As a literary genre, the memoir is both very old and very new. In his history of the memoir, Ben Yagoda (Memoir: A History, 2009) notes that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, memoirs were usually about someone else -- for example, someone might write a memoir of his relationship with Charles Dickens. Only in the late 20th century did people start writing memoirs about themselves -- and labeling their works as "memoirs" in their titles. Pride of place in this respect goes to This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (1989), which was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996). According to Jennifer Schuessler, "the memoir boom represented the triumph of the first-person narrator, and of one who could claim (if not always plausibly) a less slippery relationship with the truth than the unreliable narrators of modernist fiction.... While [some critics] have raised their eyebrows at Mr. McCourt's total recall of dialogue overheard from the crib, no serious doubts were ever raised about his essential truthfulness" ("When I Was a Wee Lad...", New York Times 07/26/2009). (Yagoda notes that McCourt never put such dialogue in quotation marks.)
The biographer Dorothy Gallagher notes that "Writing is problem solving; whether in fiction, biography, or memoir, certain basic questions have to be resolved". She continues:
In biography, at least, a writer leans heavily on materials gathered in research. Working with a trove of documents is constraining, but also in some ways liberating, as working a puzzle is liberating. The clues are in your files, and if you've done your job as a researcher, you have the tools to solve the puzzle. But when I turned to memoir -- the shamelessly naked core of a writer's necessary material -- I found myself traveling as light as any writer of fiction.
I have never written fiction, and this memoir [How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories] may be as close as I ever get to it. No more than a biography or a novel is memoir true to life. because, truly, life is just one damn thing after another. The writer's business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve her story.... A reporter of fact is in service to the facts..., but a writer serves the story without apology to competing claims....
Now you may ask: Just what is the relation of your memoir to the truth?
It is as close as it can be....
The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life -- that one damn thing after another -- is lost. No matter how ambiguous you try to make a story, no matter how many ends you leave hanging, it's a package made to travel.
Everything that happened is not in my stories; how could it be? Memory is selective, storytelling insists on itself. But there is nothing in my stories that did not happen. In their essence they are true.
Or a shade of true... ("Recognizing the Book that Needs to be Written", New York Times, 06/17/02).
Similarly, Lisa Knopp has written in the Nature of Home: A Lexicon and Essays (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) that
The act of making something from what is already there always involves a simultaneous creation and destruction.... Even what seems like the purest, most self-contained type of creativity -- turning the events, images, and ideas of one's life into a written story --is a destroyer. Writing about one's memories, trimming, padding, moving them around, reshaping them until they fit a readable or "tellable" form, changes these memories in great or small ways. What the writer remembers after her act of creation is not her memory of the event that is the subject of her essay or story, but the written account of her memory (as quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 09/27/02).
Publishing a memoir, as with giving an oral history, is an exercise in both remembering and performing. Bernard Cooper, writing in Baxter's The Business of Memory (1999), notes that "The process of writing a memoir is insular, ruminative, a mining of privacies; once published, however, the book becomes an act of extroversion..., a performance of self rather than its articulation. The gap between these two experiences -- the creation of a memoir and the ramifications of having written one -- is wide enough, it seems to me, to bewilder even the most poised and gregarious among us".
Linton Weeks ("It's the 'Me' that Makes a Memoir an Incomplete Tale", Washington Post, reprinted in the West County Times, 08/24/03), notes that "A real autobiography traffics in facts: a memoir relies on memory" (autobiographies also cover a person's entire life, while memoirs may focus on only a small segment, typically childhood or adolescence). Weeks continues: "I feel that the memoir is the genre of our generations. The Me Decades are stretching out into the Memoir Millennium. The 'I's' have it". Weeks traces "memoirmania" to the publication of Frank Conroy's Stop-Time (1967) and Russell Baker's Growing Up, and quotes John Maker, editorial director of Publishers Weekly: "People want to find out what the secrets of other people's lives are, especially if they are attached to somebody famous. It's part of the cult of celebrity. Everybody's fascinated with the idea of being famous".
Phillip Lopate, reviewing Dan Barry's Pull Me Up: A Memoir, writes (New York Times Book Review, 05/16/04):
There seems to be a notion afoot that the memoir has overstayed its welcome, that there is something inherently tacky about the parade of seminobodies exhibiting their stumps of addiction or abuse. But most novels, poetry books, plays and biographies have been mediocre too, and no one's calling for a halt. I hope we can always celebrate a writer who, trying to make intelligent sense of life's confusions, gives us a memoir that is witty, self-aware, and peopled with strong characters.... [Barry] offers himself... as an ordinary-guy Everyman, with a writing style: "I know that my story is no different from any other story, that I am everybody, anybody, but it is my story, the only one I have."
Natalia Rachel Singer has introduced the notion of the hybrid memoir, "in which a writer presents a life through a lens that reflects both inward and outward.... [T]he best memoirists allow their life experiences to shed light on a culture, a historical moment, a time, a place, a social problem, a political issue that remains timely. Four such memoirists/essayists are George Orwell, James Baldwin, Susan Griffin, and Alix Kates Shulman" (from Singer's contribution to "The Short List: The Most Influential Books", Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/22/04).
Mary Karr, author of the best-selling memoirs The Liars' Club and Lit, wrote about memoir and truth in an essay in the New York Times Op-Ed page (01/15/2006):
And now, writing my own memoirs, I know God is in the truth. Only by studying actual events and questioning your own motives will the complex inner truths ever emerge from the darkness. I tell aspiring memoirists, if you're the kind of person who can't apologize, who digs in, trusts only the first impulse, then this won't be your form. The convenient sound bites into which I store my sense of self are rarely accurate -- whose are? They have to be unpacked and pecked at warily, with unalloyed suspicion. You must testify and recant, type and delete.
Call me outdated, but I want to stay hamstrung by objective truth, when the very notion has been eroding for at least a century. When Mary McCarthy wrote "Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood" in 1957, she felt obliged to clarify how she recreated dialogue. In her preface, she wrote: "This record lays a claim to being historical -- that is, much of it can be checked. If there is more fiction in it than I know, I should like to be set right."
At one point, I wrote a goodbye scene to show how my hard-drinking, cowboy daddy had bailed out on me when I hit puberty. When I actually searched for the teenage reminiscences to prove this, the facts told a different story: my daddy had continued to pick me up on time and make me breakfast, to invite me on hunting and fishing trips. I was the one who said no. I left him for Mexico and California with a posse of drug dealers, and then for college.
This was far sadder than the cartoonish self-portrait I'd started out with. If I'd hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I'd never had to overcome -- a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties -- I wouldn't have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth.
David Shields, in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) attributes the triumph of the memoir -- including fabricated memoirs -- over the novel (or play, or short story, or essay) as the dominant literary form of our time to our need for reality -- a need that is not satisfied by fiction. Novels and short stories may be based on the author's experience, but that connection has to be disguised in fiction. The memoir removes the disguise. As for false memoirs, Shields argues that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is a false dualism: "Anything processed by memory is fiction".
strikes me as too strong. Here's the way I see it.
Fiction can be based on the author's experience, but we don't
expect fiction to be true
in the sense of fidelity to some historical record. However, we do
expect that histories and biographies, whatever interpretive
point of view they might take, will be faithful to the
historical record. The
same goes for autobiographies.
The situation is different with memoir, because it's
obvious that someone can remember the past in a manner that
departs substantially from the objective historical record. The whole point of
memoir is relate one's memories, and we don't expect what's
remembered to be true. But we do expect
that a memoir will be faithful to the writer's memories – otherwise,
it's fiction dressed up as memoir.
