All In, proved irresistible fodder for countless suggestive parodies) has been making waves for weeks—Petraeus resigned as the director of the CIA and Broadwell was lambasted by the media for having crossed personal and professional lines.
Those ripples even made it to the inlet of academia: On December 10, The Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center hosted a discussion on the ethics of biography, namely, the multiform ways in which a biographer is morally accountable to his or her subject. The panel comprised novelist Benjamin Anastas, whose recent tell-all memoir, Too Good to Be True, sparked debate about whether “all” should really be revealed; MacArthur Fellow and renowned ethicist Carol Levine; and deputy director of The Leon Levy Center, John Matteson, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Louisa May Alcott, Eden’s Outcasts, fueled much of the discussion. Moderator Gary Giddins, the executive director of The Leon Levy Center, opened up the conversation with a question about the Broadwell/Petraeus scandal, but the dialogue quickly shifted elsewhere. (Though later on in the evening, Anastas’s defense of the inclusion in his autobiography of “salacious” material was retrospectively on point: he explained that the best parts of history’s first memoir, Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, are the scenes wherein the nascent saint is half-repentantly sinning himself ragged. Those escapades prompted his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet,” an entreaty delightfully apropos the topic of conversation—as they say, no press is bad press, and Anastas and Broadwell’s books have seen strong sales. Only difference is, Anastas broke his own stories.)
Each panelist brought a unique point of view to bear on the discussion—Matteson, a former attorney, apprised the audience of the legal impossibility of slandering deceased persons (though in Eden’s Outcasts he respectfully refrained from prying into Alcott’s sex life, a subject about which she was famously mum); Levine noted that as a reader—not a writer—of biographies, she looks primarily for a good story to draw her along; Anastas, the sole memoirist of the group, argued that the conveyance of personality—not fact—was the primary job of autobiography. At this, the audience exposed itself as chockfull of working biographers—one woman working on a book about Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife, emphatically espoused the necessity of primary sources. But what if the authority on a subject—as with an autobiography—is the notoriously unreliable “I”? Anastas, for his part, sought to bulwark it best he could. In an attempt to truthfully relate his parents’ divorce when he was three years old, the author relied on a short story his father had written at the time and which was based on the emotionally strenuous separation proceedings.
Even Matteson, who pointed out that biographers are categorically a weird bunch—they must be genuinely dedicated to their subjects, otherwise it’s hard to explain the desire to engage in such a remuneratively dismal project, a consideration that also implies a certain intrinsic rigorousness in a biographer’s fact-checking—, revealed the pitfalls of relying on your own experiences as an adult. Hoping to accurately recreate Alcott’s hometown of Concord, Mass., Matteson made numerous trips to the city, counting paces between places frequented by his subject, and generally taking in the sights. He noticed cardinals flitting about, and thought it a perfect detail to include in his description of the community. However, when the book came out, a disgruntled ornithologist called Matteson to inform him that cardinals had not been introduced to the area until after Alcott’s death. Matteson smoothed the concerned caller’s ruffled feathers by humbly admitting to his error, and promising to have it fixed in subsequent editions of the book.
Few conclusions were reached, though an unspoken easy-out from the ethical quandaries of biography was obvious enough: call it a novel. Or you could follow in Virginia Woolf’s tracks—write a biography of something that couldn’t possibly cry foul: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog.