Mistakes Were Made: Chapter 1 of Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments

Nonfictional Techniques tracked
-Using outside texts/historical events as reference points for your own experience (aka intertextuality & metaphor)
-Plot Structure: all leads to this, the realization of a mistake
-Sentence Structure: can reflect consciousness

images jmoore

Once upon a time Nick Flynn wrote a memoir called Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004), which was adapted into the movie Being Flynn (2012), starring Paul Dano as Flynn, Robert DeNiro as his father, and Julianne Moore as his mother. Flynn, who was on set for filming, wrote his third memoir, The Reenactments (2013), about the experience of having his life turned into a film. The opening chapter describes the day they shoot the scene of his mother’s suicide. The book begins right as this scene “is about to start.” It is in watching this scene reenacted that Flynn will seem to realize that making this movie was a mistake–and that his having reenacted the original scene in writing in the first place so that it could be turned into a movie was a mistake.

Each little vignette that we get pushes us closer to this realization, as Flynn relays the emotions he’s feeling while watching his mother’s suicide reenacted through the reference point of other texts, most often to texts describing how consciousness works. Flynn uses these passages to help convey the dreamlike way he feels on set. He repeatedly returns to V.S. Ramachandran’s idea that if consciousness is supposed to be a movie playing in the brain, then there has to be someone in the brain to watch it, which means there has to be someone in that someone’s brain, etc. The initial citing of Ramachandran is immediately juxtaposed with:

Now Paul, like some demented god, leans over Julianne, telling her what to write in her note. Then he takes me aside, asks me if there is anything she could write between the passage where she reads my notebook and the passage where she tells me she tried to throw herself in the ocean. This, I’m learning, is part of the reason I’m here—to fill in the white space hovering around the story of what happened. I take a page and write, “I tried so hard, I wanted everything to be alright.”

We get a sense here that these words Flynn provides to come from his mother are really words from him to his mother. He explains in another vignette why there’s a notebook in the scene:

She was about to read my notebook, the words I wrote, years ago, a story I was working on, which may or may not have set in motion her suicide.

 Here, understated, is the dilemma the narrator is dealing with—watching this scene brings up the emotional residue of his potential complicity in the original horrible event, and now here he is complicit in its reproduction—but the fact of this complicitness and how terrible it really is is only dawning on him slowly, as he watches the scene unfold.

After vignettes of him watching the scene, writing lines for the notebook, and talking to the actor playing himself as a child about the child’s interest in writing, a turning point comes with our fourth-to-last vignette:

IF you have an image displayed on a screen in the brain, then you have to have someone else in there watching that image, and that someone needs someone else in his head, and so on ad infinitum. . . . And what happens when the images in your head begin to move, first in your dreams, then inside your waking, and then she is standing right in front of you, impossibly, again? What happens when she begins to speak the words you wrote for her to speak, the words that were spoken to you, that you transcribed? What happens when you can sit on the couch in your childhood home and speak to your childhood self, and all you want to do is warn him not to write, not to write a word, even though you know it will be impossible to stop him?

Flynn gave us the scene of him talking to the actor playing him as a child, and in this passage, as in others where he refers to Julianne Moore as “my mother,” he conflates the actors and their real referents. By saying he wants to warn his childhood self not to write, he’s saying that he wishes he hadn’t reproduced these events in writing so they could now be reproduced again on screen. The final three vignettes, the last two of which are single lines, reinforce this idea by taking Flynn’s text-reference-for-context tactic and expanding it from just text to real life events. In an earlier vignette, Flynn describes hearing a radio show on which one of the pilots of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima meets someone who survived the blast:

As copilot on the Enola Gay that day, it was Lewis who, as he watched the city below him burst into flame, uttered My god, what have I done? Lewis had, seemingly, stopped off at a bar before the show—to hear him it seems like he is breaking down, about to break down. The Japanese minister seems calm, the radio tells me—he is there with two women who survived the blast yet got deformed by it. By the radiation. By the fallout. By the isotopes. By the half-life.

Flynn doesn’t have to say more here for us to feel the implications, even if we can’t consciously process them outright: by presenting this guy who’s nervous to meet someone he’s wronged, Flynn seems to be presenting a stand-in for himself, having done the wrong of producing this thing he shouldn’t have, and possibly the wrong of causing his mother’s suicide, but then he also seems to be the entity who survived the blast too (the blast being the suicide), but got deformed by it. At the point this vignette appears, Flynn is still processing the implications of what he’s done by enabling this reenactment. But then, in the second to last vignette, a line appears by itself:

My god, what have I done?

Here, at the climax of the chapter, he’s placed squarely in the shoes of the Enola Gay pilot as the bomb was dropped. By doing so he’s actively acknowledging, finally, that he’s made a mistake.

Flynn is very aware of his own consciousness, as reflected by the repeated parentheticals popping up in the text, which replicate that even while we’re having a thought, we’re already having multiple thoughts about that thought. These passages further convey that the problem of consciousness is being dramatized through this very weird experience of watching his mother’s suicide. Flynn’s textual references are a unique way to present an abstract idea that he then juxtaposes with his own experience, which we then understand to be a manifestation of that idea. This is also the way Flynn’s own consciousness mediates the world, by interpreting it through the lens of literature, through the considered reflections of strangers. Because this book is not just the story of the experience of watching the movie be made, it’s the story about the emotions and realizations and consequences that come from that experience. The arc of the chapter is to take us through his processing of the experience to the conclusion he draws from that processing. As such, the chapter is a replication of the way the mind works. The bits of scene Flynn selects resemble memories–they’re brief, vivid, with a lot of white space around them–like the flash of an image of a memory. He shows us how our minds work by using associative trains of thought throughout. He uses these both to move from topic to topic and to call attention to how or minds work when he’s in a scene—looking at the image of the actress playing his mother screaming on frame causes him to think of the myth of Electra. He seems to mine his own thoughts and associations for thematically/emotionally resonant material, but he’s also just following the way his mind works naturally, paying attention to what affects him emotionally, like hearing the Hiroshima survivor on the radio.


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