Speaking of which, the New York Times Book Review carried a discussion of an emerging and popular literary genre, the memoir-novel, such as Karl Ove Knausgaard's multi-volume My Struggle (12/28/2014).
Memoir! A sweet word that, year after year, liberates writers caught between genres. Tell the story of your own life and you get some of the liberty of fiction and all the authority of nonfiction.
New York Times Book Review, 07/14/02
Memoir, Autobiography, and Diary
While autobiographies make use of documentary records, memoirs are, almost by definition, literary representations of memory. And so, like memories, they may be inaccurate or willfully distorted. Memoirs are representations of memory, not of history. But the point is that memoirs should be true to the author's memory. If they are willfully distorted, they verge on fiction, and should be acknowledged as such.
A related case is that of the diary. Many people keep diaries, but relatively few people, mostly famous, publish them. A diary is, probably, the closest thing we have to an online recording of a person's experiences and reactions to them, but even here memory comes into play. All introspection is retrospection, as William James cogently argued in the Principles (Chapter 7). If the diarist is making an entry at the close of the day (or the morning after), the retention interval alone will introduce some degree of forgetting and distortion. And the very act of writing will also introduce compression and distortion.
Biographers and autobiographers can make good use of diaries, with acknowledgement of their limitations. But what about memoirists? Which memory should be the basis for memoir? The memory at the time of writing? The memory recorded immediately after the event itself? Should the latter refresh the former? Alice Gregory, reviewing Ongoingness, a memoir by the poet Alice Gregory, confronts these issues ("Dear Diary, I Hate You", New Yorker, 04/06/2015).
I suspect that many people who don't keep a diary worry that they ought to, and that, for some, the failure to do so is a source of fathomless self-loathing. What could be more worth remembering than one's own life? Is there a good excuse for forgetting even a single day? Something like this anxiety seems to have prompted the poet and essayist Sarah Manguso, on the cusp of adulthood, to begin writing a journal, which she has kept ever since. "I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention," she tells us early in her memoir "Ongoingness" (Graywolf). "Experience in itself wasn't enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I'd missed it."
The journal, first envisioned as an amulet against the passage of time, has grown to overwhelming proportions. "I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago," Manguso writes. "It's eight hundred thousand words long." And the memoir, a kind of meta-diary, is her attempt to interrogate her obsessive drive to maintain a record of her existence. Careful to pre-empt criticism that her project is fey or vainglorious, she characterizes her diary habit as "a vice," and points out that it has taken the place of "exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky." Of all the psychological conditions to be burdened with, graphomania is hardly the worst, and Manguso doesn't quite succeed in dispelling the suspicion that she is a little proud of her eccentricities, perhaps even exaggerating them. But she seems genuinely not proud of the diary. "There's no reason to continue writing other than that I started writing at some point -- and that, at some other point, I'll stop," she writes. Looking back at entries fills her with embarrassment and occasionally even indifference. She reports that, after finding that she'd recorded "nothing of consequence" in 1996, she "threw the year away."
In her memoir, Manguso makes the striking decision never to quote the diary itself. As she started to look through the old journals, she writes, she became convinced that it was impossible to pull the "best bits" from their context without distorting the sense of the whole: "I decided that the only way to represent the diary in this book would be either to include the entire thing untouched -- which would have required an additional eight thousand pages -- or to include none of it." The diary, she observes, is the memoir's "dark matter," everywhere but invisible, and the book revolves around a center that is absent. "I envisioned a book without a single quote, a book about pure states of being," she writes. "It sounded almost religious when I put it that way."***
As Manguso's sense of time dissolves, so does her devotion to the diary. In her twenties, she wrote down her experiences constantly and in minute detail. In her thirties, the diary became more of a log: "The rhapsodies of the previous decade thinned out." As she entered her forties, "reflection disappeared almost completely." Manguso doesn't say that she intends to stop keeping her diary, but the subtitle of the memoir -- "The End of a Diary" -- implies that the habit may have outlived its usefulness. Another meaning lurks, too: Why does one keep a diary at all? As she looks back on the colossal project, she feels its futility. Although her method was to write down everything, her abiding sense is that "I failed to record so much." Rather than a protection against time, the diary becomes a cruelly accurate gauge of time's passage. She finds that she is afraid to read it and to face "the artifact of the person I was in 1992 and 1997 and 2003 and so on."
One could argue that reading memoirs comes more naturally to us now than ever before. Our critical faculties and emotional voyeurism are primed as they've never been. Social media barrage us daily with fragmented first-person accounts of people's lives. We have become finely tuned instruments of semiotic analysis, capable of decoding at a glance the false enthusiasm of friends, the connotations of geotags, the tangle of opinions that lie embedded in a single turn of phrase. Continuously providing updates on life for others can encourage a person to hone a sense of humor and check a sense of privilege. It can keep friendships alive that might otherwise fall victim to entropy. But what constantly self-reporting your own life does not seem to enable a person to do -- at least, not yet -- is to communicate to others a private sense of what it feels like to be you. With "Ongoingness," Manguso has achieved this. In her almost psychedelic musings on time and what it means to preserve one's own life, she has managed to transcribe an entirely interior world. She has written the memoir we didn't realize we needed.
Some critics have just "had it up to here
with memoirs". Jonathan Yardley, reviewing
Epilogue by Will Boast in the Washington Post
(09/12/2014), complained that "We really do not
need yet another memoir by a person too young to have undergone
any genuinely interesting and instructive experiences — or,
having had such experiences, too young to know what to make of
them — and too self-involved to have any genuine empathy for
those whose paths he crosses, but here we have just such a book.
Which raised a question in the mind of the editor of the New York Times Book Review: "Should there be a minimum age for writing a memoir?" Writing in the May 24, 2015 issue, Leslie Jamison and Benjamin Moser both said, basically "No" -- though both also thought that some chronological distance gave a perspective on events that wouldn't be available to the author when younger. Moser further remarked that:
Writing a memoir at a young age can also have personal disks -- for example, when, at a later date, the author's children find it. A case in point is Kathryn Harrison, whose memoir, The Kiss, detailed her incestuous relationship with her father -- and then, later, the book was discovered by her 12-year-old daughter (see "They've Said Too Much" by Noelle Howey, New York Times Book Review, 07/12/2015). Howey, whose own youthful memoir was more than a little self-disclosing, argues that "Whatever early memoirs lack in perspective, they make up in urgency, the sense that here is a story that must be told."
For Hadrian [the Roman emperor, whose own autobiography has been lost, but whose life was the subject of Memoirs of Hardian, a novel written in the form of a memoir by Marguerite Yourcenar], a life had to be seen whole. For Augustine, the narrative had to be split in the middle. Christianity implied that life, rather than simply ending, is an ongoing project, in which mistakes were made and lessons learned. Most modern memoirs, secularized since Rousseau, are still under-girded with this basically religious notion of progress: I once was lost but now am found.
History, after all, is not the past but a story of the past; biography is not a life but a story of a life. And a memoir is not a memory but an artist's transfiguration of that memory. The memory itself is only, literally, pre-text; what happened is as irrelevant as the age at which it is recalled. We read a memoir as we read any other book, for the teller, not the tale, and we know - -we should know -- that every event is changed when transformed into a story.
The French word from which the English “memoir” derives reflects this transformation. Mémoire, meaning “memory,” is feminine; mémoire, meaning “memoir,” is masculine. It is a change of gender, in French called genre. Truth belongs to one genre; recalled truth to another. But that does not make truth recalled a lie: It makes it a fiction in the Latin sense — of a thing fashioned — that Hadrian would have recognized. A memoir is a shape given to the chaos of a life.
