“But other people in my family have a whole different memory of what happened. You said ‘tell your truth,’ but how do I know what’s true?”
Elbows planted on the table, the young woman leaned into her words while her large eyes sent out beams of light from under the rim of her straw hat. Her question was addressed to me as leader of a four-dayworkshop on Writing Memoir. We were in the Twin Cities at United Theological Seminary’s Summer Institute.
Do we tell the truth when writing memoir? What is truth, anyway? Johnny Cash asked that question, and Pontius Pilate, and hundreds of philosophers throughout the ages.
I understood her dilemma. During my years as a psychotherapist I heard many stories from couples in distress: fights, promises, indignant accounts of how much he/she was spending and for what, shame laden descriptions of social gatherings. I don’t think spouses ever told the same story, yet almost all enunciated their truth with passion and certitude.
“If John would only admit what really happened, everyone would understand.” “What is wrong with Mary that she just makes things up in her head?” I often heard comments like these once spouses listened to one another’s accounts. Of course there are people who lie with impunity, but most of my clients seemed to hold on to their story with the strength of a lion protecting her cub.
Every day witnesses are sworn in court to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but whose “truth” do they tell? The reality is that each of us sees only what we can see, and even that is colored by our own expectations.
A family is on vacation, walking in small groups, a mother stops to put her toddler in his stroller, teenagers flirt with passers-by, grandparents pause to look in a shop window. Shouts are heard; everyone turns. Two figures shout obscenities flailing their arms. A gunshot splits the air. Someone lies on the sidewalk.
Police interview family members, who report what they saw and heard.
“It was a man and a woman.”
“Two women and they both came out of that building.”
“Two women and a man standing behind one of them.”
Even if each held a video camera, the views would have been different. And our minds are not video cameras! We are influenced not just by what we see and hear, but what we expect to see and hear. We can only see through our own lens, a lens shaped by our own histories, values, hopes and fears.
And later? When the grandmother tells her friend over coffee back home? And the teenager captivates the locker room? The mother sits before her computer thirty years later to write a memoir?
Stories change over the days and years. They merge with other stories; time and place may shift; elaborations and omissions abound. Our story becomes part of our “life themes”: a boy hunting adventure, a mother torn between career and children, an old man mourning his youth. Our stories become illustrations of universal themes: love, rejection, insult, heroism or cowardice and on and on. The members of the audience enter into the experience because they too know love, betrayal, victory and can “go there” with the storyteller. True, we may never have risen to the protagonist’s heights or sunk to her depths, but we recognize the desire even while stopping short of the deed.
And dialogue? I will always carry the memory of classmates bullying me because of my accent. Of course I cannot repeat the exact words. The truth that needs telling is the way the insults struck me like stones. Details – a girl sticking her finger in my face, a boy calling me “furner” – allow the reader to experience the strength of the blows with me.
And here we come to the core of memoir. Is my memoir really about me? Yes, in the sense that I am the protagonist of my story, as you are of yours. And, yes, because it is my search for the meaning of my life. But memoir is not a videotape. Even if I could produce one, it would not be interesting to many people since I am not famous. Famous people may be subjects of biography or autobiography, in which case accuracy matters.
Of course the memoir writer must not abandon factual reality. A memoir is not a novel. Good people cannot be turned into abusive monsters for the sake of drama, and a childhood in New York City cannot be transplanted into a small French village.
And while memoir is about truth and the voice of truth is the voice of the author, there are actually two voices engaged in this truth telling. One speaks from the past, another reflects on the past from the vantage point of the present. The experience of the six year old takes on new meaning for the sixty year old, as she ponders the threads of her life journey. What connection is there, or might there be, between the story of the child and choices made later in life? The memoir writer is on a quest to understand her life, to find pattern and meaning. The reader is invited to join the quest, as Vivian Gornick does, intriguing us in Fierce Attachments.
I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and twenty-one. There were twenty apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly remember the men at all. They were everywhere, of course – husbands, fathers, brothers – but I remember only the women. And I remember them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as though they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew…It has taken me thirty years to understand how much of them I understood.
“What is true? What story do I tell?” the young woman asked.
I urged her to “Write what you know.” Her memoir will be her story, but not hers alone. She will be the protagonist; the human experience might be called the subject. And I will enter in because it is strangely familiar.
In the end, good memoir lets me know the “other” who is not so very different from me after all.
What story have you read about someone who seemed so different from you, as you began the book, but not very different by the final page?