In fiction, one of the trickiest literary devices to handle is the unreliable narrator; the point of view character/first person narrator whose perception of reality is actually intentionally skewered, so that the reader isn't meant to agree with it. It's not easy to pull off successfully. Otoh, when reading through non-fiction in the form of memoirs I come quite often about unintional uses of that same device, or rather: the book the author(s) think they're writing is definitely not the one I'm reading.
Most recent example: "The Guitar's All RIght As A Hobby, John"
by Kathy Burns. Which is the account of its author's friendship with John Lennon's aunt Mimi Smith. What the book thinks it is: liberation of Mimi from her stern disciplinarian image, portraying her instead as loving and full of humour.
What I've read: Portrait of a Mother-in-Law From Hell. Also of a relentless narcisissist.
How so? Partly, I think, because our author, who started out as a Beatle and John Lennon fan writing to John's aunt and became a pen-pal and visitor for the next decades, doesn't understand the show, not tell principle. We're told, for example, that Mimi liked Ringo's mother (while disliking most other Beatle relations), but the problem here is that Mimi never gets quoted saying anything nice about Ringo's mother whereas she gets quoted a plenty dissing everyone else. Now I can understand finding sharp tongued dissings more quotable than good humoured praise, but this is a problem if you're trying to sell me on Mimi being the "telling it as it is yet fair in her judgment" type as opposed to the "everyone sucks but me" type. More seriously, though, is the matter of the two Mrs. Lennons. Now if you've read various Beatle biographies and/or Cynthia Lennon's memoirs and/or Julia Baid's memoirs, it's no secret that Mimi and Cynthia disliked each other, and that Mimi at least during John's life time was less than thrilled with Yoko, too. But the impression Kathy Burns' memoirs give is that every second letter Mimi wrote to Kathy consisted of relentless Cynthia bashing, and that this went on verbally during visits as well. That Mimi's idea of the John/Cynthia relationship was that her poor boy was relentlessly chased down by the evil Miss Powell who then proceeded to trap him by getting intentionally pregnant wasn't news to me. (Never mind Cynthia's own account, just about everybody who witnessed John and Cynthia at art college disagrees with Mimi there; John was both eager and then possessive and jealous as hell, notoriously demanding a complete makeover from Cynthia to please him, so the idea of him being roped into a relationship he didn't want for three years before Cynthia gets pregnant is extremely preposterous. News to me, however, was Mimi's idea that heartless Cynthia wanted to party and go out while the couple were living in Weybridge whereas poor overworked John wanted to stay at home. Given that the constant complaint about Cynthia from male biographers is that she was too boring and housewifey to keep up with a spouse like John, this is darkly hilarious. Again, you don't even have to consider Cynthia's own account, or pro-Cyn sources. Pattie Boyd (Harrison), who is a Cyn criticial memoirist, critisizes her for being mumsy, stay-at-home and boring and behaving "more like John's mother than like his wife" (this in regard to John's second marriage has an obvious irony). That John should have told his aunt he was divorcing his wife not because of Yoko but because she
had an affair again wasn't a surprise because he tried to pull that one on the law, too, until his lawyer pointed out that with Yoko pregnant this was getting ridiculous; Mimi complaining that the measly divorce settlement John coughed up - (John settled with Cynthia for a total of £75,000, plus £ 25,000 for a house, and left Julian a trust fund of £100,000, which would be divided equally among any additional children. Since John only had Sean, Julian was entitled to £ 50,000 out of his father's £220 million estate) - was far too much for Cynthia, and using the exact same term Cynthia in her memoirs reports John using - "you/she didn't win the pool" - isn't, either, though it's depressing. (More about the ghastly divorce business here
.) You'd think, though, that with Cynthia divorced and out of John's life Mimi would have given it a rest. Not so. Instead, the complaints about Cynthia (now with newly added slutshaming because of Cynthia's remarriages) go on and on and on
. Julian, too, gets no sympathy from Mimi, being Cynthia's son. When John dies, Mimi gets asked why she doesn't try to establish a relationship with Julian, and she says that she's old and Julian had enough death in his life already. He shouldn't suffer by losing her, Mimi, as well, so she was doing him a favour by not having a relationship with him. This, however, Kathy Burns adds disingeniously, did not stop Mimi from adoring Sean and keeping in contact with him. As for Julian, in the wake of John's death Mimi accomplishes the feat of blaming him for being Cynthia's son and
Yoko's stepson, complaining about Julian going to New York to stay with Yoko for a while after his father's assassination. (Once it became clear there was no love lost between Julian and Yoko, the later blame presumably dropped.)
