Ce n'est pas votre vie (This is not your life)

By Don Hall

"There are still questions about past mismanagement," she wrote. 

Oh. That's right. In 2003 that thing with the City and crooked landlords and the theater on Halsted happened.You know, then the extramarital affair with the guy who got married to someone else and the subsequent divorce? In between was the stepping down from the theater because I was tired and fat and smoked too much (which may or may not have had anything to do with the divorce or the extramarital affair) and the new job at public radio. 

Then approx. six years ago, I wrote my definitive accounting of what had happened that Fall of 2003. I wrote it for "Guts & Glory." I read it. I recorded it.

I've read it and listened to it and shared it a number of times since that original 2012 inaugural performance. For me, at the very least, it has become the official version of the story.

"There are still questions about past mismanagement," she wrote, and it hit me in the soft underbelly—the "official" version is only that for me. She has her own version. My ex-wife has hers. The Three Groomsmen all have their versions. People who were not even there or a part of our theater at the time have versions. I once found a note from Andrew Alexander following that fall accompanying a newspaper clipping from the Sun-Times that accused me of forgery. He has a version of this incident and he has only met me once.

I see a photograph of my ex-wife and I standing outside the theater in front of a Cease & Desist sign. We both look beleaguered but hopeful. We're wearing our winter coats. We are not holding hands. Across the photograph is painted in a light cursive script  "Ce n'est pas votre vie."

I see a watercolor of myself in the theater the night we voted to leave as painted by one of the many who took advantage of the venue provided but had relatively little skin in the game. One of the actors—like she who jolted this whole thought process to life with her casual mention of "past mismanagement"—who showed up to play but rarely stuck around to mop the stage or help out with the less showy parts of the day-to-day business. In the watercolor, I am pale and streaked with exhaustion and tears and the self-pity only someone feeling betrayed by close friends can exhibit.  I am in a chair onstage. There are others in chairs but theirs are set apart from mine. Along the bottom of the watercolor in calligraphic lettering reads "Ce n'est pas votre vie."

I see a courtroom sketch—like the ones you used to see on TV because cameras were not allowed in courtrooms—sketched by someone unknown to me or anyone associated with the theater. I am sitting alone, waiting. I am weary and pissed and prepared to be told the worst because at that point in the tale, only the worst came with regularity. Instead of a signature at the bottom? Yup.   "Ce n'est pas votre vie."


Perhaps the desire to have an omnipotent god floating above and beyond us is the desire to have some being see and record the objective truth, untainted by human memory or the traps of ego or of believing that which you choose to believe rather than what is true. An idea that somewhere there is an accounting for our mistakes and misdeeds, or silent moments of suffering or failure, the betrayals and disloyalty, the hidden opinions expressed in odd looks or coded phrases by someone or something untouched by our daily grind. 


Not so long ago, a friend suddenly turned on myself and a few others. I was flabbergasted that I was being painted as this evil force in her life when my only recollection was that I had been nothing but friendly and supportive of her—she lost her phone, I gave her my old iPhone kind of relationship. It became ridiculous so I distanced myself. I decided that it was less important for me to understand how she had gone from friend to foe and more important to just stay away from it. Anyone who took her seriously wasn't a person I wanted to hang around with so it solved several problems at once.  

A couple of months of this goes by and suddenly, it turns out that she has been in a downward spiral and finally looking to get some help. "I recently had a breakdown and was reading a lot about abuse and that was all I saw around me. I trust your account of our relationship, though and I'm sorry." The thing is, it isn't that simple. After several months of shit mouthing me, I no longer trusted this person to see truth let alone see the truth of our friendship. "I trust your account of our relationship." Somehow, she's telling me, her own accounting of things said and done had been falsified and she can no longer trust her own memories. How does that happen and does it happen more often than we think?


The days when I busted my balls to put up obscure theatre with the company I founded in 1992 are long gone, and now I tell stories onstage. I listen to hundreds of stories as well as tell them and it occurs to me that each an every one of them could have that Magritte line etched into them: Ce n'est pas votre vie. Like the painting of the pipe is not a pipe, each story told is not actually your life but a representation of a piece of your life that is only from your vantage point and subject to the falsehoods that accompany the bizarre byline of memory.

That story about your grandma and the woman who tried to punish you and she stepped in whomped her ass? Excellent tale but I'm guessing the woman whomped probably has a different angle on it. That time you stole money from your bank job and the manager helped you out of the jam? Your co-worker is likely to tell it a different way. The dog you bought your wife before you got divorced? She ain't telling it so people see you as the beleaguered party.

The Truth (notice that capital 'T') is an elusive and non-existent entity. No matter how objective we try to be, there simply isn't a beast called The Objective Truth that exists outside of legend and in the minds of the most arrogant. Our capacity for finding, telling and believing the Truth is as malleable and plastic as a Stretch Armstrong from the days of my childhood.

The simple reality is that stories, no matter how well meant they are, are stories. Regardless of our commitment to telling some sort of objective truth, the fact is that eyewitness testimony is the least accurate, and our ability to fabricate our memories to paint a narrative we think is best is as human as voting with our emotions and buying shit because we are afraid of death.

Ce n'est pas votre vie.