Every event, and certainly every event worth writing about, will always remain tattooed on our neurons. So it is never too early to start giving those events, which are our lives, a form. It is a homage we pay ourselves. More solid than a memory, a memoir will outlast it, because until a memory is put into words, it remains mist, never shore.
Herewith, a selection of famous cases of distorted memory in memoir.
Consider the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss musician whose book, Fragments (1995), portrays a young Jewish child's life in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. As Wilkomirski tells his story, he was born in Latvia in 1939, witnessed his father's execution when he was 3 or 4 years of age, and was incarcerated in a series of camps. At the end of the war, he was found wandering around Auschwitz, and he was placed in an orphanage in Krakow.
Wilkomirski included in his book a group photo taken in a Polish orphanage around 1946: one of the children is highlighted by the annotation, "Could this be me?". In any event, he was relocated to Switzerland in 1948, and recovered memories of his camp experiences during psychotherapy. Wilkomirski's book is vivid and powerful. Jonathan Kozol, reviewing it in the Nation, compared it with Elie Wiesel's Night, one of a true classics of Holocaust literature. The book won a host of literary prizes, including the Jewish Quarterly prize for non-fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for autobiography; the American edition was listed by the New York Times as a "notable book" for 1997. It has been called the "most successful Swiss book since Heidi".
Fragments is also often cited as an example of the qualities of traumatic memory: it is fragmentary (hence its title), lacking in narrative coherence. Wilkomirski's story has also been touted as evidence for the success of recovered memory therapy. More recently, however, strong doubts have been raised about its provenance. In contrast to Night, it is lacking in specific details -- but then again, what do we expect from the memories of a 4-year-old child? More unsettling is the fact that few young children survived the camps. Children younger than 7 years were usually killed quickly after their arrival and apparently there were no children at all at Auschwitz.
Despite Wilkomirski's photograph from Krakow, Swiss adoption records indicate that Wilkomirski was born Bruno Grossjean near Bern, Switzerland in 1941, to a poor, unmarried, Protestant woman. He was a public ward until 1945, when he was taken in as a foster child by Kurt and Martha Dossekker, and raised by them in Zurich; in 1957, he was formally adopted. Bruner appears in Dossekker family pictures dating from 1946, and school records dating from 1947. He attended university, worked as a musician and instrument-maker, became an amateur historian of the Holocaust, and changed his name to Binjamin Wilkomirski in the 1980s. Both his adoptive parents died in 1986.
It is now widely believed that Fragments is a work of "nonfiction fiction". It has become very common for writers to incorporate fictional scenes into nonfiction -- think of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, or the work of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Just last year, Edmund Morris inserted himself, like Woody Allen's Zelig, as a character in his authorized biography of Ronald Reagan, following the president from a high-school football field in Dixon, Illinois, straight into the White House. Wilkomirski seems to have done the opposite: to incorporate nonfiction, details of the Holocaust gleaned from a lifetime's obsessive reading, into fiction -- a memoir which isn't based on personal recollection. The irony is that Fragments works as a piece of fiction -- but as one critic noted, "Nonfiction sells better than fiction".
Moreover, in a striking parallel to the views of some trauma therapists, some publishers seem to feel that it is not their job to fact-check their authors' memoirs. Arthur Samuelson, Wilkomirski's American publisher, noted that:
We don't have fact checkers. We are not a detective agency. We are a vehicle for authors to convey their work, and we distribute their information with a feeling of responsibility.
Similarly, Elizabeth Janeway, his American editor, stated that:
We don't vet books on an adversarial basis. We have no means of independent collaboration [sic].
Reliance on uncorroborated memory may be good for the publishing business, but it may not be good for history. But then again, it may not be good for the publishing business, either. After commissioning an independent investigation, Wilkomirski's German publisher withdrew the book from circulation.FN
In an article on "witness literature", Timothy Garton Ash referred to Wilkomirski as an example of a writer on "the frontier between the literature of fact and the literature of fiction", but whose book lacks the essential "truth test" of "veracity" (On the Frontier", New York Review of Books, 11/07/02).
Reading Fragments now, one is amazed that it could ever have been hailed as it was. The wooden irony ("Majdanek is no playground"), the hackneyed images (silences broken by the sound of cracking skulls), the crude, hectoring melodrama (his father squashed against the wall by a transporter, dead women with rats crawling on their stomachs). Material which, once you know it is fraudulent, is truly obscene. But even before one knew that, all the aesthetic alarms should have sounded. For every page has the authentic ring of falsehood.
But it would be too simple, and wrong, to say that Wilkomirski lied. Apparently, Wilkomirski believes that his story is true: according to the New York Times, when the veracity of his book was challenged by his German publisher, he stood up defiantly and declared:
I am Binjamin Wilkomirski!.
Even his severest critics think that he is sincere.
In an interesting twist on the Wilkomirski story, a novel about the Holocaust, written in the first person, has been reissued as a memoir -- because that's what it actually is ("Holocaust Memoir is Reissued, No Longer Designated Fiction" By Ralph Blumenthal, New York Times 7/12/02). Jakob Littner's Notes from a Hole in the Ground by Wolfgang Koeppen (1992), was originally published, in 1948, as Notes from a Hole in the Ground by Jakob Littner, a Hungarian-born Polish Jew who was a stamp dealer in Munich before the war. Koeppen served as editor of the book. Littner died in 1950.
Koeppen himself emerged as a prominent German writer in the 1950s. In 1992, Judischen Verlag issued Notes under its revised title with Koeppen listed as author and the book categorized as "fiction". When Littner's surviving relatives protested the appropriation, Judischen Verlag (interestingly, a subdivision of Suhrkamp Verlag, which also published Wilkomirski's "memoir") replied that Koeppen had "given the notes an adequate form" and acknowledged Littner in the title. But the situation is more complicated than that. Reinhard Zachau, a scholar of German literature, discovered that Koeppen had changed Littner's text in important ways. More important in the context of memory, Koeppen seems to have made Littner's story his own. Commenting on "his" book, Koeppen wrote, "I ate American rations and wrote the story about the suffering of a German Jew. In so doing it became my story". Koeppen died in 1996. Littner's book has now been reissued under his original title, Journey Through the Night (Continuum, 2000), categorized as "nonfiction".
As if nobody had learned anything from the Wilkomirski episode (not to mention the more recent cases of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and Margaret Seltzer's Love and Consequences, another fraudulent Holocaust memoir popped up in 2008, when Berkley Books announced the forthcoming publication (scheduled for February 2009) of Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived. As the story goes, while Rosenblat was incarcerated as a child in a Nazi concentration camp in Schlieben, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, a local girl had thrown apples and bread to him over the prison fence -- food which kept him alive. After the war, living in Coney Island, he had a blind date with Roma Radzicki, herself recently emigrated from Germany, who told him that she had tossed food to a boy over a concentration-camp fence. He replied that he was that boy, and they married in 1958. He and his wife often told the story of their initial meetings and reunion, a short version of the story won a 1995 contest by the New York Post for the best love story sent in by a reader, and they made an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's TV show in 1996, and again in 2007. The story was also turned into a children's book, Angel Girl, by Laurie Friedman(2008). Berkley sold the film rights, and Flower of the Fence, a movie based on the story was scheduled for release in 2009.
As a result of the Oprah appearance and advance publicity for the book and the movie, however, Holocaust scholars took a critical look at the story, and came to doubt its accuracy. For one thing, the layout of Schlieben made it extremely unlikely that townspeople could come in contact with camp inmates. Unlike the Wilkomirski case, nobody disputes that Rosenblat was a prisoner; it's the meetings between the boy and girl that are in dispute.
