The Shifting Self Print E-mail

oxam_78(Oxford American Issue 78: August, 2012)

Seven months before September 11, Donald Morrill and his wife, Lisa, endured an invasion and robbery in their Tampa, Florida, home. Their assailant held them naked for twenty minutes during which they were threatened, humiliated, and locked in the bathroom. Their car was stolen, and the culprit was never caught.

In a ninety-nine-page book, The Untouched Minutes, which won the 2004 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, Morrill mingles the story of the assault with other violent incidents of that and the following two years: the September 11 attacks, the anthrax scare and murders, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the stabbing deaths of two Dartmouth professors, Half and Susanne Zantop. In the same week that Don and Lisa were terrorized, two teenage boys, caught in the act of stealing money for a trip to Australia, killed the Zantops. Their murder runs as a counter-theme throughout Morrill's book, suggesting a horror that might have been, which he and his wife escaped.

To tell his story and ruminate on its meaning, Morrill alternates two distinct perspectives. The book begins in the third-person voice, which provides reportage, background, and some reflective distance.

On February 4, 2001, a Sunday, at 4 P.M., Don and Lisa lay dozing in bed when they were roused by a sound resembling the chime of a bud vase nudged from a shelf by one of their cats—except they no longer had indoor cats. Lisa stirred and peered down the hallway.

“Someone’s breaking in!” she cried.

Morrill switches to the first person when he wants to address this assailant, giving him the name, Gregory. The sections are presented as letters.

Dear Gregory:

Today, I understand, in yet another way, why lights burn all night in certain upstairs bedrooms. I fathom anew what it means to be frightened by a towel or a tumbling seed. I’m reintroduced to the absurd sturdiness of a bubble, and the persistent hiding game of broken glass and the timbre of its breaking. And so much else. And not enough else. I understand that these things result partly from begging you for my life, though I’m sure you don’t remember that moment as Lisa and I do.

Morrill distinguishes these alternating speakers typographically—the third-person narration spans the width of the page; in contrast, the more intimate perspective is a narrow column with wide margins centered on the page.

The Untouched Minutes turns away from the singular voice of a nonfiction narrator. That voice has long reigned as the “hallmark of the essay,” according to Carl H. Klaus’s recent study, The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. The “I” is consistent in style and tone. E.B. White’s persona is the graceful ironist; Virginia Woolf’s is meditative and analytical. These writers honor a crisp narrator/author duality.

More recently, Klaus notes, a new kind of narrative persona has emerged in the essay: the afflicted narrator, whose voice is so maniacally personal that it represents a “full embodiment of the self—body and mind, flesh and spirit.”

One example of this voice is used by Nancy Mair in her memoir On Being a Cripple: "I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger."

But what do we do with the bifurcated narrative of The Untouched Minutes? Two voices in the place of one. Two voices splitting the one. Is Morrill’s destabilizing approach more accurate to an experience than a pure first-person or third-person point of view would be? Beyond dazzling us with their effect, to what degree do these companioned voices authenticate a man unhinged by a traumatic event who is struggling to understand it objectively?

Morrill’s achievement was to write a book that embraces the panicky instability of his experience even as he tries to detach himself from it. The two points of view may seem to push each other away, creating gaps, but instead he uses them to build a bridge over the churning water of memory. From this bridge, husband and wife look upon the past from a safe vantage.


Recently, having reread the memoir, I called Don Morrill, a friend, to find out how he created it. He told me that two days after September 11, and seven months after the assault, he began writing a letter “to the invader.” He soon realized that its singular address, though cathartic, was too constrictive. It had no equilibrium. Morrill asked himself, “Why not try to tell what happened in third person? What would that allow me to say that I could not say in first person?”

In adopting two voices, he said he believes he used a “made-up self” to compose the book. The “home invasion” had intensely affected him; almost unconsciously, he started to “collect this group of voices to speak for me.”

The third person viewpoint, he said, “was extremely important because it allowed me to assume the voice of somebody who is not me and I could say things about myself that might be embarrassing to say—and which would embarrass the reader if they were in first person. But they don’t embarrass the reader in third person.”

Although Morrill presents the actual event in third person with fervid description and fluid commentary, the truth is that being held hostage disturbed him more than the reportorial tone can express. Writers know this: how the language of essay and biography often works to conceal emotions, not unfetter them. Thus the importance of the voice with which Morrill started: the letter-writing, Gregory-obsessed, secret-confessing “I” who dwells on what Morrill, the victim, cannot, at first, fully plumb.

The close juxtaposition forces “I” and “he” to listen in on each other. If one narrator gets too carried away with embellishment or possession of the event, it appears that the other narrator rushes in to curb him, perhaps distrustful or jealous of the other’s stage time.

Morrill takes all of a short book to tell what happened to him and his wife in twenty minutes. But that telling is constantly interrupted.

Here, for instance, he stops mid-description—Gregory is standing over Lisa and she has just told him to take whatever he wants. At that moment, Morrill calls Gregory “sir,” a recollection that, as he’s writing, disturbs him. He wonders where this comes from, why he’s been so afraid, so deferential to authority.

