Remember the Alamo

A researcher explores the mechanics of memory.

Are All Memoirs Fiction?

Searching for the elusive non-fiction memoir

A few years ago Oprah Winfrey famously criticized James Frey for fabricating large parts of his memoir A Million Little Pieces, the story of his recovery from drug addiction. Since then, the veracity of memoirs has become a hot topic, calling into question how truthful any memoir really is. For example, Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running with Scissors provoked a lawsuit that resulted in him changing the label of his work from memoir to book. More recently, Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival, the "non-fiction" story of a half Native American foster child growing up in a gang in south central L.A., turned out to be written by a Caucasian woman who was raised by her biological parents in the San Fernando Valley.

Completely fabricating your identity and/or major life events and calling it a memoir is unethical. But is the line between fact and fiction always that clear? Remembering by its very nature is a reconstructive process that often leads to distortion. We piece together our memories from the fragments of life's events that we've retained. We don't have exact copies of events stored in our brains. Our memories of life experiences are influenced by our unique perspective during the experiences as well as at the time of remembering. The myriad of events that occur and the vast knowledge that we gain throughout our lives influence our memories of the past. If our autobiographical memories are always reconstructed and influenced by our current perspective, is writing an accurate memoir ever possible?

If writing an accurate memoir isn't feasible, we have the difficult task of determining which memoirs contain an acceptable number of inaccuracies and exaggerations and which we can call a hoax. Then we have to decide what to do with the hoaxes. I question whether a piece of literature that is labeled and marketed as non-fiction should entirely lose its value when its validity is called into question, particularly when the lines between fact and fiction are often murky. You could argue that readers will falsely believe information in the work is true, but research has shown that people can also pick up false information from stories they know are fictitious.

Maybe the problem is that we don't like to feel like we're being lied to, understandably so. But since our own memories do sometimes deceive us, shouldn't we be accepting of the inaccuracies found in memoirs? Perhaps the memoir genre is a dying breed and memoir writers would be better off labeling their work as fiction. Then they run the risk of being criticized for basing their work solely on reality and lacking creativity, but at least they won't be called liars.

Nicole Dudukovic is a memory researcher and lecturer in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University.

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