Link to "Wartime Lies" by Gabriel Sherman, The New Republic (12/26/2008).
Rosenblat initially defended his work as based on his memories: "The events that are its background are part of history; the book, however, reflects my memories of how the events affected my life. I was a young child at the time my family was caught up in the Holocaust, and I saw things through a young child's eyes. But I know and remember what I saw" ("Author Defends Disputed Memoir on Holocaust" by Hillel Italie, West County Times, 12/29/2008). Quite quickly, however, Rosenblat admitted that he had "embellished" his story. In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America", however, Rosenblat said that "It wasn't a lie. It was my imagination. and in my imagination, in my mind, I believed it. Even now I believe it, that she was there and she threw the apple to me" ("Discredited Memoirist Defends Holocaust Book", New York Times, 02/19/2009).
Berkley canceled the book. The publisher of the children's book has offered refunds, and indicated that it will not be reprinted. Apparently release of the film will go forward ("False Memoir of Holocaust is Canceled by Publisher" by Motoko Rich and Joseph Berger, New York Times, 12/29/2008. In January 2009, it was announced that York House Press was negotiating for the rights to publish the Rosenblat story as fiction, now entitled Flower at the Fence -- apparently as a movie tie-in.
The episode instigated the usual discussion of why publishers don't engage in even routine fact-checking of books advertised as nonfiction, and why the reading public is such an easy mark for faked (or, for that matter, true) memoirs ("As Another Memoir is Faked, Trust Suffers" by Motoko Rich & Brian Stelter, New York Times, 12/31/2008).
Questions of fact have also been raised about another autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1983), which chronicles the life of a Maya Indian growing up in during a period of civil war which pitted a right-wing government against left-wing guerillas, and landowners of European descent against indigenous peasants. Menchu details the squalid conditions of peasant existence, such as her lack of formal education and her youngest brothers' deaths from malnutrition. She also related personal horrors, such as an army attack on her village, the burning of prisoners in the central plaza, the torture and killing of her mother and brother, the police execution of her father.
I, Rigoberta Menchu is a very powerful book, which quickly entered the canon of Latin American Literature; it is one of the most popular books sold on college campuses, and won Menchu the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 (probably not coincidentally, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America). There is no doubt that the conditions of the time in Guatemala were awful, mostly by virtue of government atrocities perpetrated in behalf of the oligarchy.
At the same time, research by David Stoll (1999), an anthropologist at Middlebury College, has revealed that many of the specific incidents in Menchu's book were exaggerated or fabricated. Menchu received a junior high-school education as a scholarship student at an elite Catholic boarding school; she almost certainly never worked on a plantation; her father was killed in a land dispute with his in-laws; her brother was killed by the army, but she never saw it happen, and he was not burned in the plaza; her youngest brother is alive and well; two older brothers died of starvation and disease, but before Menchu was born. Stoll concludes that Menchu's book cannot be strictly autobiographical, because she simply did not have many of the experiences that she claimed to witness.
Menchu, for her part, replied that her story is "my truth", and that:
I have a right to my own memories
-- though in a 1999 interview given in response to Stoll's book she conceded that some material was historically false. She did not disclose her educational history, for example, out of a desire to protect the nuns, who were involved in political activities inspired by liberation theology. She admits that she did not actually witness her brother's murder, but even Stoll admits that her account of his death is factually correct.
To be fair, Stoll is less concerned with the accuracy of Menchu's memory than with offering an alternative history of the Guatemalan civil war. For a thorough discussion of Stoll's book, see "It Was Heaven that They Burned" by Greg Grandin, The Nation, 09/27/2010, or the longer version of Grandin's essay published in Who Is Rigoberta Menchu? (2011). With respect to Menchu's memories, Grandin notes the following:
Scholars commonly discuss I, Rigoberta Menchu as reflecting the communal nature of Mayan society, where oral storytelling blurs the line between individual and group experience. Historians Christopher Lutz and George Lovell reach deep into the past to argue that sixteenth-century indigenous accounts of the Spanish conquest were often written in the collective voice, and that when Menchu, on the first page of her memoir, cautions that her memory is poor and that the story she is about to tell is "not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people," she means it literally. "I can't force them to understand," Menchu repeated in her 1999 interview. "Everything, for me, that was the story of my community is also my own story. I did not come from the air."
This is what is
known in literary criticism as the surrogacy defense,
discussed by Louis Menand in "Faking It: Literary Hoaxes and the
Ethics of Authorship" (New Yorker, 12/10/2018).
That is to say, even if an event recounted in an autobiography
didn't happen to the author, it happened to someone, and
so the book in question is really the life story of a group of
people -- e.g., the indigenous people of Guatemala. The
Autobiography of Malcolm X is another example cited by
Menand -- representing the experiences of African-American men
during the "Jim Crow" period before the civil rights movement
discusses the higher-truth defense, which is to say
that, while certain events may be fabricated, they convey "what
it is really like" to be a particular kind of person.
Another example is James Frey's A Million Little Pieces,
a memoir about his life addicted to drugs and alcohol.
In addition to
this fusion of individual and collective memory, other factors
may also have been at play. For example, Grandin notes
that, on the occasion of the publication of Stoll's book, "Some
[publications] took the time to commission lengthy meditations
on the relationship of facts to memory in a preliterate,
traumatized peasant society". In addition, Menchu's book
was based on interviews given to, and transcribed by, a French
ethnopsychiatrist, Elisabeth Burgos -- in fact, Menchu had
nothing to do with the editing and production of the book, and
Burgos holds the author's rights to it. The interviews on
which the book was based were given soon after Menchu arrived in
Paris as a refugee, and "was the first sustained opportunity
Menchu had to process memories and survivor guilt". The
important thing, Grandin implies, is that Menchu captured what
as going on at a particular period in Guatemalan history.
When the playwright Lillian Hellman published her memoirs (An Unfinished Woman, 1969; Pentimento, 1973; and Scoundrel Time, 1976), the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy (author of The Group, 1963) famously responded (on "The Dick Cavett Show", 1980) by claiming that "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'". Hellman sued McCarthy for libel, but died in 1984, before the case could be tried (McCarthy died in 1989). The Hellman-McCarthy episode, and the broader relation between the two women is the subject of two plays -- Ben Pleasants' Contentious Minds, and Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends (which premiered on Broadway in 2002). Dick Cavett commented on the episode in a "Talk of the Town" piece published in the 12/16/02 New Yorker, strongly suggesting that McCarthy's remark, far from being spontaneous, had been preplanned without his knowledge ("Dept. of Litigation: Lillian, Mary, and Me").
Bernard Weinraub writes that Hellman "has been depicted in a series of books since her death as nothing less than venal, hypocritical and a liar whose memoirs were riddled with fabrications. By contrast, McCarthy was obsessed, even in her fiction, with telling the truth, down to the slightest detail -- truth that wounded lovers, husbands, and friends" (With Music and Malice in Every 'And' and "The'", New York Times, 09/29/02). The relationship between Hellman and McCarthy (who apparently met face-to-face only once) is dramatized in Nora Ephron's play, Imaginary Friends (2002), in which the two antagonists meet in Hell (reviewed in "Literary Lions, Claws Bared" by Ben Brantley, New York Times, 12/13/02).
Dave Pelzer made it to the New York Times best-seller list with his memoir of his childhood abuse, A Child Called "It", and with two sequels (there was a time when all three books appeared simultaneously on the list). In 2005, his brother, Richard, came out with his own memoir, A Brother's Journey: Surviving a Childhood of Abuse, which according to the publisher's advertisement "delves even more deeply into the family history" (New York Times Book Review, 01/16/05).