For at least a couple of years before that afternoon, worry used to wake me up at night. I had come to a point in my life (midlife?) where I would lie in the darkness imagining the roots of the ancient cherry laurel beside our house cracking the foundation, breaking the sewer main. I’d revisit what I’d said in a meeting at the office the day before, suddenly certain I’d mishandled the matter.

Each of his voices, often choked off at key intervals, speaks up for itself, and we follow—jarred but fascinated by the interplay of their shifting moods and motives.

Morrill told me: “It’s a funny thing about memoir and personal writing: in first-person writing, there’s not a lot of room for dramatic irony. The audience cannot be ahead of the ‘I’ and cannot be put in the position where they feel pity or they feel smarter. They also don’t like a first-person voice which assumes itself to be smarter either, smarter and condescending. On the other hand, they’re willing to walk along with that ‘I’ as it maps its own unreliability and its own questions.”

And what of the “you,” Gregory?

“The direct address to this stranger, the invader, creates a kind of dialogue with the dead, dialogue with the other, dialogue with the darkness, which is not a dialogue. It’s a one-way conversation. It forces an intimacy with the thing out there. Giving it a name, calling it Gregory, is a kind of authoring that goes on in the book, saying here you are, we’re going to give you a life but we know it’s provisional, we know it’s fictive.

“It fills in that hole, that blankness, that vacuum. It also allows for meditation, speculation, digression.”


Morrill’s mapping of his vulnerability inspired the book. He couldn’t tell the story in a traditional way. Post-assault, he entered a wilderness of starkly unknown feeling. He gave in to the howls and whimpers he found there, much as he and Lisa—in order to live—gave in to the invader.

Who knows how an artist arrives at his decisions, but neuroscience, oddly enough, has an explanation for what Morrill’s done. I call it modular narration—letting the author’s different selves speak. A quick explanation. Our behaviors are generated by regions of the brain, those that express appetite or anger or ask, Where did I park the car? Modules act alone or in concert. Losing my car has made me angry and hungry. When modules conspire, so to speak, we may believe their consort is centralized. As such, we often think we have a core self.

The philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett, rejects the centralization of the self. He asserts that conscious beings are “composed of selves which are not things at all but instead . . . explanatory fictions.” With so much conflicting self-interest, some parts of the brain will clamor to be heard over others. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban echoes Dennett’s idea. He writes, “That part of you that feels like ‘you’ is, more or less, designed to serve [a] public relations function.” The gravitas of the self, for Kurzban, is a powerful “Machiavellian spin doctor.” In other words, a self, or a clutch of selves, may dominate but no single self rules.

Here are two examples of modular narration in Morrill’s memoir.

First, when Gregory enters their bedroom, Morrill recalls putting his head down, convinced he’s going to die. Months later, writing about it in third person, he calmly weighs the moment’s command.

He saw with astonishment—with absurd coherence—that they were going to die and that it seemed preposterous, and yet this is the way these things happened. The astonishment that pressed down on him, he later realized, surely must have visited other victims whom we come to know, fleetingly and yet repeatedly, from the headlines of murder stories. No one thinks he is among the chosen—like those in the plunging airliner or the sinking ship, introduced, briefly, to their new status.

You can hear Morrill’s reflective self pulling away from the moment to survey his circumstance. What’s more, the writer understands that his current outlook—that of a survivor—was not even fleetingly present during the attack. Such is the untouched nature of those minutes, like a dream as they happened, then an impenetrable memory.

Later, another of Morrill’s modular, explanatory selves interrupts the action—Lisa’s perspective on the invasion—who channels her frustration at Morrill's literary confessions to Gregory in the months following the attack:

Of course, you [Gregory] can hardly care about that, or anything else in these fragments I seem to be writing to you—if I am writing to you at all, here in some sort of tropical depression of my own.

“I don’t want to hear any more about him,” Lisa says today. “I don’t want to think about it. You, it seems, want to make something beautiful out of something ugly.”

I stifle my reply, though I do wonder why any writer would want to make something beautiful out of something already beautiful.

I suppose I would like to make out of what occurred between us something that is just. But that’s much more difficult. Perhaps it’s impossible, for all the claims of literature.

We are a mixture of interdependent selves or voices whose purposes, for good and ill, range—from truth-telling to self-deluding to role-playing to essay-writing, and, in the current cause célèbre of John D’Agata, sadly, to fact-altering.

Writers have long been ruled by the idea of a dictatorial self in life and a created self whom we appoint to shape the page—and it is these monocle-wearing little generals who have limited the vocal possibilities of nonfiction. That is until a book like Donald Morrill’s The Untouched Minutes breaks through, hybridizing its speakers to get at memoir’s truth. His artful modular narration shows us that to get to the expressive truth of our most difficult experiences as authors, our dual or several selves (made-up or not) must be wilier than we have allowed them to be.