Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues, which I’ve been rereading, famously begins, “Mom and Pop were just a couple kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.” The critical consensus on this autobiography is that it’s “a collection of Holiday’s wishes and lies,” in the words of Robert O’Meally. If measured by what Werner Herzog calls the “bean-counter’s truth,” Lady Sings the Blues is full of untruths and half-truths, or so I’m willing to concede in the face of evidence. I don’t want to disparage the bean-counter: the facts of this universe are important and, if sufficiently recounted, are more mysterious and mythic than any wish or lie about them. But the facts often can’t be sufficiently recounted with combinations of our twenty-six letters. How a human mind transmutes reality into memories, poems, and stories, even when imprecisely, often hews closer to the big living truth than the version of the facts without the intervention of Mnemosyne.
Consider one farfetched incident Lady relates in the singing of her blues. After a man tries to rape her (perhaps does rape her), the teenaged Billie finds herself in trouble and is sentenced to a Catholic institution for troubled girls. The school’s standard punishment is for the troublemaker to don a raggedy red dress and be shunned by the others. “I’ll never forget the first girl I saw wear the dress,” Billie says, “She was a real wild one and she was lone in the backyard, standing on a swing. She kept swinging higher and higher, shouting and hollering . . . And the kids stood around watching her, all eyes. . . . The Mother Superior just looked at her, then she turned to a group of us and said: ‘Just remember, God will punish her.” Seconds later, the swing snaps, and the girl flies over the fence and breaks her neck. Shortly thereafter, in Billie’s memory, she too has to wear the red dress. To enhance her punishment she’s forced to spend the night alone in the room where the dead girl is laid out.
Everybody I tell this story says just what the biographers say: “That didn’t really happen.” I myself have no idea if it did. But doesn’t the story tremble with all the truth of a nightmare? Doesn’t it capture poetically the child’s experience of death, abandonment, the randomness of order? Isn’t it eloquent of nameless trauma? The facts of Billie’s childhood, which nobody disputes, include her father’s abandonment, sexual molestation, hunger, work as a teenage prostitute, and the systemic insults of racism and sexism, to say nothing of just plain being poor (“A depression was nothing new to us, we’d always had it”). The story of the red dress, regardless of its factual content, is itself a fact of the universe, without which we’d know less of the truth of Billie Holiday.