Bill Ayres, now a college professor, has published a memoir (Fugitive Days, Beacon, 2001) of his time as a leader of the Weather Underground. In an interview, which he had the misfortune (perhaps deservedly so) of seeing published in the New York Times on the morning of September 11, 2001, Ayres said "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough" ("No Regrets for a Love of Explosives", by Dinitia Smith). But in the memoir itself, Ayres is often cagey about the truth of his story. At one point he writes "Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon". But then he goes on "I say 'I' even though I didn't actually bomb the Pentagon -- we bombed it, in the sense that the Weathermen organized it and claimed it." Perhaps Ayres is trying to protect his former associates, if not himself as well. But there are other issues as well, that go to the relation between memory, history, and literature. In a review of the book, Brent Staples notes that Ayres needed to "claim" the bombing in order to write about it" ("The Oldest Rad", New York Times Book Review, 9/30/01). In his memoir, Ayres writes "Is this, then, the truth? Not exactly. Although it feels entirely honest to me." Asked by Smith to clarify, Ayres responded " Obviously, the point is that it's a reflection on memory. It's true as I remember it." In another interview published later that same week, ("Forever Rad" by Hope Reeves, New York Times Magazine, 9/16/01), Ayres said 'Memoirs are not records of events; they are memories.... I have a little disclaimer that says, "This is one version of events, not authoritative, not authorized, but one boy's story. Did I make things look a certain way that they weren't or purposely leave things out? Not consciously, but perhaps unconsciously. Someone else could say, 'No, no, it was like this.' And it's not like one of us has a purchase on the truth. I'm writing a story about how it felt to me, and I invite everyone to write the story about how it felt to them. It's the clash of stories that's the true story. It's collective memory that matters."
John Bayley, husband of the British writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote Elegy for Iris about the descent into Alzheimer's disease of his spouse, Iris Murdoch (the book formed the basis for the film Iris). As a kind of companion volume, he also wrote Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire (1999). "In a Proustian irony, as iris was losing her memory, Bayley was flooded with vivid recollections of his own, and recounts in bursts of vivid, lyrical reverie the unforgettable scenes of his youth..." (Daedalus Books, Fall 2002).
In 1971, Ernest J. Gaines published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman, which eventually was produced as a movie (possibly made for television) starring Cicely Tyson. Gaines' book is presented as the recollections of a freed slave who lived to be 110 years old. Garrison Keillor reports that the novel was praised for its "uncannily authentic voice", and Gaines was "besieged" for "advice about how to interview elderly people, and how to get them to talk openly about their memories. He had to tell them that he had made the whole thing up, and had no idea how to do interviews " (The Writer's Almanac, Minnesota Public Radio, 01/15/03).
Hume Cronyn (1911-2003), the great American actor (perhaps most famous for his dual appearances with his wife, Jessica Tandy) wrote a memoir entitled A Terrible Liar (1991) -- the title referring not to the author, but to memory.
Roger Angell, beginning a memoir in the New Yorker (06/07/04), notes that
Memory is fiction -- an anecdotal version of some scene or past event we need to store away for present or future use. John McCrone, a British science correspondent, writing in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, calls memories "cognitive reconstructions," and goes on to say that our brains, though not well evolved for retrospection or contemplation, never give up a reshuffling process in their effort to extract what is general and what is particular about each passing moment of life. Garry Wills, in his book "Saint Augustine's Memory," writes, "The past... is not an inert structure in which we can deposit a remembered item to remain unchanged until called up again.... In fact, what is being recalled is the experience that a person underwent in acquiring anything to be remembered."
In 2004, the satirist Tony Hendra (alumnus of the National Lampoon and co-star of the parody documentary This Is Spinal Tap) published a best-selling memoir, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (Random House), describing his spiritual growth through his friendship with an English Benedictine monk (reviewed in "The Saint and the Satirist" by Andrew Sullivan, New York Times Book Review, 05/30/04). Hendra had quite a life, lots of sex and drugs as well as rock-and-roll: his redemption began when he was banished to a monastery at the age of 14 for having an affair with a married woman. But soon after the book appeared, Jessica Hendra, his daughter from his first marriage, publicly accused Hendra of incest ("Daughter Says Father's Confessional Book Didn't Confess His Molestation of Her" by N.R. Kleinfield, New York Times, 07/01/04). Hendra denies the charges, and the public editor of the Times, wrote a column in which he discussed whether the daughter's claims were newsworthy ("When the Right to Know Confronts the Need to Know" by Daniel Okrent, New York Times, 07/11/04). Jessica Hendra's own memoir, in which she details her charges against her father, was published in 2005 (How to Cook Your Daughter: A Memoir, written with Blake Morrison).
Also in 2004, the Australian unit of Random House withdrew Forbidden Love, a memoir published in 2002b Norma Khouri (and published in the United States in 2003 as Honor Lost, by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. In the book, Khouri, a Jordanian Muslim woman, recounts the story of her friend Dalia, who was killed by her father for becoming involved with a Christian man. In 2003, Jordanian woman's groups claimed that the book had factual errors and inconsistencies; after an investigation, Random House Australia determined that the book was probably fiction. For example, while Khouri claimed she grew up in Amman, Jordan, when her family actually emigrated to Chicago when she was three. Instead of leaving Jordan out of fear for her safety, she left Chicago for Australia in the midst of a fraud investigation ("Publisher Says Memoir is Probably Fiction" by Edward Wyatt, New York Times, 08/14/04). In response, Khouri "admitted that she changed some facts about her background and made up names, dates, and locations of some events in the book.... But... Ms. Khouri insisted that the basic story was true" and that "she had 'literary license' to make the changes to protect friends still living in Jordan" ("True But Not So True" by Ben Sisario, New York Times, 08/18/04).
Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop by Joseph Lelyveld (2005), a long-time journalist for the New York Times, contains the following remarks about memory: "History may be linear, but memory, at least mine, isn't; it runs in loops". Andre Aciman, reviewing the book, cites L.P. Hartley's famous line (from the Go-Between): "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there". Aciman continues, "In the country of the past, events follow a coiled logic all their own and frequently come not in one but in many versions; faces, places and dates are shuffled around, and remembered feelings are blunted in ways sure to soften the pinpricks of conscience. In the land of the past, everything jells to just about the right consistency, so that however often we visit, we know we'll come back unchanged, untouched, unhurt. And this -- at least at the beginning -- is what this memoir promises: a safe circle-line tour around the landfill each of us calls the past" ("In a Tantalizing Labyrinth of Painful Memories" by Andre Aciman, New York Times, 04/01/05).
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2003), a tale of substance abuse and redemption, was selected by Oprah Winfrey's television book club (Winfrey described it as "raw" and "so real"), a selection that propelled it to the top of various best-seller lists. However, a report on The Smoking Gun website, picked up by the New York Times ("Best-Selling Memoir Draws Scrutiny" by Edward Wyatt, 01/10/06), found substantial inaccuracies in the author's account of his life. For example, Frey claimed that at one point he spent three months in prison, when in fact it was only a few hours. Wyatt reported that Frey said that he originally envisioned the book as a novel, but following discussions with the publisher (Doubleday), decided to present it as a memoir, following in a literary tradition (e.g., Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac) of publishing autobiographical fiction -- as if publishing a fictional memoir was in the same category as publishing an autobiographical novel.
According to Wyatt: "The discrepancies and Mr. Frey's reported admissions of falsifying details of his life raise questions about the publishing industry's increasing reliance on nonfiction memoirs as a fast track to the best-seller list. It is not at all uncommon to see new books marketed as nonfiction containing notes to readers saying the author has altered the time sequence of events, created composite characters, changed names or otherwise made up details of a memoir.
