Memory Lost, Memory Regained:
The Memoirist's Power in Shaping "Truth"
Mary Karr wrote in the New York Times, “Now that JT Leroy and James Frey have been busted for duping the public in order to sell second-rate books, the monstrous question of what’s fair and foul in fiction and nonfiction has reared its much-bashed head.” Frey stirred controversy partly because he lied but largely because he was caught in that lie and because that lie was central to his story.
In a C-Span book talk, journalist Pete Hamill pointed out that memory is the “most important thing in a writer’s possession” and that we are able to be “truthful without being obsessed with minutiae.” Joseph Lelyweld noted that “we edit our memories for psychological comfort” and that we write memoirs as a way of dealing with the myths of our own lives. Memoir writing is about the testing and scrutiny of our own myths because our true stories are better than the myths we have created around them, he said. Karr asks of Frey, “How could a memoirist even begin to unearth his life’s truths with fake events?” The memoirist must be ruthless with the truth and ruthless with herself. As journalist Ellen Heltzel wrote: “The devil dwells in the details.”
The word memoir comes from the Latin word memor, “mindful, not forgetful,” or memoria, “remembrance,” or memory. Clearly, Frey was forgetful and not mindful. He brought back into question a genre that is not written (or ghost-written) by presidents, celebrities, generals, and others, but by ordinary people who have had something extraordinary happen to them, or who can write about the ordinary in an extraordinary way: you, me, and the man or woman next door. Frey could not write extraordinarily, his writing was purportedly not strong enough to be pitched by his publisher as a novel, and when the story rides on its tale and not on its telling, it seems it’s time to make up the details. Karr holds that “distinguishing between fiction and non- isn’t nearly the taxing endeavor some would have us believe. Sexing a chicken is way harder,” but the truth of the memoir is constantly called into question and the responsibility of the memoirist made all the more grave each time.
The autobiography of a president has an advantage over the memoir of the ordinary person in terms of memory, since a president’s life is laboriously documented by various people, from reporters to senators to his wife, over a large span of time. There are many documents available from many perspectives, which an autobiographer can go to in search of information and “facts” which will improve his memory or inform his interpretation of his memory. While the ordinary memoirist may have diaries, letters, photographs, and some historical documents, her life would likely be mostly undocumented. Indeed, her memoir would likely be written mostly from her memory or perhaps the memories of family members and friends. This reliance on not only one’s own memory, but on the memories of other people who were probably directly involved in a particular event or experience, alters the ability to find “facts” as they are generally conceived, leading us to wonder what constitutes fact in memoirs and how we go about getting those facts.
If facts are truths about the world, what are memories? If we are writing from a ten- or fifteen- or even twenty-year-old perspective, and are at the time of the writing, say, fifty, how can we rely on memory to identify authentic or reliable facts? Indeed, what is a fact to the memoirist may not turn out to be a fact at all to someone else – we can all recall disagreements among family and friends about what “happened.” And we cannot test the facts of memory the way in which one tests scientific facts. The experiment, if you will, cannot be replicated.
Memories are sometimes faulty, or are at least altered by perception. Certainly, the perspective of a nine-year-old differs greatly from the parent of that nine-year-old. But the nine-year-old who is now fifty and writing a memoir is incapable of recalling her parent’s perspective (and in many cases, even of seeking it) and therefore will only be capable of writing from her own perspective – one which may or may not be accurate to others in all instances. There may also be more than one accurate version of a particular experience, as there may, of course, be many accurate versions of any experience.
