Articles: Writing the Truth

By Maureen Murdock
The National Association of Memoir Writers hosted a presentation of this material on their teleseminar July 15, 2009.

Memoir is not a linear autobiography recounting a fully lived life, but rather a selected aspect of the writer’s life, written from his or her point of view. The memoirist recounts the incidents in her life to the best of her recollection. Does that mean she will have perfect recall? No, memoir is not about perfect accuracy of the remembered event; it’s more about finding perspective and making meaning of that particular slice of one’s life. The struggle for emotional truth is central to memoir. When you are talking about yourself, you are talking about all of us to a certain degree. The reader must trust that the memoirist has done a fair amount of introspection and is trying to give us her best understanding of the event. If she stays at the same flat level of self-disclosure and understanding throughout, the piece may be smooth but will not awaken a sense of self-recognition.

Whose story is yours to tell?
What if I can’t remember what was said?
Factual recounting of an event versus emotional memory
The ethics of memoir writing
Beware: the act of writing about another person can not help but change your relationship with that person (living or dead)
Fictional memoirs

How we remember
Memories are triggered by smells (Noxzema, old spice, apple pie), tastes, physical movement, emotions, visual images, sounds, etc. Certain songs bring back a whole segment of your life. (people talked about that last week in celebrating Michael Jackson they were also celebrating different phases of their growing up). Places bring back memories. In her brilliant novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison writes about rememory—memories attached to places that might not even be there anymore. Her main character Sethe says, “Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burn down it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head.”

I was recently scrubbing the floor of the house where I lived for 28 years raising my children, getting the house ready for my renters who will take occupancy the end of this week. As I scrubbed around the bottom of the staircase to the upstairs, I saw a speck of the original paint my ex-husband and I painted the woodwork in 1974 which has since been painted over several times. Just the color of that coffee brown enamel brought back a flood of memories. Those first painters who took forever to get the house painted because they were high on marijuana; when they finally finished and we were starting to move in my then four-year old daughter hiding in the built-ins in the dining room; the ever larger skateboard ramps my son built in the narrow back yard, the Easter brunches we had with our best friends on the porch, the day someone stole the wrought iron patio furniture which had been on the front porch, the St. Patrick Day parties, getting ready for my daughter’s wedding– and on and on. All in a speck of coffee brown paint.

And what’s important in crafting a memoir is the details you can remember. If you can’t remember the exact details ask someone else who was there or write them to the best of your recollection. Write what sticks in your mind and the rest will come. Look at family photos, listen to music of the era you’re trying to remember, watch movies from the years you’re writing about, look at old newspapers, read old diaries, old letters.

You might have to write a lot of useless memories before you get to the ones that really matter. Or if you have a bad memory, you might have to start with “I don’t really remember,” to get to what you do remember. And what really matters anyway? That’s the question, isn’t it? Sven Birkerts found that when he started to write memoir the events that he thought were important and should have left the greatest impression—trips, moves, friendships, deaths—were not those that had left the greatest impression on his memory.

In an article he wrote for Poets & Writers, he writes, “I came to recognize that memory is an irrational, even counterintuitive ecologist, obeying obscure, private laws, and this raised one of the central questions facing the memoirist.” What matters? What did my real memories add up to? What were they telling me that was different from the authorized version of my life? In my case, seemingly important periods—periods in which ostensibly big things happened—often disappeared with nothing to be retrieved, while ostensibly trivial moments might offer themselves, luminous and precise …” (22).

So there are voluntary and involuntary memories. Voluntary memory is a mechanical retrieval device, giving us access to our picture of the past, allowing us to zero in on events and sensations along a grid of recollection. Where did you go on your first date, what did you do on your 21st birthday, who did you cast your first vote for, where did you and your family vacation, etc.?

But involuntary memory is that which Marcel Proust describes in Remembrance of Things Past, when he dunked his petit Madeleine (a crusty little cake) into his tea and a flood of memories from childhood emerged with that first bite. The madeleine experience initiated a whole chain of associations and from these Proust achieved the eventual restoration of an entire past world. Berkerts writes “The vital past, the living past, he realized, could not be systematically excavated; it lay distilled in the very details that had not been groomed into story, details that could only be fortuitously discovered” (24).

In Thinking About Memoir Abigail Thomas writes: “Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by event, not faithful to it. Maybe memory is what the mind does with its free time, decorating itself. Maybe it’s like cave paintings (38).