As the controversy grew, Frey agreed to add an author's note to subsequent editions of his book, presumably clarifying that some of it is fictional. Such a note, in fact, appeared in a sequel, My Friend Leonard, published in 2005, before the controversy broke ("Memoirist to Add Author's Note", by Edward Wyatt, New York Times, 01/14/06).
Honor Moore, in The Bishop's Daughter: a Memoir (2008), combines memory with biography. The first quarter of her book is devoted to a biography of her father, Paul Moore, who was the Episcopal Bishop of New York in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not until p. 93 that she is born: as she writes, "And so I have come into the story". Reviewing the book, Kathryn Harrison, another memoirist, writes:
"[M]emoir is idiosyncratic and intimate, its logic emotional and associative. It is a freer and more creative form than biography, which attempts objectivity and relies on research -- letters, journals, interviews with family and friends -- to verify its claims. Generally, biography skates along the surface of a life without allowing the reader access to the messy, conflicted and unapologetically subjective material of memoir" ("Difficult Truths", New York Times Book Review, 05/11/08).
Ernest Hemingway, who once told Charles Scribner, his publisher, that "writers turn to memoir only when they have nothing more to say" actually wrote a memoir himself -- A Moveable Feast (1964 -- his last, and posthumously published, work). The book, based on notebooks that Hemingway had kept while living in Paris in the 1920s, was prepared for publication by Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary, who reordered some of the chapters and prepared a new preface. But in 2009, Scribner's published a new, "restored" edition of the book, prepared by Sean Hemingway, Ernest's grandson by his second wife Pauline. Whereas the original version had some critical remarks about Pauline, the restored version is friendlier toward her -- and some other material has been changed as well. So which is the truer memoir -- given that neither of them was actually prepared for publication by the author himself? A.E. Hotchner, Hemingway's friend (who contributed the title, "A Moveable Feast"), votes for the original ("Don't Touch 'A Moveable Feast', New York Times, 07/20/2009), while Brenda Wineapple thinks that neither of them is particularly privileged ("Paris in a New Light", Wall Street Journal, 07/25-26/2009). Hemingway also inspired the Six-Word Memoir Project.
In 2005 and 2006, JT LeRoy -- author of, among other books, The Heart is Deceitful above All Things (1999), a novel of prostitution, substance abuse, and child abuse ostensibly based on the author's own experiences -- was revealed to be the pen name another writer, Laura Albert. It turned out that the "JT LeRoy" who had been appearing at book-signings, press interviews, and the like, always in disguise and carefully minded, was actually Savannah Koop, the half-sister of Albert's partner at the time, Geoffrey Koop. Some observers called this a hoax, though Albert herself described LeRoy as a veil. Still, in 2007 she was convicted of fraud. In 2008, Savannah Koop published Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, a memoir of her time impersonating the "author".
In 1815 Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams (son of former President John Adams, then American ambassador to Russia and soon to be President himself) learned that her husband had just been appointed ambassador to London, requiring her to move her household and children from St. Petersburg to London by coach in the middle of winter. In the 1830s she published a memoir of her 40-day journey, entitled The Adventures of a Nobody. The book itself paints a vivid portrait of post-Napoleonic Europe, but -- having been based on memory -- it is somewhat inaccurate in its details. In 2010, Michael O'Brien, reconstructed the story, correcting many details, in Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon.
Jake Silverstein's Nothing Happened and Then It Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction (2010) has alternating chapters labeled "FACT" and "FICTION". In the preface, Silverstein writes:
"Chapters identified as the former can be trusted not to deviate from what happened in real life. Events related in chapters of the latter category are wholly invented"
Unfortunately, the "fact" chapters sometimes refer to events related in the "fiction" chapter.
Emily Fox Gordon published two memoirs, Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy (2000), based on a previously published essay, and Are You Happy? A Childhood Remembered (2006). But in Book of Days: Personal Essays (2010), in which she returned from memoir-writing to her preferred literary form, the personal essay, she writes about her dissatisfaction with the memoir genre and the pressures from publishers that led her to take it up. Quoting from the review of Book of Days by Alex Kuczynski ("Not a Memoir", New York Times Book Review, 08/22/2010):
Gordon raises the flag of cultural fatigue against the memoir and questions the essential honesty of memoir-writing. "I regret having written 'Mockingbird Years' -- the memoir, that is, not the essay. Perhaps I should say I regret its dishonesty." The dishonesty inherent in memoir, she argues, is that an entire life cannot be contained in one book, and so the writer is forced to follow only one story line: Me and drugs, me and my dysfunctional family, me and my depression, me and my eating disorder.
The publishers forced her, she writes, to create a narrative arc to bolster her original personal essay -- and that necessitated that her book become not the full story of her life but what [Philip] Lopate suggests in his introduction is the predictable contemporary memoir, a by-now threadbare template of dissolution, struggle, and (cue sunlight parting the clouds) requisite redemption. "Preferably", Lopate writes, the story should be "one revolving around addiction, abuse, poverty, or some other nasty problem whose overcoming will yield the desired triumph--of-the-human-spirit results". Lopate writes that Gordon "tells ruefully the tale of how she was seduced, not once but twice, to write and publish memoirs, instead of being allowed to bring out a collection of personal essays".
At the height of the repressed-memory and recovered-memory epidemic, Meredith Maran accused her father of sexually molesting her during childhood. A decade later, she realized that her memories were false, and that the molestation hadn't occurred at all. Nevertheless, the "memories" remained vivid. She tells her story, and also other cases of recovered memories of abuse, in My Lie: A True Story of False Memory (2010). See the review by Steve Weinberg ("Forgive Me, Father") in the San Francisco Chronicle, 09/19/2010.
Nora Ephron, whose first memoir, Heartburn, was turned into a box-office smash movie starring Meryl Streep, published two more -- I Feel Bad About My Neck and -- wait for it -- I Remember Nothing (2010). Actually, she remembers a great deal -- but, if critics of I Remember Nothing are correct, one thing she doesn't remember is that she told many of the same stories in her earlier books -- apparently a problem common among serial memoirists.
In one chapter, entitled "The Legend", Ephron related a story about an unpleasant encounter between her mother and the new Yorker writer Lillian Ross. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review (12/19/2010), Ross wrote:
According to Nora Ephron, I was brought to this party by the writer St. Clair McKelway and, after saying something that upset Phoebe Ephron, I was asked to leave. This story is a complete invention. I never went to a party at the Ephrons' house, and I never went anywhere with St. Clair McKelway.
To which, Nora Ephron replied:
My book is about, among other things, the vagaries of memory. Lillian Ross's memory of this event is different from my mother's and mine.
When Mark Twain wrote his autobiography, he employed a novel technique of dictating to a secretary whatever thoughts about his life came into his head, in whatever order they occurred to him. The secretary then transcribed the dictation and Twain then sent the results to his publisher. The result is more of a memoir than an autobiography, and one that anticipates a kind of stream-of-consciousness style much in the manner of James Joyce (e.g., Ulysses, 1922) Virginia Woolf (e.g., Mrs. Dalloway, 1925). Except not nearly as good. Reviewing the first volume of the unexpurgated version of Twain's autobiography, Garrison Keillor wrote that the volume contained "a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not", "plenty of proof that Mark Twain... can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation", and "a powerful argument for writers' burning their papers" ("Mark Twain's Riverboat Ramblings", New York Times Book Review, 12/19/2010).
