I’m in the basement and it’s cold. Above the low hum of the ventilation duct and the steady breathing of two elderly men sharing the room with me, I hear creaky wheels approaching. I’ve been waiting for only a few minutes, but not knowing what to expect and being in unfamiliar territory, makes it seem much longer. The attendant re-emerges from the back room, pushing the cart toward me. “Take as long as you need,” she says, returning my ID and leaving me with Sylvia Fraser’s remains.
She’s far from dead, though. In fact, in the last two decades, the author of 10 books (six of them fiction), Fraser has returned to her roots as a magazine writer. “She’s one of the best journalists in the country,” says Toronto Life senior editor Mark Pupo. But Fraser, 72, is still known most notoriously for her 1987 autobiographical work on sexual abuse, My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing.
The word “I” peppers her journalism – notably in her controversial Toronto Life memoir about working with Peter Gzowski and her affectionate profile of long-time friend June Callwood. Her non-fiction books are also laced with her own experiences; even her novels, she says, are “autobiographical in a way I didn’t know when I wrote them.”
But when I meet the real, live Fraser for the first time, at a Second Cup a short walk from her downtown Toronto condo, she says to me: “Unless I have a very good reason to write in the first person, I don’t. It’s often an extremely lazy way of doing a story.” At this, I feel a wave of panicked confusion. This is Sylvia Fraser, after all. Isn’t she a pioneer of personal journalism in Canada? Isn’t that why I’m here?
“Sometimes,” she goes on, “it looked like I was writing personal journalism when I wasn’t. What I mean by that is that I used myself as a device in the story simply to be the straight person. You’d see me in the article and it looked like personal journalism but it wasn’t. It was just the structure.”
Iwheel the cart over to the nearest empty table. I’m in the Mills Library in Hamilton, Ontario, and the cart contains three of the 17 boxes of archives stored under Fraser’s name. They’re filled with old correspondence, cassettes and magazine clippings. Some of the other 14 boxes contain manuscripts and research notes, but those are sealed until her actual death. I lift the first box onto the table.
I’ve officially put myself in this story. I wasn’t sure I would. My own battle with the word “I” dates back to one of my first journalism classes. My professor said the word had no place in a news story, and with such force that I still feel cheap using it, like it’s – I’m – taking the easy way out. Talking to legendary journalists about Fraser hasn’t helped my dilemma much. Callwood, for instance, has a particularly strong opinion about the “I” word: “I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it.” Why? ” I don’t think the story should be about how ‘I knocked on the door and Adrienne Clarkson opened the door.’ It’s not important. It’s not about you. A writer saying, ‘I knocked on the door’ – it seems to me lazy writing.” Author, speaker and magazine writer Rona Maynard agrees: “If you’re going to be sharing your views with hundreds of thousands of people, then you’d better be damned interesting. It’s like, I’m a guest at a dinner party and someone is hogging the conversation, when they should have stopped 20minutes ago.”
Dear Mrs. Fraser:
I think you handled the book beautifully, much better than the condensation in most of the United States newspapers. I am pleased indeed. I wonder if you will get the highly emotional reaction both pro and con that has been taking place in the United States. Thank you again for this sensitive treatment and for your enthusiasm.
Betty Friedan [February 2, 1964, responding to a feature in Star Weekly about her book, The Feminine Mystique]
In 1957 – when women were still expected to get married and produce a brood of children – the then Sylvia Meyers graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an honours degree in philosophy. At that time, the jobs available to women were “nurse, teacher, secretary or social worker.” Fraser craved “an adventurous, footloose kind of life” and spent the next 11 years working for Star Weekly, a magazine about sport, lifestyle, fashion and food published by the Toronto Star. She started out writing headlines and editing; when she got up the nerve to try writing, she jumped into full-length features.
