Poet Molly Fisk published an essay on “John Updike, His Stories, and Me” in the Oct. 25, 2021 issue of Harper’s Bazaar that shares some Updike family history and confronts the issues of truth in fiction . . . and fiction in truth.
“Almost exactly three years after my dad’s death, a short story by Uncle John appeared in The New Yorker called “Brother Grasshopper.” Everyone who knew me and my family knew that my uncle was John Updike. He married my mother’s older sister, Mary, when they were in college, and we Fisks spent every summer back East in Ipswich or Vermont or on Martha’s Vineyard with the Updikes. Each couple produced four children at regular intervals, so we had nearly parallel cousins. If you’ve read Couples or The Maples Stories, you know the general scene: beaches, chaos, shucking corn, tennis and cocktails, adultery. There were the usual family spats now and then, but as a child, I always thought of the four adults as good friends.”
But after “Brother Grasshopper” was published, Fisk’s answering machine blew up with messages asking if she’d seen the story and if she was “okay.” So she went out and bought a copy of the magazine to read Updike’s latest.
“There were all our family stories: driving home from Crane Beach jammed into the Ford Falcon with dripping ice cream cones that Irving cheerfully told us to throw out the window, so we did. There was the one wild one about Irving going missing just before my parents’ wedding and John finding him taking a bath in the brook. There was even the terrible saga of my dad’s climb on Mont Blanc when he was 20, where two of his friends died. John reset the event in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and killed only one.”
What shocked Fisk was that Updike had “written an essentially nonfictional story about my dad, changing only his name (to Carlyle), and then made him a producer of pornography. I was mortified.”