Backstory: Where to Get One?
If you could.
I am in the middle of the first episode of Mad Men, the finest TV drama ever created. I am watching the series for the second time, and this time I am looking at it from the perspective of a writer. I listened to a few interviews of Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner in which he spoke about backstories of the characters he created, especially that of Don Draper aka Dick Whitman, and how important these backstories are in shaping these characters — their thoughts, outlooks and behaviors. And this has led me to write this post.
What do I know of my own backstory? How was my father’s childhood? What was it like for him growing up? How was school? How was work? How did he come to be this pitiful caricature that he is now? I know nothing at all. How was my mother’s childhood? What were her experiences before being married to my father and having me, I have no fucking idea. My grandfather who I am sure lived an interesting life — he worked as a train driver for Eastern Railways — and who was the most interesting character who I sadly got to know too late in his life, I know barely anything about him as well. Who should I ask? Who will tell?
The problem with being born in a family with no sense of humor and no capacity for self expression or empathy, is that there never are any candid and meaningful conversations. What the family had was these general working principles: pensive domesticity, ritualized poverty, aspirational greed, macho domination, and obviously, adherence to all hypocritical middle class virtuosity (I have not added permanent matrimonial disharmony in the list, because it was not a principle, it was a feature, and a very pronounced one. Terrifying, scarring, and never a far off event in the horizon. ). I have never witnessed a single conversation which can be said to bring a personal revelation.
I could spot only one person in this entire joyless family who gave sparks of liveliness and even, rebellion — that was my grandfather and he is dead. Not a day goes by that I do not miss him earnestly. He used to tell the finest stories and these would go on for nights. And if he were alive, I would ask him his backstory. But he is not alive. And it makes me feel alone.