Fraser didn’t fit the typical mould of a woman of her times; old friends unfailingly mention her platinum locks and fierce independence. “Female journalists,” she says, “at first used to be pretty strange creatures and the ones that were functioning at any kind of a high level in the field, generally speaking, presented themselves in a kind of a male-ish sort of way – be tough talking, hard drinking and hard smoking. That was, generally speaking, the form that women were expected to take, to pass as real people. And I never did that.”
For one of her Star Weekly stories, Fraser visited Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. “He was writing the Playboy philosophy, so it seemed to me that was really interesting him more than really doing it. And so there were others in the Playboy staff who were far more active in taking advantage of the bunnies than he was. And now this business of going around with all the bunnies on the arm. It’s just display.”
“She was not doing your basic old-timey Canadian feature writing,” photographer John Reeves remembers. He shot Fraser for the dust jacket of her first novel, Pandora. “She was spending tremendous amounts of time with her subjects and writing a very hot-wired style that I would have connected with, I don’t know, Tom Wolfe and stuff.”
Star Weekly folded in 1968 and Fraser was jobless. She had an idea brewing for a novel, but when she started, she found herself writing an entirely different story. “All this stuff about childhood came bubbling up,” she says. It would be more than a decade before she became conscious of memories of incest, but Pandora, her novel about the life of an eight-year-old girl, was where it began.
…I see that Berlin Solstice is out on paperback – that’s good! Sylvia don’t ever doubt that novel – it is absolutely first-rate. Canada, alack, was not ready for it, nor was the rest of the world. Its time will come. Cold comfort, but words of wisdom from a reader who knows how to read.
M [Margaret Laurence, 1986]
Fraser was in the process of finishing Berlin Solstice, her fifth novel, set in Nazi Germany, when she started remembering awful things from her own childhood. “I could see later,” she tells me, “that I turned it into a metaphor for my own life. The question I was asking in the book was: How could the Nazis have done what they did? And the real question I was asking for myself was: How could my father have done what he did? How could the good Germans have let it happen? Of course: How could my mother have let it happen?” Themes of sexual abuse and violence had already crept into her four preceding novels, but now that Fraser knew what had fueled much of her writing, she was unsure if she should continue to write. In 1984, shortly after Solstice’s publication, she packed her bags and moved to California, to heal.
I like the idea of what you are going to do in L.A. In a sense it is depressing to me considering the fact that I consider you to be one of the great Canadian writers that have ever emerged but revitalization – and I forget the term you used – is what is needed….
I think the breakthrough will happen but in the short-term, it is lousy for you, lousy for me – and I think totally unfair. I love you dearly and will continue to do so and as I have said on several occasions, if you run out of money – you can get it easily, quickly and professionally.
Love Jack [McClelland, 1985]
After a year in California, Fraser started writing My Father’s House, and this time, she knew it was personal. She wrote to her editor and friend Jack McClelland: “Even if I were writing a very flawed book it would be useful, because I have the goods. Most attacks on this subject are destined to be depressing and negative, but I am writing what believe to be a powerful, human and positive book. Because I was able to find help, to complete my journey, to describe my quest and to forgive, without minimizing the crime.”
“All of my friends thought I was committing professional and personal suicide,” Fraser says. “It was essentially the first book to indicate that abuse might be a middle-class problem rather than just something on the fringes.” The book later got caught up in a controversy about “false memory syndrome,” which accuses therapists of effectively implanting “memories” of abuse in their patients. Today, Fraser jokes that her obituary will say she had “alleged memories of sexual abuse.”
Fraser has spent most of the last two decades freelance writing, largely for Toronto Life. “It’s a relief after writing books. A story may be difficult but, hey, its only 10 to 12 pages.” Mainly, she writes profiles, crime stories and, dare I say, personal journalism. She is picky about assignments. “There are a lot of journalists who enjoy ‘getting the dirt’ and I don’t, particularly,” she says. “I don’t ignore what I find out in the course of interviewing around a person or interviewing them, but essentially, it’s not a basic motivation of mine.”
