Must Memoirs Lie?
Discerning the Deeper Truths of Life Stories
Posted Apr 05, 2010
Memoirs have gotten something of a bad name in recent years. In extreme cases - think of James Frey's notorious A Million Little Pieces - literary flourish gets transformed into fictional embellishment and even outright lies. Then, there are cases like Binjamin Wilkomirski's would-be memoir Fragments. Having presented himself a child Holocaust survivor, Wilkomirski turned out to be someone else entirely. Interestingly enough, this may have been an unintended fiction - the tale of a man who had gathered some faulty information about his past, pieced together a story based on this information, and convinced himself the story was his own. Process-wise, he did what all memoirists do. But he might have checked his sources a bit more carefully.
More subtly, there's also the conscious and unconscious embellishment and narrative "smoothing" that frequently enter the process at hand. There may be aspects of one's history or character that one is reluctant to share; these may therefore be excised, the resultant story cleansed. One may also wish to put forth an image - for posterity, especially - that may be inflated, overly grand, "larger than life." The result is much the same: a self-portrait that may be both cleaner and larger than reality would suggest. "The spin doctoring that goes on," Michael Gazzaniga writes in The Mind's Past, "keeps us believing that we are good people." And if he's right, it may be all but automatic.
Beyond these slippery sites of possible deceit there is the simple fact that memoirs involve both memory and writing. Rather than being a dispassionate recounting of what happened when, the remembering that goes into the creation of memoirs is a reconstructive act, issuing from the present, filtered through the prism of one's current needs and desires. As for the act of writing, it can fall prey to any number of traps and lures. "There are some semi-fictional touches here," Mary McCarthy admits of her own Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. "I arranged actual events so as to make a story of them." It's particularly hard to resist this "temptation," as she puts it, if you're a fiction-writer; it too happens "almost automatically." How else could it be? Memoirs, like other works of literature, are narratives, crafted wholes that seek to make sense of the disparate parts of a life in and through language - and, of course, appeal to readers. This suggests that there is a fictive aspect in all such works: they are storied imaginings that go well beyond the "facts" of the past.
How, then, given all the issues identified here, can memoirs not lie? While memoirs certainly can and sometimes do lie, they can also be profound vehicles for speaking the truth. And they're able to do this not despite the reconstructive nature of memory and the storied nature of writing but because of them. Through memory, what happened earlier can acquire new meaning and significance; looking backward, we can sometimes see the contours of things in a way that was simply impossible earlier on. And through writing, through story, we can sometimes give form to the movement of experience in such a way that features of the past that had been obscured are revealed, made known. The process is highly fallible, dangerous even; it's perilously easy to be seduced by our own fictions. But it still remains the privileged means of speaking the deeper truths of our lives.