Speaking of Yoko, here's Mimi-as-quoted-by-Kathy-Burns on Yoko to John the first time John introduced them: "Who is the monkey in the garden then, John?" And thus it continues, until a few years after John's death, when Mimi starts to warm up to Yoko a bit. (Could be because Yoko was holding the pursestrings to the Lennon estate, if you want to be cynical, or because Mimi was getting mellower in her old age, if you want to be kind.) Generally speaking, Mimi was a firm believer in the blaming-Yoko-and-Linda school of thought re: the Beatles breakup (not a surprise, there's a 1970 Mimi interview saying as much), though Kathy Burns thinks she might have softened towards Linda if she'd lived long enough to see Linda die by cancer. So, is there any woman in this book Mimi actually isn't
negative about? That's where the tell-not-show problem comes in again. As I said, our author says Mimi liked Ringo's mother Elsie but gives no example of an action or quote supporting this. She also says Mimi liked Pattie Boyd and Jane Asher, and that Mimi was proud of her niece Liela (which is interesting considering the Hunter Davies edition of John's letters includes some to eyerolling ones about Mimi to Liela ("Mimi is a mimi is a mimi etc...altho I must admit I'm always surprised by her 'outbursts'... I got a VERY STRANGE letter from her for which she has since 'apologised' in her own sweet way)...I typed an answer... but never posted it... deciding it just wasn't worth 'biting back'...inperson I might not be so, err, reserved!
). Though, again: "Mimi bragged about Liela" is one statement, whereas we get two to four page letters on the evilness of Cynthia (and Cynthia's mother). There are two women we do get positive Mimi quotes about. One is her late sister Julia, and there, Mimi sounds kind and generous (the quote to Kathy Burns is similar to a statement Mimi gave to Hunter Davies as early as the 1960s, "I loved Julia. She was so witty and amusing, always laughing. We all make mistakes
"), though Kathy Burns also says Mimi was deeply hurt by John writing the song Julia
. (Incidentally: this reminds me of a letter of Mimi's published last year where she complains to John about him having seen his father in 1967 and having had him stay at his house for a while. Mimi seems to have regarded John demonstrating love and/or interest in his biological parents as implicit rejection of her own parenting. No question where John's idea that loving someone else means rejecting him or giving him less love hails from.) The other remarkable positive statement of Mimi as quoted by Kathy Burns about another woman is about our author herself; during one shared tea, Mimi, so the book tells us, wonders out loud "Why couldn't John have married a nice girl like you?"
Well, then. I was curious whether it had anything on Mimi's relationship with Julia's daughters, younger Julia and Jackie, because if Cynthia's memoirs are cold on Mimi, Julia Baird's are deep deep in the Antarctic. But according to Kathy Burns, she only mentioned them once - in an early letter during the 60s - and never again. (A John Lennon letter to one of his other aunts, Mater, from 1975 says about Julia and Jackie after Julia's death, "Mimi wouldn't take them..tho I wanted it...aprt from Mummy...for COMPANY
".) To move on to the male gender, Mimi is also quoted on the other Beatles. Her George opinion as reported in this book is as snobbish as in all the other Beatle bios from Davies onwards. ("Forget about the way he dressed though that was bad enough, it was his horrible accent and his equally horrible use of the English language that completely turned her off.") Ringo she hardly knew since he joined last. Paul fares best in only being critisized for a big ego and needing to be taken down a peck or two, except for the aftermath of John's death, where his failure to call her results in her writing to Kathy Burns "I expect he knew I knew too much about his attempts to discredit John re the songs and music". (Mimi told Neil Aspinall about being upset, after which Paul called her, which barely mollified her ("he was nervous of me... I told you...many excuses"), but by then she had biographer Philipp Norman as a new target of ire (in addition to Julian and Cynthia who were never off the anger menu, it seems), so she went back to putting Paul in the redeemable with a big ego category. (As always, according to this book.) (BTW: given that Norman's 1981 Shout!
is depending on your pov famous or infamous for being a milestone in extolling John Lennon at the expense of the rest of the group, you'd think Mimi would have liked it, but no.)
In conclusion: the book has some parts about fan life in the 1960s and 1970s that are perhaps valuable from a sociological pov. As a source on the Beatles themselves, it doesn't offer much. As a source on Mimi Smith, which after all is the main reason why I wanted to read it - I was all for Mimi getting her own biography, fleshing her out -, it thinks it offers a vindication but in fact presents her as a complete fright. Now, I'm sure there was far more to Mimi, who brought up John in a difficult situation and who saw her belated shot at a life as something other than an aunt/mother figure be inadvertendly destroyed when Julia died (as Mimi had been planning to emigrate to New Zealand with the subletter, something not mentioned in the Burns book at all), but ironically, Mimi comes across far more sympathetically in the biographies about the Fab Four (most recently, Mark Lewisohn's, who among other things unearthed a very thoughtful and tender poem John wrote for Mimi after his uncle George died) than she does in this book about herself.