Biographies have been used for a variety of purposes for centuries. Think of connection with each other through recognition and inspiration. Biographies have been used for identity formation and transgenerational transmission of traditions, norms, and values. For religious transmissions and the experience of God. And for change and historiography, as was my motivation for the functional memoirs called Exodus from the lighthouse, which came out as an autobiography, manifesto, and as women’s history. However, in this day and age, we are devaluing the power of this biographical genre. Let me explain why.
Since my childhood, I have always been impressed by biographies. Nothing has empowered me more than the testimonies of people who have been heroes in their own stories, and have recorded their raw process. Fascinated by how people function, what their invisible intentions and attitudes are, and how these matters become concrete through their behavior, I have studied hundreds of biographies.
Biographies of people who have stepped out of closed-up communities and gone through profound considerations, struggles, coercion, and decisive moments, both in their inner and outer world. Those aspects are taken from my own life because I endured this, as I was looking for autonomy, freedom, and an honest life according to my own blueprint.
By going through those works, I am now able to endorse how much those connect people instead of drifting people apart. After all, analysis offers insights and hope for humanitarian progress. At least, if we do not erase those traces of history, and act on the insights acquired. After all, that is the strength of this subservient genre.
Differences between biographies and how truthful the historiography is lie in the factual material that has been collected. In the thought and value systems that color the description of the life, and provide context for the facts. In the leading image of the person, the support for the genre, the amount of comparable biographies in circulation, and in matters such as the style and language used.
In the Netherlands, we have always been modest when it comes to such personal testimonials. For example, if I had published my autobiography in America, I would have gained a greater collective appreciation and understanding of the change and historiography that I am aiming for. And America is pre-eminently the country of the heroes in their own story. Of personal expression as service to the collective. Of parrhesia. Of freedom not to keep moving within the pattern of one career path only.
In the Netherlands, we have an indoor civilization, somewhat Calvinistic at times, with a strong bourgeois character. Anyone who rises above that middle-class with a biography is sometimes banned publicly. That discourages people en masse to venture into it. Being very strong and resistant to the wind: I know something about that, all while not being a Dutch celebrity. And it is impossible to predict where that wind will come from.
Fortunately, what characterizes our contemporary view on biographies is that we understand that there is always a reduction of reality. We understand that we never get to see someone’s entire life, but only a few stories about that life. That biographies have accents and an essence. That those don’t have to be hierarchical or chronological. In short, that those are imitations of particles from reality.
As I express myself about Exodus from the Lighthouse: that I only used functional scenes from the first twenty years of my life, for the sake of the manifesto as an activist. That I see the positive and negative aspects from those first twenty years as they are, in the right proportion to each other.
Unfortunately, we are dealing with a great loss of literature among the masses. Well, Gen-Z reads more than Gen-Y, for example, but few biographies. These have been taken over by the personal stories of the influencers, who, in a well-thought-out way, sometimes by skilled teams, ensure that people start less with offline prose. I wish each his or her enterprise and pleasure, but this has nothing to do with the traditions of biographies, as some will know from literary studies, and with pure narration.
Because influencers act in a time of mediatization, and share personal trivia to grow in terms of followers, reach, interaction, money, image, and branding. They stage plays for this because their personal stories need to be discussed widely. Likewise, they tailor those stories to the social media channels for maximum distribution and engagement. Furthermore, they post at specific times to meet the expectations of their followers. And they themselves use the data machine of artificial intelligence, for example analysis and automation.
So everything out there is snackable in terms of multimedia stories. Those are like works of art made out of cotton candy. The works look attractive, and drain our time, energy, money, and vitality. But those often leave us with an even greater hunger for depth and wisdom than before we consumed them. All while the subservient genre of biographies actually nourishes.
This commercial Darwinism of being seen and heard devalues the power of biographies. Because personal stories are limited to thoughtfulness. Not feasible for biographers who want to honor the origins of biographies, or who want to practice l’art pour l’art.
Today’s biographers are drowning in activism because so much improvement and reconciliation is still needed. So when we read biographies, it is often this subgenre. I find that funny to see. Of course, the subgenre of well-known sensations, for example artists, also continues to do well. Gradually, however, we also are getting tired of all that activism. So much so, that we condemn that which connects to polarize too quickly, and vice versa. That influences how we look at the biographies associated with this movement.
We seem to forget that we have gotten to this point in time because the lives of certain groups mattered less for a long time. And we still continue to cancel people blatantly. Harmony, award, opportunity, diffidence, and justice are not the reality of everyone’s existence. And bias is sometimes cherished very consciously.
Incidentally, activism and whistleblowing have come so easily to me that we almost forget that there is a major difference between who I am and where I am in life, and what we read in my works. My words are weapons, but I am a complete person. Besides, never call me an influencer. Call me a voice.
In my case, such a biography also includes items that symbolize this manifesto. I am currently speaking with a few institutions about housing those attributes permanently, including a doll’s house that was in an exhibition at both the Stedelijk and the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam some eighteen years ago.
And I have partnered with scientist Nella van den Brandt for her historical research on women who have left religion and closed-up communities in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. She will convert my testimonials and insights into conclusions for change. See, that is the power of biographies too.
Incidentally, her research has not been self-financed, nor has it been set up for the sake of self-profiling, or established through network corruption and nepotism. After all, her research at Coventry University’s Center for Trust, Peace and Social Relations is funded by the European Union, theMarie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship to be precise. Because its historical service speaks for itself. In short, the real deal.
A new dawn has finally come for me. A period in which I will work on other matters, more about that later. And yet, I continue to advise everyone to read more biographies passionately because those connect. I continue to advise today’s makers to do more with pure narration. I won’t always succeed. Ah, my grave will one day say: she lived a pure life. That also came with a lot of loss. La fin de cette histoire.
The Dutch version of this article was published by BNNVARA, Joop.