When I first learned I was pregnant, I started a journal on my computer; seven months into the project, my hard drive crashed and the most detailed journal I had ever kept was lost. Since then, I fill Italian paper notebooks that I buy in bulk at a local art store; I keep one next to my bed with a pen marking my place and the journals from earlier years are piled on a low shelf of my bedside table. If I ever had to flee the house, I would scoop the journals up on my way to get the kids.
I do this for myself, to keep hold of my sons’ fleeting childhoods and to make sense of my life. I reread the journals frequently. I am a researcher searching for patterns, seeking context or comfort in the midst of challenging periods, and I am a writer looking for anecdotes for my public writing. But I wonder sometimes, what will become of this private record when I’m gone? Will my children preserve it? Do I want them to read it? Will their children be interested in their grandmother’s life?
The documentary film Must Read After My Death (Morgan Dews, 2009) has me thinking about these questions of legacy and privacy more pointedly than usual. Filmmaker Morgan Dews composed the film entirely of the 300 pages of transcripts, fifty hours of audio diaries and Dictaphone letters, and 201 silent home movies he discovered after his grandmother Allis’s death; the boxes were all carefully labeled in thick black marker with her initials and a message: “Must Read After My Death.” The film makes a searing portrait of a typical American family, one that slips gradually, mysteriously, from happy to tragic while they all unwittingly document the change.
The family started making Dictaphone recordings in 1961 as a way, in those pre-Skype days, to stay connected while the dad, Charley, worked in Australia. The family sent recordings back and forth and although Charley says “I don’t think there is any reason these should be kept for posterity,” Allis disputes him fiercely, saying “I think these are something the children will love to have in later years.”
But it’s clear that the recordings are as much for Allis — for her own sense of self and her attempt to define herself against her time — as for her children. She wanted her life, her real life, known. She anticipated the disparity between the glossy image of her life and the more complicated reality, and her grandson’s careful editing of her materials both emphasizes and sympathizes with that gap.
The film opens with silent home movie footage of a birthday party picnic, kids playing in the background’s soft focus while the camera zooms in on a beautifully decorated cake, all snow-white frosting topped with buttercream violets. But Allis’ voice-over complicates the pleasant scene: “I love my children. I want to be a good mother to them. But I’m not a person to sit around and sew and paint and decorate and do things like that. I am not a housewife. I have never been a housewife.” Her words here and throughout the film chafe against the image she projects; she longs for a less conventional life but can make no move to claim it.
Charley, meanwhile, holds his own unconventional ideas. He tells Allis about the “quite interesting” wives he dances with, and then asks one, with whom he’s spent the night, to sing to Allis on the Dictaphone. He wants Allis to step out, too, asking her to be explicit about her solo vacation so that he knows “she did “get what [she] went to New York for.” But despite these private nonconformities, he is a straight-laced man, obsessed with keeping up appearances. Over footage of a white linen and gleaming crystal dinner, we hear him say to Allis: “You probably don’t quite agree with my philosophy on love and sex. . . . And maybe [there’s] a lurking fear that, um, if our private lives ever came out, um, it would sort of shock people.”
He continually emphasizes his devotion to Allis, and comes across initially as a loving father, recording thumping kangaroo kisses for his four children. But he also scolds them quite sharply, obsessing about the tidiness of the house. Over disturbing stills of Allis caught mid-shout, and one of the boys with his hands over his ears, we hear Charley: “This one is for the kids. I realize, uh, uh, in many ways I haven’t been a very good father.” As he continues, the still images fade to silent film, the camera pans across the normally untidy rooms of a young family: “Of course, as I’ve told Mommy, the only principal source of any unhappiness in our family, I think, is keeping the house picked up and looking like the place it should look like . . . . And if you’ll do that, then I’ll do my part to be nicer, and more pleasant, and try to spend more time with you. Is that a fair bargain?”
It might be nice to think that a tidy house could guarantee a happy family, but as I write — my computer perched on a desk stacked with books, bills, and drifting piles of my kids’ drawings; laundry tumbling out of baskets; dishes stacked in the sink — I listen to my boys playing contentedly in their untidy room and I refuse the notion, as we all should. Charley focused on one thing he could control, perhaps, as his family spun out of his grasp. “I think [Charley] has a wonderful potential as a father,” Allis muses, “but somewhere, somehow, something went wrong.” Despite all the detailed recording of their lives, Allis can’t figure out the source of their problems. Meanwhile, the sadness all plays out over looping, often over-exposed or unfocused footage of the children swimming, the family house, or a car in the snow — mundane images that become poignant and beautiful in their sad context.
Allis is pushed to the limit, driving from one therapy appointment to the next: individual, couple, group, child; the film’s only moment of synchronized sound and image comes from the couple’s psychiatrist who, Allis feels, blames her for the family’s disintegration. The synched sound and image gives his words tremendous power; we feel how they must have struck Allis, and I wanted to reach into the past and shake him, or shake her for believing his sexist views. She wails privately to her tape recorder, “I want out! I brought four wonderful kids into the world and where the hell have they all gone? What’s happened to them? . . . God! I can understand people who kill their children rather than have them live like this. I just don’t have the courage to do it. . . just end it all, not have them suffer and be unhappy anymore, so damnably unhappy. All of us are and it’s just a mess.”
The movie is so hard to watch here, Allis’ wrenching sadness is nearly impossible to bear. Allis claims that the recordings became therapeutic for her and the whole family, but it took the next generation, her filmmaker grandson, to find meaning in the tapes and to construct a narrative out of the sorrow. The film’s closing credits offer some consolation, but I won’t soon stop thinking about how this family, despite documenting their lives so thoroughly, veered so far off course. I think about all those recordings and can’t help but wonder, did they ever really talk? So I look at my stack of journals, which differ so markedly, both in impulse and content, from Allis’ tapes, and renew my commitment to write and to read them, and then to close the books and to be with my family.
For more information about the film, or to watch it online, visit the website.