Biographic Violence

A biographer is not supposed to blush when his subject gets into trouble. That’s what a biographer is for—to witness a life, no matter how noble or troubling it is. But I imagine Dave Eggers must be blushing at the news that Abdulrahman Zeitoun has been jailed—again—for beating his wife. Zeitoun was the subject of Zeitoun, Eggers’ non-fiction book about Hurricane Katrina.

If Eggers had portrayed Zeitoun as a human being in full, then reports of Zeitoun’s domestic violence would be a natural, regrettable extension of his life story. Instead Eggers cast Zeitoun as the hero in a moving account of a national tragedy. He used the biography to advance his themes. This unusual approach was unusually successful—Zeitoun was praised as “a damning indictment of governmental and judicial failings in the wake of Katrina” and an inspirational example of how America can be better.

Eggers would say that Zeitoun is not a biography. And he would be right. Biographies don’t fall apart when their subjects turn out to be flawed.

– Brian Hurley

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