the ambiguity of the parentage

I'm reminded of a line I said way back on Day 69 - i don't even have to floss--back in the Groundhog Day phase of this blog--

He isn't just an everyman because he represents each of us. He's an everyman because he represents all of us.

But, I get ahead of myself by getting behind myself.

What is absent from a great deal of Stories We Tell is Sarah Polley herself. She is present in the majority of scenes in the film (only absent from the past footage that is genuine) but here story is not a part of Diane's story. Now, Acts Two and Three of the this documentary turn this into a story that is very much about Sarah instead, about her parentage and what that means for the bigger story of Diane. It was the weekend of Sarah's 11th birthday that her mother died. Eleven years old, her mother dying from cancer--there is no way that Sarah cannot remember it. It is acknowledged within the film that Sarah did not know that her mother was dying when her older siblings did, but still....

I must acknowledge the obvious, of course--that Stories We Tell is Sarah's story. This is how she chose to tell a story that is ultimately about not just Diane, not just the Polley/Buchan clan, not just a love affair (between Harry and Diane) and how it affected the people around it, but also about Sarah. Early in his narration, Michael Polley offers up this as his origin story:

In the beginning, the end. I am unique. From the precise moment when I was dragged out of my mother's womb into this cold world, I was complete... an amalgam of the DNA passed on to me by my mother and father, and they too had been born finished products, with their DNA handed down by their respective parents, and so back ad infinitum. It is clear to me that I was always there, somewhere in my ancestors' DNA, just waiting to be born.

Now, I would argue against the notion of anyone being a "finished product" but Michael makes a great point about the way we eventually come to exist and become who we must become. Just don't get--in historian terminology--all Whiggish about it, assuming destiny and the importance of the "end product," and I'm fine with it. I am, for example, Robert E G Black, son of Robert M. and Rosalie M. Black. (For the purposes of this example (and because I have more information) I will follow the patriarchal line backward). Robert M. is the son Ellsworth and Rosella. Ellsworth is the son Elmer and Bertha. Elmer the son of Samuel and Lisa. Samuel the son of Erastus and Jemima. Erastus the son of Hannah (a single mother, near as I can tell). Hannah is the daughter of Jacob and Elizabeth. Jacob the son of Adam. And, Adam is as good a place to stop this line since I'm starting to sound a little biblical (thought I specifically avoided saying anybody begot anybody).

Each result (read: person) is the product of not only the parents who literally come together to produce it but also every other person who it comes into contact with along the way to whatever the present (or its final day, if we are talking about someone who has already died) offers up. So, in her father's terms, Sarah very much is in this film, in every bit of it. The building blocks for her are in the genuine past footage and her present has built the fake past footage. She exists between the two and in the two, and before them and after them. Sarah exists within her siblings, her father(s), her mother... within all of the storytellers. Hell, now she exists, in part, within me for having written this. I don't believe in a soul in any supernatural sense of the word, but I also think there is some essence of every person beyond the body, stored and incessantly rewritten in the hearts and minds of everyone else. This, above all other reasons (perhaps), is why we merge together into families and groups and tell our stories (and our selves) to each other. We are greater than ourselves by deliberately putting ourselves out there.

Early in the film, Joanna Polley tells Sarah,

I guess I have this instinctive reaction of who fucking cares about our family. Can I swear? Who caress about our stupid family? I'm sort of embarrassed, 'cause I think it's our family, and every family has a story.

Leah Anderst, at senses of cinema suggests, "this line, almost a jokey throwaway, is, in fact, key to Sarah Polley's conception of autobiography and documentary filmmaking." It is indeed the heart and soul of this film. It is also what makes this film universal in its specificity. Anderst argues:

Polleys film seems to forward an argument about autobiography and documentary filmmaking: that these are plural, collaborative genres most effectively and truthfully made through a chorus of many and diverse voices, a "medley" as her other sister, Susy, describes it, each given freedom as well as equal weight.

We are but one author among many.

I had an idea for an autobiography (in case I ever got famous) years ago, in which I would tell my story by telling the stories of other people named Robert Black. I had the chance in the recent winter quarter at school, in a Performance Studies class to present a miniature version of what that might have been. I talked about the Scottish serial killer named Robert Black, a Professor Emeritus of Scots Law named Robert Black, a Welsh professor of Renaissance History, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Public Health, the Chief of Nephrology at the Worchester Medical Center, a cardiovascular surgeon, a Bass composer/musician, an author of short stories, a fashion designer, and finally I arrived at my own father and then myself, but only for a handful of sentences, almost an afterthought to the rest of the story.

I would go beyond Anderst's argument, beyond autobiography or documentary filmmaking, to life itself. To our very identities. I've said before that we exist in the battle between Butler's performativity--the pressures the world put on us to behave in certain normative ways--and Munoz' disidentification--identifying yourself in what makes you different. If there is a singular point I am making with this month of this blog, that may be it. We exist in the space between who we're told to be and those differences that push us to be unique. And, our choices--despite what I said above in regards to the DNA line--position us within that gap, closer to one side or the other

And, thought I do not think it is conscious, Sarah Polley's "absence" from her own film, and her own story, is presentative of that gap.

That absence is what Cloud (1999) calls the "null persona." (Edwin Black coined the "second persona" as the intended audience ("third persona" the excluded audience), while the "first persona" is the rhetor.). The null persona, Cloud tells us, "refers to the self-negation of the speaker and the creation in the text of an oblique silhouette indicating what is not utterable" (p. 200).

Sarah Polley doesn't need to tell her story. Not verbally. This film, with all of its storytellers, is her story. It is an aspect of her being.

This blog is an aspect of mine.

This film is about one family, but it is also, disregarding its own details, about every family, about each and every one of us, who we are, how our families affect that identification, how family decides us and we decide it, how stories make us and we make stories. How each and every one of us is each and every one of us.


Anderst, L. (2013). Memory's chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley's theory of autibiography. Sense of Cinema, 69. Retrieved from

Cloud, D.L. (1999). The null persona: Race and the rhetoric of silence in the uprising of '34. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 2(2), 177-209. doi: 10.1353/rap.2010.0014


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