The exception could be that controversial piece about her former boss, the late Gzowski, in which she explored his battles with alcohol, depression and a “muddled” sex life. In 2002, the piece won silver at the National Magazine Awards, where she has been honoured 16 times over the years (3 golds, 2 silvers, 11 honourable mentions).
How did the piece go over with Gzowki’s family? “Badly,” she says. She claims she had been asked to write the piece and agreed reluctantly, calling it “a piece of the truth.”
“Everybody was onto this great icon who had died. And I don’t take anything from that – Peter was an icon…. I felt that the Peter I knew, who was troubled, was missing from all the things that were being said.” But, she adds, “I wouldn’t want it to come out wrongly, but I feel I had a little permission to say those things because I put myself out in the same way; I write as deeply, if not infinitely more deeply, about myself.”
Well, now, I guess I won’t be able to sue you after all. It seems I did say all those things, and you do have all the tapes. It’s decidedly strange – finding oneself laid out in print at such length, and with such perception…. But I must commend you, and thank you, for the tact and affection which pertains throughout….
And I think I can be objective to this extent – it’s beautifully written and very elegantly constructed. Many of the paragraphs really zing, and it all holds together very well….
Take care, and mend well.
All the best, Charles [Taylor, journalist, responding to a 1983 profile in Toronto Life]
People have been writing non-fiction in the first person since the days of Thucidydes, but the modern my-eyes-have-seen-it era in journalism started with Jimmy Breslin and, later, Norman Mailer. “Then all of a sudden, toward the end of the ’60s, Tom Wolfe began to write in a very exuberant, very personal way, about pop culture usually,” Fraser remembers. “And this became the style. Instead of writing objectively, writers around here all began imitating; they’d go out to have a personal experience. It was all about them.”
Today’s leading journalists still fall into two camps when it comes to first person narrative. Here’s Ted Conover, the author of Whiteout and Newjack, who, when interviewed for one of my textbooks, The New New Journalism, said: “The first person is how I best tell a story. Because my persona is so often that of the ‘witness,’ not using the first person would make me feel like a left-handed person who was forced to use his right hand.” But Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action, said in the same book, “I strive to be invisible. I’m an observer, not an actor.” Likewise, Alex Kotlowitz, best known for his book, There Are No Children Here: “For me, the power in writing comes from using the third person. Get out of the way, and tell the story.”
Angie Gardos, who edited Fraser’s unflinching Gzowski piece for Toronto Life and the later, much kinder, profile of Callwood, says: “It’s really about evaluating each idea on its own merit, rather than talking about it as a form as a whole. It’s not like you’re hoodwinking the reader in some way. If you wanted a piece that had an edgier approach to June Callwood and her way of seeing the world, then you wouldn’t have put Sylvia on it. What you wouldn’t get with that is that level of intimacy and understanding.”
If the personal factor is an unstoppable force in journalism, and since Fraser’s own “I” has been all over her writing for longer than I’ve been alive, how can she shrink from the label “personal journalism” to describe her work?
“I’m not out to write about myself,” Fraser says. “A lot of other writers pretend to be writing about other people but they’re really writing about themselves. I don’t have a political agenda. I’ve written about people of every stripe in terms of politics. And I don’t drag in, a lot, my personal life in terms of listening to people and what they have to say. I think I really do listen.”
She may not set out to write about herself but when she does, it makes for some of her best journalism. Fraser quotes Tennyson’s Ulysses and says, “I am a part of all that I’ve met,” but the opposite equally applies. The details of her personal life have helped to form the way she sees – and reports on – the world. And she can’t get more personal than that.
Once, when talking about the horrors of her childhood, the cost and scars of it all, Fraser looked up from her vanilla latte and caught my eye. “I mean,” she said, “I wouldn’t know who I would have been if this hadn’t happened to me. I would hardly like trauma of that sort to happen to anybody, but in a way, to wish it didn’t happen would be like wishing myself dead. Because I would have been an entirely different person.”