The memoirist who tells the story about how, when she was eight, she climbed a weeping willow tree and fell and sprained her ankle, also finds over time, as the story is told, that time alters that story. It becomes more and more removed from the initial event as many retellings eliminate or alter details and create new ones. She may alter the time of day, how far she fell, or how long she recovered. She may also find that distinguishing her story from her mother’s or sister’s of the same event is difficult. Karr, in The Liar’s Club, pointed out that “[her] father told [her] so many stories about his childhood that [they] seem[ed] in most ways more vivid than [her] own.” And this seems to be a difficulty for the memoirist. Perhaps the memoirist’s sister also sprained her ankle and she has confused some of the details of both of their stories. She may even find, by interviewing family members, that she fell out of an oak tree, not a weeping willow, and that she broke her ankle, rather than sprained it. But those details probably wouldn’t alter a memoir much. If, however, she recalled that she had been pushed out of the tree by a sibling, that sort of irregularity of memory is far more significant, but also far more unlikely. When such discrepancies do occur, as they did in Frey, they tend to be far less about memory and far more about overactive imaginations or even out and out lies. And of these, audiences should not be forgiving.
The reliance on ever-changing memories, and the certainty that at least to some degree memories are, or at least become, fictionalized is sure to affect memoir writing. The truth may be skewed to a certain extent; there are differing conceptions of truth and differing degrees of what is acceptable as truth. But there is a responsibility on the part of the memoirist to represent others and herself as honestly, accurately, and truthfully as possible. When Karr set out to write her memoir, she wrote to her friend Tobias Wolff, who had already published two, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, for advice. Wolff wrote back: “Take no care for your dignity. Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed.” The memoirist must mine her memory, as Wolff urges, but she should also seek validity, taking into consideration other viewpoints. At the same time, she must be leery of her reliance on the memories of her family and friends just as she is leery of relying on her own. While her memories may be altered by time, so might theirs. It seems that, just as with any research, the memoirist must at first look to see if more than one person can deny her memories are accurate. This would be especially difficult, it seems, for the only child, or the memoirist whose family members are largely deceased, or absent. Then again, she may not be held accountable for her memories in the same way because of such absence.
In correspondence with a memoirist, questions of how the author’s family reacted to her memoir revealed that a sibling of hers was upset with how the author had articulated some events, and that this sibling even accused the author of “stealing” memories. This sibling had had a similar experience and similar reactions. But the author had recalled her sibling’s retelling and had also recalled being excited at the time of the retelling, saying “Me too! Me too!” The sibling didn't remember this and said to another family member that when the experience appeared in print as the author’s and not the sibling’s it was as if her soul had been stolen.
Some might argue that an inability to discover a single accurate account reveals that there can be no truth, only viewpoints and opinions. But this would be an extreme view. What we more often find is that there are elements of truth in many storytellings. Mary Gordon, author of the memoir The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father, says, writers “have to believe that some kind of accurate memory is possible, or justice is impossible. I think writers have to live with that tension. It’s like with all these Holocaust revisionists: at moments like that, memory becomes very crucial.”
Joel Yanofsky, of The Montreal Gazette, wrote, “It’s hard to imagine a better time than now to be a confessional writer. Audiences are hungry, insatiable even, for true stories and everyone … seems prepared to go to any length to satisfy this hunger.” But the memoirist ought not to go to any length. Although the idea of truth in memoir writing is inherently questionable, we must still strive to get our “facts” right for our own integrity and the integrity of those we write about. Regardless of what the truth is, the memoirist’s memoir will become the truth. Through the process of writing, the memoir replaces memories, so that in time the memoirist comes to remember her memoir rather than her memories. And the memoirist also has, at least in the public eye, the power to replace the memories of those closest to her. When her family and friends disagree with her memories, she wields great power, as it is her memories that are written and will be remembered, not theirs. In addition to this power, she has the ability to determine how what is remembered will be presented and published. As Karr points out, the primary way readers know the difference between the novelist who created events for truthful interpretation and the memoirist who tries to honestly interpret events plagiarized from reality is by “the label slapped on the jacket of the book.”