But Andrew Delbanco was more favorable. Here is his description of Twain's method ("His Own best Straight Man", New York Review of Books, 02/24/2011):
At first he spoke to a hired "shorthander," later to a machine (an early "recording phonograph"), then to willing friends and family -- his former lecture agent, James Redpath, his daughter Jean, who became a proficient typist -- and finally to a series of stenographers, including Isabel Lyon, whose relation to Twain in his late years has long been the subject of speculation. The switch from writing to talking doubtless made the project seem less daunting. But he had an artistic motive as well. He wanted to register the way memory actually works--long-ago incidents popping into the mind not by some sequential logic that replicates the order in which they occurred, but through the associative process by which experiences separated by years suddenly show up, unbidden and in a disorderly jumble. To his brother Orion, who was thinking about writing his own autobiography, he made this suggestion: "When you recollect something that belonged in an earlier chapter do not go back, but jam it in where you are." The more Twain worked at his own memoir, the more he took his own advice.
Quite a different approach, and perhaps to much better effect, was taken by Tony Judt in his posthumously published memoir, The Memory Chalet. Judt, a historian of modern Europe, was stricken by a particularly vicious motor-neuron disease that left him "effectively quadriplegic". Quoting from a review of his book ("Elegy for England" by Geofff Dyer, New York Times Book Review, 01/02/2011):
[N]ight after night, before the blissful interlude of sleep -- before waking in exactly the same position he had assumed hours earlier -- he ranged back over his life, shaping little incidents into short, plangent memory-excursions, each tied to a particular place, theme or object. Over the course of the following day or days he would, with increasing difficulty, dictate the night's mental excursions to an assistant....
With its vivid haze of detail, The Memory Chalet is the work of a historian forced to do without many of the tools on which he had placed the greatest reliance. It used to be said -- maybe still is -- that in the instant of death, your life flashes before your eyes. By prolonging Judt's life the miracles of medical technology effectively extended the process of his dying over several grueling years. So what we have is that instant of compressed recollection expanded and expounded upon.
Judt's title is a play on the "memory palace" mnemonic technique, a version of the method of loci, taught by Matteo Ricci ( see the Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence). Whereas Ricci used the image of a palace, Judt employed his memory of a Swiss chalet in which his family had vacationed when he was a boy.
Joan Didion may have introduced a new genre of memoir, of "loss of spouse", with her Year of Magical Thinking (2005), which details her life following the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, shortly after their only child, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, was hospitalized for septic shock (from which she eventually died, less than a year after Dunne's death). Didion's book may be as close as we can come to direct introspective access to the consciousness of another person. You get a taste of the book in an excerpt, "After Life", which Didion published in the New York Times Magazine, 09/25/2005. The book itself is reviewed by Robert Pinsky in "the Year of Magical Thinking: Goodbye to All That", New York Times, 10/09.2005.
In 2011, Didion published a follow-up of sorts, a memoir of Quintana Roo and her illness, entitled Blue Nights. In it, Didion writes that "Memories are what you no longer want to remember".
Somewhat in contrast is A Widow's Story: A Memoir (2011), by Joyce Carol Oates, describing her reaction to the unexpected death of her husband Charles J. Smith, co-founder with Oates of The Ontario Review, after a marriage of 47 years. Oates herself has noted that the memoir began as a kind of "how-to" manual for new widows, and it is somewhat more selective than Didion's in what it reveals. For example, Oates describes how it took her a year and a half to delete Smith's voice from her telephone answering machine, but omits the fact that she remarried 11 months after her first husband's death (to the Princeton neuroscientist Charles Gross). For a review, see "The Shock of Losing a Spouse" by Janet Maslin, New York Times, 02/14/2001, from which the term "loss of spouse", above, was taken. In a letter to the New York Review of Books (05/26/2011), Oates admitted that, perhaps, she should have discussed her remarriage in an appendix -- but also suggested that to do so might have compromised her original intention, which was to write about her "immediate experience" of widowhood.
The performance artist Spalding Gray (1941-2004) was best known for such monologues as Swimming to Cambodia, based on his experiences as an actor in the film The Killing Fields. Reviewing a number of Gray's books, Nathaniel Rich remarked on the role that memory played in his work ("The Mask Behind the Voice", New York Review of Books, 12/08/2011):
Most of Gray's monologues have now been published as books,, and in this form they are almost indistinguishable from memoirs. But gray never wrote down his monologues before performing them. He began by making an outline in a notebook, using his notes as prompts. Each night, he recorded the performance and made adjustments in the outline: "It wasn't as though I was having new memories as much as remembering things I had log forgotten".
"I know I won't be reincarnated," Gray says near the end of and Everything Is Going Fine [a documentary film on Gray directed by Steven Soderburgh]. "One of the ways to reincarnate is to tell your story. I get enormous pleasure from that. It's like coming back." His legacy persists but his work now exists in a kind of limbo. The monologues, most of which have been published, are the main precursor to what has become an enormously popular genre: confessional nonfiction by writers whose lives have been neither exemplary nor public. But Gray's monologues were meant to be performed, not read. could any actor perform them credibly, now or ever in the future?
Although writing a memoir is generally construed as an act of individual remembrance, Phillip Kennicott has introduced the notion of a collective memoir in his comments on the 9/11 Commission Report, issued in July 2004:
[The] writing style is essentially that of America's busy industry of personal confessional. It is the tone of the trauma memoirist.... The 9/11 Commission Report is a collective memoir, and the language of memoir has exorcised the cant from its pages....The 9/11 Commission Report begins like an idyll, with perhaps the exact words that many of us, were we writing our own memories of the day, would choose.... [A]gain and again the language in this report returns to the memoirist's tone of tempered sadness.... In the middle of this endless parade of facts are sentences that remind one more of a solitary writer pondering the problem of how a single moment can forever alter our ability to see the past as once we saw it. Memoirs of tragic events, if well written, both recall the past and put the past behind the author. the writer must prove him or herself changed, in some way. A memoir that shows the author still caught in cycles of recrimination and pain is a memoir probably best left in the author's desk drawer. The authors of the 9/11 Commission Report seem aware of that too, but they don't have the luxury of documenting change or growth in our national security policies. In that sense, it is half a memoir (Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 08/09-15/04).
Other reviewers compared the report to Proust, for its treatment of memory, and to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, for its adoption of multiple perspectives. Perhaps it is not too surprising, then, that the report was nominated for the National Book Award in the area of nonfiction, displacing other political titles in that election year.
Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (Continuum, 2005), argues that just seven basic plots run throughout world literature (including movies, plays, and operas as well as novels and short stories):
According to Booker, these plots are deeply rooted in the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and deviations from them are perverse if not pathological. In fact, Booker complains that modern literature has moved away from the "psychological 'center of gravity'" represented by these archetypal plots (see "The Plot Thins, or Are No Stories New" by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, 04/15/15). Assuming that the classification scheme is truly comprehensive, one wonders whether it might apply to memoirs as well.
Along the same
lines, William Grimes, surveying publishers' catalogs for Summer
2005, proposed a tongue-in-cheek classification of memoirs ("We
All Have a Life. Must We all Write About It?" by William
Grimes, New York Times, 03/25/05).
subtype, identified by Meghan O'Rourke, is the mortality
memoir, documenting the writer's death from a slowly
progressive disease. Examples include John Updike's Endpoint
(2009), Roger Ebert's Life Itself: A Memoir, and
Christopher Hitchens's Mortality ("Deadlines", New
York Times Book Review, 07/07/2013).
has written about the writer's memoir (which might be
broadened to a reader's memoir), in which the author
chronicles his or her own reading, and relates it to his or her
own life ("Reading Writers Reading", Chronicle of Higher
To which we
Both books are tales of triumph in the search for identity. But there are striking differences as well -- MacLean slowly regained his memories and original self. Meck, in comparison, was shattered; she had to etch a life onto an entirely new slate. MacLean was surrounded by supportive souls. Meck was abandoned, clinically and emotionally.
