LEFT EARLY, ARRIVED LATE
Scenes from the Life of Marcia Muth, Memory Painter
Marcia Muth, the subject of this book, permitted me to learn from and of her and to convey my impressions as a work of biography. That she was willing to be interviewed extensively and to provide me with contacts for additional information are remarkable acts of disclosure. Many of us are so concerned about our privacy that openness of this sort would be painful even if everything that resulted was extremely positive. She also is private, but also honest and self-assured. The result is a story of 88 years of the life of a remarkable woman who some have known as an odd child, others as a poet, others as a librarian, others as an entrepreneur in the early days of the Santa Fe literary scene, and still others as a painter.
A Perspective on Biography:
A reader who expects a biography to provide a literal and entirely “factual” account of a life is bound to be disappointed or to be deluded. If the reader accepts a particular written life story as an absolute and undebatable description of how the person led her life, that is a comfortable delusion. If the reader hopes to find only verifiable facts, devoid of interpretations or of omissions (either those of intention or oversight), then any biographical work can only disappoint. It would be information better suited to a biographical dictionary.
Given that pessimistic-sounding notion of biography as a literary form, why would I choose to call this a biographical work? Why not call it fiction and be done with the fine distinctions, not be held to any standard of veracity or accuracy? The answer is that there’s a special challenge in working without invented plot or characters. The task is to offer the reader access to a real life and to all the possibilities for wonder, instruction and inspiration a real life offers that a fictional one cannot.
A part of the special challenge to which I refer is that of applying standards of good historical research to the process of gathering and analyzing information and synthesizing an argument or thesis that the information can support or refute. The research upon which a biography is based, a large part of which is related to the history (the events and context) surrounding a particular person, may differ little from the research a novelist undertakes en route to fabricating one person or an entire civilization. I must not only seek data from the subject directly (if living) but also from as many others as are available to be informants about the subject. This particular aspect can be difficult if, as has Marcia, the subject has outlived most of her age-mates and family. The result is that most informants will be younger than the subject. Although age differences are not in themselves predictors of any particular biases, one may find fewer peer relationships and more late-life contacts or friendships, mentor-mentee or parent-child interactions than would be the case were the subject’s early contemporaries available for interview. The caution? Simply that I must strive to be aware of the various perspectives from which a person can be viewed and aware that to each person her or his view is entirely valid.
Documents or other material produced by or about the person are fodder for the study as well. And each item must be subjected to all possible verification. In the case of one who gained some public notice rather late in life, the documents about Marcia are fewer than might be the case had she been publicized at an earlier age. And then there’s the search for information about the actual individual’s context. A person who lives a long life likely has many personal, social, and cultural contexts. Stacks and piles of data grow as each new source tempts the would-be biographer to ask more questions.
Another part of the challenge is to remain aware that regardless of all attempts at verification, in the end all information has been interpreted by at least one human (the source) and often many more. This is true of even such basic data as vital statistics records. The shadow cast by that is offset somewhat by the weight of evidence created when several sources agree. As an example, Marcia Muth was characterized by almost every person I interviewed as having a whimsical way of viewing the world. Therefore, I am comfortable conveying her in that light.
Also, my intention that no plot is to be forced onto a real life creates challenge. Biographies often suggest that some lives seem to have been lived for retelling; waiting for print or film to convey them as inspiration for an audience. Their telling follows the quest theme, a journey toward a fulfillment that defines the person’s being. An example: the subject is indelibly and for all his life an astronaut; all of his early life led directly to that, although he was deterred occasionally by conflicts or circumstances. Some skillful biographers discover and portray character flaws that threaten the eventual accomplishment of the quest and make the story even more dramatic. Some tell of the “potentially great person fallen from grace.” In each of those cases, the writer is offering a view of a plot of the subject’s life and weaving the facts to support that plot. Even though the facts are not inventions, are verifiable, the “plot” is a narrative structure with predictable elements that make for an interesting story. And that structure (this happened, then this, and then this was the result) can encourage the writer and the reader to infer coherence, a clear direction, a reasonableness, to a life or portion of a life that was not evident at the time the life was being lived.
