A: No, no, though it was a good two years where I sat on the knowledge of what I had learned before I presented it to my mother. I thought for a while that maybe I (shouldn't) finish. There was a year where I didn't know what to do about the book. The fear of hurting my mother or losing her love was paramount. Even with my brother, the moment in the book where I tell him what I've been doing — we're at the playground with his kids, and I ask, “You ever notice gaps in dad's story?” — that was after at least a year of thinking about this.
Q: Your brother and mother (both of whom still live in Chicago) have since read it?
A:Oh, yeah, and if they said, “Don't release this,” I don't know, then this would be a different story. By the way, I didn't tell them what I was doing for a while, not out of secrecy but more because it felt like some stone I had been working in my shoe, and sometimes you just have to gather the strength to ask certain questions.
Q: Did you ask about your father's death when you were a kid?
A: I thought about it from the time I was 9 or 10 years old, which might sound extraordinary, but the story I would hear — I mean, I watched police shows! I watched “Adam-12”! “Columbo”! Why weren't police there if my father died of cerebral hemorrhage in the street? Did he die in the street? Why did an uncle get to him first? Why did the obituaries in newspapers seem to change the details? I don't know what the first hint was, but I remember working up the courage once to ask at the kitchen table, “Wait, tell me again how dad died?” But everyone repeated the same story, and this was not a chatty house to begin with.
Q: All in all, do you think of your family as more secretive than anyone else's?
A:Well, there's the Nixon family.
Interview with Tracy Michelle Arnold and Henry Wishcamper, from the play "Other Desert Cities"
Brooke Wyeth, the fictional author at the center of “Other Desert Cities,” currently at the Goodman Theatre, has been in and out of mental health institutions, gone though bouts of depression and emerged healthy, with a great, powerful memoir she has written about her family and the callous way she believes her parents treated the death of her older brother. But there is more than one truth here. We asked Tracy Michelle Arnold, who plays Brooke, and Henry Wishcamper, who's directing the show, to reflect on the real-world ramifications of such a story. The following has been edited and combined from two conversations.
Q: Where do you fall — release a damaging family memoir or not?
Wishcamper: It's hard. As a kid, I didn't always think through the ramifications of what I was saying. Now I wish I had. I don't know. I think the play should leave you with questions of your own accountability. I think I relate most to the part of the play that says the world is complicated, and there is a high cost to truth-telling.
Arnold: It's a tricky thing, to talk about the responsibility of an artist and being true to yourself when the art is memoir. Unless you are going to talk about only yourself, of course. Which is impossible. The character's perspective is not my own. Brooke is not fully matured, and for 99 percent of the play you see a woman who can't move past certain events in her life. Couple that with mental illness, and you're in dangerous waters.
Q: Do you think the quality of the work matters?
Wishcamper: I think it should. I think the job of the artist is to hold a mirror up to themselves, and if the work isn't truthful, it's not worth much. But I don't think art trumps everything. That's how Brooke feels at one point, though we never hear her explicitly say that. And by the end, I doubt she feels the same way.
Arnold: The character Trip (Brooke's brother) says what matters on your deathbed is not that you created great art once, and it got great reviews, but that you were a decent person. I guess that's the side I'm on.
Q: The safe side.
Arnold: Right, it is. I'm 43 and I have a child to be responsible to now. I have to think about the legacy of the work that I choose as an actress now. That's how motherhood changed me. It made it easier to choose the roles I play, because now I am consciously thinking about how my choices will reflect on my family.
Wishcamper: As a director, my work is not as baldly or identifiably autobiographical perhaps, but I've found it interesting because, talking to people, I think about half the audience sides strongly with the daughter and the other side with her parents, and often (the audience) spent part of the play siding against those people.
Q: Could you release a book like this?
Arnold: I think I could, but I would wait until the people were gone or I had gotten their blessing. But it's interesting: We have (discussions) after the show (with the audience), and the other day these people asked how could her parents have expected Brooke to be mentally healthy and loyal if they haven't been truthful themselves.
Q: She can only work with what she knows.
Arnold: Yes, but it's wrong to call it a memoir at some point, when it's plainly a version. I read Patti Davis' memoir, which was an influence on the playwright (Jon Robin Baitz), and I don't know if I believe all of it. She is really harsh (about her parents, Nancy and Ronald Reagan), though I believe some of it too. Another source for the play was Julian Barnes' (novel) “The Sense of an Ending,” which deals with how you can carry a memory around, then someone confronts (it) with their completely different version. Truth is relative.
Q: But isn't a whitewashed version of events, one that a family might like, no less offensive?
Arnold: Totally agree. Patti Davis makes clear her frustration that her parents would put on this loving public face, which is partly what rankles Brooke. Some people go through their lives pretending. But at the end of the day, it's not always the worst thing. This woman at a donor event we had, she said to me, “I had a good idea what my youth was about, but this play made me want to sit down my parents, now that they don't feel they have to protect me as much.” It's like finally you can ask, “Remember that Christmas nobody talked?”
Q: But should you?
Arnold: Right. Who knows what'd you hear?