My Secret Life as Dianne Sawyer

I recently watched Dianne Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner (before his transition to Caitlyn), which was aired on 20/20 on July fourth. What a fascinating view inside the world of a complex person who has spent decades dealing with a deep personal secret and now wants to stand proud before the world as who he is, without shame.

To me, this was particularly fascinating because Dianne Sawyer basically has a more famous version of my job. What I do is exactly what she did in that televised interview, only with a different goal. For her, the interview is the goal. For me, the first interview is just the beginning of the process of writing a memoir.

Sawyer comes into the interview with a set of questions in mind, but clearly she lets those go pretty quickly and flows with the conversation. Jenner clearly has things on his mind, things he has planned to say, things he wants America to know.

He talks about historical issues–his olympic fame, his marriages, his kids, but then he talks about his internal reality during those events. He talks about how when he was supposed to be the best athlete in the world and a sex symbol he felt like a fraud the whole time. That’s where the story starts to draw you in.

The notion that somebody so famous for one thing could actually be just doing that to cover up something much bigger is intriguing. The conversation even progresses into politics, until Sawyer gasps and exclaims, “are you a REPUBLICAN?” Indeed, Jenner is, and the plot thickens. The observer can’t help but ponder how a beloved public figure that’s both transgender and republican will affect our society going forward.

When I interview clients for a memoir, the first interview starts much the same. Usually people have an idea of the gist of what they want their memoir to say, and they get that information out pretty quickly. Then, they realize this isn’t a 20/20 interview, but the information gathering process for a 240-page book, so we’re going to have to look at the details of the story and go into those in depth.

Thus, we’ll do more and more interviews, focused on, for instance, the details of that first marriage. Exactly what did break it up? Exactly what it was like for Bruce to simultaneously feel in love with a woman while also feeling that he was a woman? A

When we discover that some of his children were relieved when Bruce revealed the truth, we have to wonder what was it like to have a family secret when you weren’t really sure what that secret was? How did that experience, for the kids, differ from other stories of ‘family secrets?’ The questions just go on.

Watching that interview really whet my appetite to know more–both about the neuroscience of gender determination and about the people living with a brain that doesn’t match their bodies. This is the kind of thing a great memoir addresses: the personal experience, or the micro level, and then how that person’s secret affected the larger world. We also look at how that secret or problem is actually something universal, on the macro level.

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