A Perspective on This Particular Biographical Work:
My effort to convey Marcia Muth’s essence is an effort to avoid the typical overlay of plot and also to avoid explaining her from the perspectives of most accepted theories of human development. Rather, I began with two facts about Marcia Muth that I gained in response to a question I asked her friend Jim Smith. I had seen her sitting with him at a reading I did in Santa Fe. “Who is that little woman who was sitting with you?” He replied that her name was Marcia Muth, one of the two original founders of Sunstone Press. My reply--who knows what caused my interest, perhaps her eyes--was, “I imagine she has an interesting story.” He responded that she definitely is amazing and added other items that further piqued my interest. Those were that she was sent away by her parents when she was very young, eventually being brought up by grandparents; that she had become a successful painter after she was 65; and that she was one of the two developers of the first literary magazine in Santa Fe and subsequently of Sunstone Press.
James Hillman’s book, The Soul’s Code, had caught my interest in a similarly unintentional fashion. No student of archetypal psychology, I am a dilettante of a reader. I often think that certain books find me. Sometime between its publication in 1996 and 1999, I bought the book; probably based on its title. I read and reread it, underlining passages I particularly liked. I had on more than one occasion suggested to a patient, a friend or a colleague that its perspective was a beautiful alternative to applying as norms child and adult developmental theories that should be, at best, provisional explanations. Clearly, it had meaning for me.
In that book, Hillman offers the following explanation of his “acorn theory”: “The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. This soul-companion, the daimon, guides us here; in the process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny.”
Certainly, Hillman’s use of myth to explain humans’ course through life runs counter to much that is accepted. He is aware that the ancient custom of explaining and predicting through myth has gone out of vogue. Yet, he makes a rather convincing case that there is as much lacking in the soundness of scientific theories of development and psychology as there is inexplicable in the acceptance of myths.
That became the beacon by which I chose the path for telling Marcia Muth’s story. Its thesis became the argument of this biography. That is, that she was accompanied by her daimon, the acorn, to become who she has become/is becoming. As interviews with Marcia and more than thirty friends and acquaintances provided facts and impressions, I found little to refute that premise.
Beginning at her current age of 88 and looking back, it seems that no positive experiences were designed by her family to encourage her self-esteem. Developmental theory would suggest that her early distrust of adults should have thwarted her function and movement to later “stages” that those theories convey. Role models in her early family life did little to nurture a sense of artistic or literary talent. Her childhood-continuing-into-adulthood fantasy life could be explained as aberrant behavior by any number of psychological theories. No quest plot can be neatly overlaid showing a singular goal achieved in spite of or because of a lifelong journey toward it. Neither those theories nor that narrative device, the quest, explain why she would succeed and thrive.
Those same features--less than positive role modeling, lack of nurturance of artistic inclinations, early abandonment--together with evidence of a long and successful life do support the argument drawn from Hillman’s acorn theory--she was meant to be just as she was and is.
Organization of This Book:
The segments of this book offer stories drawn from throughout Marcia Muth’s life, along with inferences about the influence of her accompanying daimon that the stories suggest. Indicating the guidance that The Soul’s Code provided in development of this work, most segments are preceded by an epigraph from that book.
In addition to the narrative about Marcia’s life, each segment also contains photographs of Marcia and of places and people from her life related in some fashion to the portion of her life related in that segment. The resulting combination of narrative and visual material that form the structure of the divisions of the book seemed better characterized as “Scenes” than as “Chapters.” It’s not a standard biography, but neither is Marcia Muth a standard subject.
My good fortune is evident in having been drawn to Marcia Muth and to Hillman’s book. Neither of those happened for any reason that I know. I hope that in visiting these scenes, you, as I, will smile with pleasure and nod with appreciation that we humans are fortunate to have our daimons choose us.