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Confabulations of Everyday Life

Is a memoir ever free from fiction, if not outright lies?

“A memoir takes some particular threads, some incidents, some experience from a person’s life and gives an account of it.”

- Richard Hell

In 2003, recovering addict James Frey published a memoir about his journey through rehabilitation and eventual recovery from substance abuse. His book was touted and proclaimed to be an inspiring example of turning one’s life around. Frey detailed his journey through painful medical procedures, agonizing introspection, and a stirring cast of characters. By 2005, the book had been selected for Oprah’s Book Club and soon topped the charts on as well as the New York Times Best Seller list. In 2006, the website The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey was more of a fraud—that he “wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw wanted in three states.” As he later confessed to Oprah, for example, he had only spent a few hours in jail, rather than the 87 hours he had claimed.

Controversy and outcry followed, and Frey admitted that he made himself seem "tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am.” He further noted that, “my writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience". Frey also admitted that he, “wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.” For Frey, it seems, the memoirist is part autobiographer and part fabulist. Which raises the question as to whether there is a difference.

Is a memoir ever free from confabulations, if not outright lies? Can we ever give an honest account of our history without embellishing the facts? Even with the most generous and forgiving view of Frey, is there something about the nature of autobiography that makes it bound to be forged? The cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser described memory retrieval as a kind of cognitive paleontology: much like dinosaur bones, we have bits and fragments of episodic memory that have been encoded. When we recall our past, we reconstruct these pieces into coherent narratives, filling in the blanks. And of course, these reconstructions change over time and meet the idiosyncratic, often unconscious needs of the present moment.

Freud, perhaps better than anyone in the history of science, described the ways in which we distort, conceal, and repress our memories. Psychoanalytic treatment was seen as a way of overcoming some of the pathogenic effects of censorship and repression. In what is one of the great ironies of psychoanalysis, Freud also considered his own biography a form of degradation and he once said that, “the public has no concern with my personality and can learn nothing from an account of it.” Freud famously destroyed many of his personal papers, diaries, and letters. He wrote, “As for the biographers, let them worry, we have no desire to make it too easy for them…I am already looking forward to seeing them go astray.” Freud tried to make his own biography disappear and is widely known to have embellished some of his best known case histories.

When we recall the past, we tend to believe we are engaging in a rational, honest exercise of memory retrieval. Yet psychoanalysis spells out a version of memoir that would hold suspect anything we claim has happened while also hinting at possible motives for our deceit. Cognitive psychologists emphasize the constructive nature of memory and remind us of our tendency toward economizing our energy, filling in gaps where needed, and leaving out what we must.

Confabulations of memory—such as those first described by the Russian psychiatrist, Sergie Korsakoff—can be symptoms of neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Korsakoff’s syndrome. Patients with such conditions will describe events that have simply not occurred and will leave out crucial details and events from their lives. The neuropsychologist Morris Moscovitch called such fabrications “honest lying,” due to their presumed innocence. Oliver Sacks has written warmly and eloquently about such patients. In one account in the New Yorker, he wrote about a proudly amnesic patient, who would sometimes misidentify Dr. Sacks as a kosher butcher or a customer in his delicatessen. “This sort of confabulation was not one of conscious fabrication. It was, rather, a strategy, a desperate attempt—unconscious and almost automatic—to provide a sort of continuity, a narrative continuity, when memory, and thus experience, was being snatched away every instant.”

Memory is affected by injury and disease, but there is error proneness that comes from being human. Our recollections are more like our dreams. They are a form of truth telling but are innocently disguised and include unwitting embellishments. While anyone is free to imagine their future, we are not supposed to fictionalize our past. Yet what might be true is that our experience of the future and the past are more arbitrary than we might think.

© 2014, Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved.

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