Mars Hill, author of the 1998 The Moaner’s Bench, revealed at a public reading that his book is actually a memoir, but after much discussion, he and his publisher chose to market it as a novel. The reason Hill gave was that he had, by relying on his own memory, certainly omitted some information and at times even embellished some of the facts. For him this meant that the book should not be labeled a memoir. He determined that would be untruthful. For others, the boundaries that Hill set do not exist, as others see the limitations of memory as more fluid. At the same time, for some the difficulty of telling fact from fiction makes it nearly impossible to choose the appropriate label, as they recognize that memory inevitably and frequently fails.
Rick Bragg writes, in the prologue to his memoir All Over but the Shoutin’, that “the errors in this book that I know of are omissions, not fabrications,” demonstrating that he had a clear understanding of the limitations of memory, and of the memoirist. In the opening pages of This Boy’s Life, where Wolff thanks family, friends, and colleagues, he also adds: “this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.” And Richard Selzer, near the end of his memoir Raising the Dead, also acknowledges this difficulty: “Facts are not always where the truth lies…. Facts have a way of changing from time to time. The truth lies beneath the surface of the facts.” For memoirists and memoir readers “it’s the memory that’s important – it’s only vital as [we] remember it.” And given this, we may wonder why such disclaimers are even necessary. In the end, it is the memoirist’s memoir, and while she should consider other viewpoints, she must also be “true” to her own memory and not necessarily to the memories of others.
More often than not the memoirist strives to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and hopes that in her effort she gets it right. She also hopes that her audience will get it right, and remember her book accurately.
Readers need to read memoirs with the knowledge that memory is faulty. They need to recognize as columnist Nancy Page wrote: “It’s a story that another person’s memory has told them. We all remember things differently; each of us puts a different interpretation on events, an emotional discoloration. We enter the realm of the subjective. It’s our version of the past.” A blogger writing about the Frey controversy wrote, “Of course he duped those of you who bought his book and believed him. Of course Oprah was wrong to at first defend him. Of course his detractors should be angry.” But she finds that what it reveals most is a “contemporary fetish for tell-all nonfiction,” and concludes, “All writers draw upon life experiences – hence the cliché, ‘write what you know.’ But life doesn’t translate to the page day-for-day, hour-for-hour. Otherwise the great works of literature would read more like too many of the ‘what I did today after brushing my teeth’ blog entries on the web.” Another blogger writes, “Well, duh, writers lie. Addicts lie. Put them together and yeah – you’re going to get lies. We make shit up – that’s what we do us writers.” He then inquires, “But really people, what happened to critical reading? What happened to bullshit detectors?” While it is hard to agree that memoirist’s should “make shit up” like fiction writers, we are left with the question of where critical reading has gone. Memoirists must be ruthless with themselves and tell the truth the best they can, but a certain responsibility lies squarely on the audience to remain aware of what they are reading and to retain and hone their ability to discern what matters in the difference between fact and fiction.
Memoirs are often written to validate the experiences of the memoirist and the experiences of those around her as much as to remember, share, and connect to others. They are even written, sometimes, to heal because writing is forced reflection. A memoirist can gain a sense of self, of freedom, and even of validity through writing about memories. She can write to help others and to expose injustice, but personal writing seems to be as much about writing to express what a memoirist already knows and remembers as about learning and discovering through the process of writing what has been buried. The act of writing causes, enables, and at times forces us to formulate, articulate, and share what we remember, think, believe, and feel. But the genre also requires us to be honest about our subjectivity and to strive for validity and truthfulness, not only for the art but for the self.
Memoirists must tell the truth the best they can, anything less will never do, but they ultimately can only tell the truth to the extent that they can; their memories are only so accurate. And while they mostly mine their own memories for material, it is inevitable that their family and friends will be material as well. As writer Cynthia Ozick said, writers “are cannibals … I think it’s a terrible thing to be a friend of, an acquaintance of, a relative of, a writer,” and I might add, it seems even worse to be one of a memoirist.
Thanks go to Suzanne Ferriss for title suggestions.
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