I have been in the public eye because of my business role for quite some time. Most of this time I have resisted getting into my personal background. All of that changed when Time magazine chose me to be “Man of the Year” in 1997 and, in the process of collaborating with the magazine staff on a profile they wrote, I found it very difficult to resist their inquiries into my childhood years.
What happened as a result surprised me. Once I broke the boundary separating my personal history from my public messages, I found myself not only willing, but also intrigued about delving into my youth. This intrigue became close to a mandate with the birth of my grand children. It dawned on me that I might be too old to tell them my story by the time they were old enough to understand it. So with the idea of setting down in my own words at my own pace, the story of my young years emerged.
I went about the process of mining my memory by letting nature take its course. I would drive or run or go about other aspects of my normal life and when some scene from my first 20 years floated through my mind, I would reach out, grab it and make myself a note on whatever slip of paper I had nearby. At the end of the day I would take the slips of paper and write myself brief notes on my computer, keeping each recollection - each scene, as if from a movie - as a separate file.
I let this process go at its own pace – I knew that it could not be hurried. Memories floated into my consciousness at their own rate, triggered by something that happened that day or as a result of a memory that I had just finished writing notes on. The rate with which these ideas came followed a kind of a bell-shaped curve. They started slowly, then accelerated as I got into a rhythm and as memories begot other memories. Month after month this process continued until new memories were gradually harder to come by – descending on the bell-shaped curve until they stopped altogether. At this point I printed out all my notes and counted them. To my amazement, there were more than 200. I then put the scenes in chronological order and started whipping through the pages, curious to see if they added up to a cogent whole. To my surprise they did. When I showed these notes to members of my family, the reaction was uniform: they were intrigued and wanted to know more than the cryptic pages implied. So I was on my way to writing a book about the events of the first 20 years of my life.
I’d written books before, but this experience was different. The most important characteristic was that everything I needed to know to write the book was in my head. I didn’t need to do research – it was about how and what I remembered and not much else. As for matters of style, I had just read “Angela’s Ashes” and I was very much taken by Frank McCourt’s skill to tell the story through the eyes of a child who was gradually growing older, and whose comprehension of the world gets correspondingly more sophisticated. I tried, as best I could, to follow his example.
Then I had to decide how to deal with the emotional impact of what happened to me. Some of the experiences I lived through – war, persecution, hiding with false identity, revolution - were quite dramatic and would be tough for an adult to endure, let alone a small child. My inclination was not to dwell too much on the emotional impact for two reasons. First, much as I remember what happened, I don’t really remember my reactions to those events that crisply and objectively. Second, I thought it would be better for the reader to come to conclusions about the likely effect of these events. As a result, I told the story as I remembered it, without embellishing on the emotional texture.
I’m happy with the result. Perhaps the best compliment was from my daughters, who both told me this is the best gift I could have given their children. My mother, who is a central figure in the book, approves and is actually quite touched by it.
Most importantly, just as I felt good about the process of setting down my recollections of my early life, now that the product is done, I feel equally good about it.