- De Vergeting, about transient global amnesia, by Daan Hoerma Van Voss, was published in Dutch, but a precis appeared as "The Day of Forgetting" (New York times, 06/01/2014).
- History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain by Clifton Craig, a historian who suffers from "chronic childhood amnesia" ostensibly caused by childhood trauma and neglect, and who uses his professional methods to reconstruct his history.
- Memory's Last Breath by Gerda Saunders (2017). A "memoir of amnesia", written by a professor of gender studies who gradually lost her memory due to microvascular disease.
The meta-moir, so named by Sam Anderson, where someone writes his own memoir about the experience of appearing in someone else's memoir. A case in point is Luca Spaghetti, the Italian tax accountant who befriended Elizabeth Gilbert in the Roman portion of the spiritual journey which she retold in Eat, Pray, Love. Spaghetti (that's really his name) subsequently published his own memoir, Un Amica Italiano: Eat, Pray, Love in Italy, which received not one but two cover blurbs from Gilbert herself. (See "'Hey, World, This Crazy Thing Happened Where someone Put Me in a Book!'" by Sam Anderson, New York Times Magazine, 05/16/2011).
And the private memoir, written not to be published commercially and read by the general public, but rather published privately and distributed to family and friends. William Novak, who co-wrote memories with Lee Iacocca, Nancy Reagan, and others, writes about the rewards of collaborating on a book that will never be sold, and never reviewed, in "riting Books Very Few Will Read" (New York Times, 07/12/2015).
Grimes writes that "[memoirists'] efforts may be as fundamental as breathing. John Eakin, an emeritus professor of English at Indiana University, has argued that human beings continuously engage in a process of self-creation and self-discovery by constructing autobiographical narratives. In a sense, we are the stories -- multiple, shifting and constantly evolving -- that we weave about ourselves, and this storytelling urge may even be hard-wired."
According to a (possibly apocryphal) story, Ernest Hemingway, always a terse writer to begin with, once wrote a short story in only six words:
Inspired by the story, Smith (as in wordsmith), a magazine dedicated to the proposition that "Everyone has a story, and everyone needs a place to tell it", initiated the Six-Word Memoir Project, inviting readers to contribute six-word memoirs. the "microblogging" project began in November 2006, and has since generated a number of books, including Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak, Six-Word Memoirs by Teens, and It All Changed in An Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.
"In 1980, Esquire magazine featured a chimp and a typewriter on its cover, accompanied by the strapline: "Is anyone in America Not Writing a Screenplay?" These days, the strapline would read: "Is Anyone in America Not Writing a Memoir?" So writes Toby Young in a review of The Autobiographer's Handbook (2008) edited by Jennifer Traig ("Welcome to Memory-Weaving 101", Wall Street Journal, 09/06-07/2008). A product of Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia nonprofit writing center, the book provides advice from 41 memoirists, including Eggers himself (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), to those who would join the crowd.
To make things even easier, in 2003, the National Geneology Society issued a Software CD-ROM, Personal Author: Write Your Life Story! -- "We all have stories to tell about our lives, but who has time to write a book?" (advertisement from the Quality Paperback Book Club, Summer 2003) -- containing "1000 memory-jogging questions". Personal Author is a software system developed to help people write their autobiographies (and biographies of other people, too, for that matter). www.biography.software.com
Another company, Echo Memoirs, provides a service which assembles interviews, photographs, drawings, documents, and letters into a hardcover book. Price as of 2005: $6000 for the first copy, $200-$250 for additional copies. www.echomemoirs.com
Another kind of advice was offered by Neil Genzlinger in "The Center of Attention", a review of four memoirs that appeared in the New York Times Book Review (01/30/2011). Genzingler began with a comment on the popularity of the memoir as a literary genre:
There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn't fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked on, the way God intended.
But then came our current age of oversharing, and all heck broke loose. [The "memoir listings on Amazon] has authors who would be memoir-eligible under the old rules. But they are lost in a sea of people you've never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.
So in a possibly futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre, here are a few guidelines for would-be memoirists.
- That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir....
- No one wants to relive your misery....
- If you're jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it....
- If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it....
- If you didn't feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don't publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There's no shame in that.
Along these same lines, from Walter Kaiser's review of A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of my Youth by Louis Auchincloss ('Inside the Fortress", New York Review of Books, 03/24/2011):
We read memoirs to gain a sense of other epochs and other milieux, to discover what experiences life has given the author, but above all to learn who the author is. The best memoirs provide us with a depiction of what Germans call Bildung --what the author has learned in the course of his or her journey, how those things have been learned, and what their spiritually formative significance is.
In 2019, the New York Times Book
Review published a list of "The 50 Best Memoirs of
the Past 50 Years" (07/07/2019). It's not entirely
clear why 1969 was the cutoff date. Maybe that's
when the current memoir craze began. Anyway, the
list contained a number of notable works, beginning with
All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, an oral
history collected by Theodore Rosengarten (1974) and
ending with Heavy by Kiese Layman (2018), and
including Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father
(1995) and many books discussed in this page.
It was perhaps inevitable that the Times's
readers would weigh in with their own alternative
selections, and many of their letters were printed in
the 07/21/2019 issue. Commenting on the selection
of Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments (1987),
which got pride of place in the list, one correspondent,
David A. Scott, wrote: "Great memoirs combine the
strengths of storytelling, including character
development, prose style and dramatic tension that make
readers keep reading, with the social context,
self-awareness and hard judgment calls that writing
about ourselves demands".
On March 20, 2007, the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture sponsored a "Headline Forum" with Mary Karr, author of the memoirs The Liars Club and Cherry, on "The Conscience of a Writer: Telling the Truth in Poetry and Memoir", addressing such issues as whether memoirists can take liberties with historical truth, and the nature of "poetic truth". The announcement of the forum includes the following quotation from Karr: "Writing my own memoirs, I know God is in the truth. You must testify and recant, type and delete" (New York Review of Books, 03/15/07. Karr has also noted that, while she attempted to fact-check her memory, "no honest writer -- or reader -- expected a memoir to reflect anything other than the author's inevitably slanted view on the truth" (Jennifer Schuesler, "When I Was a Wee Lad...", New York Times, 07/26/2009).
responsibility for the popularity of the memoir as a literary
genre -- on the part of writers, anyway -- is to be found in the
almost-unique American institution of university-based programs
in creative writing. Mark McGurl, who actually teaches in
such a program, has written that there are three "dicta" thta
are generally taught in these programs: (1) Find your voice; (2)
Write what you know; and (3) Show, don't tell (The Program
Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing,
2013). Of course, there's no better voice than the first
person, and what we know most about (most of us, anyway) is
ourselves. Diane Johnson, reviewing McGurl's book,
suggested that "Finding your voice and writing what you know
have led us into fascination with autobiography" ("They'll Make
You a Writer!", New York Review of Books,
11/07/2013). Johnson also notes that "The first person is
also good when you have an exciting story to tell, of something
that happened to you, but of course, in our privileged comfort,
we mostly don't, hence the rise of the abuse narrative and the
prevalence, practically amounting to a convention, of molester
fathers and violent drunken moms". Which, of course,
brings us back to "traumatic-childhood memoir" described by
William Grimes in the taxonomy given above.
This page last revised 08/06/2019.