Whose story is yours to tell?
In writing memoir, you are writing about yourself, probably in the first person, and the tale you are telling is about your life. Not your mother’s life or your father’s life or your child’s life which would be biography, but your life perhaps in relationship to them. Yes, your memoir may involve other people but it is your story from your perspective. You have to know, maybe not at first, but certainly by the end of your memoir what your purpose is in writing a particular memoir. If you write about other people you have to be aware that in some real way, you are invading their life—with or without their permission. (I say with or without their permission because when I started to write about my relationship with my son, my daughter was very clear about wanting me to leave her out of it.) I have noticed that in some book length memoirs, authors will include a disclaimer stating that a family member might not agree with their perception. For example, in recounting a particular memory in Liar’s Club, Mary Karr wrote that her sister “would disagree.” This reinforces the idea that the author is presenting only her point of view.

One of the guidelines in writing memoir about living people is that each writer should balance the reason for writing a particular story or using real names against the harm it might do to someone else. If a story seems too personal, it’s often because the writer has not resolved it enough for herself and is asking the reader for too much: too much understanding, too much pity, too much forgiveness. As writers, it is our business to understand fully what can happen to people when we reveal what we know about them. Can they lose their job? Their marriage? Will your story have political repercussions? Legal repercussions? Will you damage their self esteem?

What’s your purpose in writing the memoir? To understand yourself better? To heal a relationship, to lay family demons to rest, to bring an incident in your life to resolution? To understand the meaning of an illness (Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg) or accident (Tumbling After by Suzy Parker) or addiction (Beautiful Boy by David Sheff)? To grieve a death of a loved one? (Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking) To learn more about yourself and your place in a particular culture? (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller; Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt). As you attempt to understand yourself or another better, you provide your readers with insight into their lives as well. If your goal is to retaliate for some harm done to you, it is always transparent and makes the reader uncomfortable.
These are some of the options when writing about others:

1. Show the person what you have written (my son corrected my misperception about his multiple paintings of bananas when I thought he was having his first manic episode and Brenda Peterson’s Sister Stories tale about showing her ms. to her two sisters, having them make any changes according to their recollection and then their rejection of her when the book came out.)

2. Change names and identifying details (state as much in the Pinnochio clause) ex: Comeback: a mother and daughter’s journey through hell and back by Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine in which the authors changed the names and identifying details of themselves and others in their two-narrator memoir as well as both of their names)

3. Don’t tell the story until the person is dead: Honor Moore wrote The Bishop’s Daughter, a memoir about her relationship with her father who was a very public figure as the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of New York, after he died. In her memoir, she revealed the fact that her father had a secret: he was bisexual, which had been a very painful reality for her mother. She basically outed her father, which some of her siblings felt was unnecessary. But Moore wrote that his conflicts about his sexual nature had a great influence on her growing up and when she found out about his bisexuality as an adult, it helped her understand her own bisexuality. “I came to understand that my own sexual development was inextricably tied up with my father’s complicated erotic life.”

Linda Gray Sexton, the daughter of poet Anne Sexton, wrote her own memoir after being the executor of her mother’s estate and after working with Diane Middlebrook on a biography of her mother. After reading her mother’s poems about herself, she decided to set the record straight and she took back her own life by writing Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to my Mother, Anne Sexton.

In Abigail Thomas’ Three Dog Life she writes, “Six months ago a friend was angry with me and I with her. I had written about something someone had said many years ago, but it was she who heard the words, not me, a fact I had completely forgotten. Her experience was precious, and she accused me of stealing her memory. Not only that, I also got it wrong.

“We argued but there was no meeting place. For days the same questions went through my head. Is memory property? If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn’t my memory of a memory also real?”

Later that week, Thomas visited her husband in the institution where he lived because of a traumatic brain injury. He had become something of a Chance the Gardener, saying things that seemed powerful and significant despite his inability to reason. Out of the blue, he began to talk to her about storytelling and ownership, concluding that “The art of storytelling is too various to have any one person have complete control.”

When my book, Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory first came out I was at the American Booksellers Association signing books and a woman came up to me and asked why I had titled it Unreliable Truth. When I told her that memoir was a slice of life from the writer’s perspective told to the best of her recollection, instead of absolute factual truth, she said “But I have the truth.” I asked her if she was writing a memoir. She said “Yes, but my brothers say it didn’t happen that way.” I then said that if her brothers were writing a memoir about the same events they would be writing from their perspective which might differ from hers but it would be their emotional memory and they would think their memory was correct. She looked at me and said, “No, I have the truth.” At that point, there was nothing else to say.

Factual recounting of an event versus emotional memory
In her book Thinking About Memoir, Abigal Thomas writes “I’m old enough now to know that the past is every bit as unpredictable as the future, and that memory, mine anyway, is not a faithful record of anything, and truth is not an absolute. But I’m not talking about making things up out of whole cloth. We are all allowed a flourish or two—if it was day not night, and Baltimore not Maine, well there’s a reason why I remember it like that. But there’s a difference between premeditated embellishment and the way memory works. There’s a difference between lying and telling the truth.”

The most famous example of misrepresentation of the truth in recent years is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces in which he included details that were demonstrably false, now referred to as “The James Frey fallacy”. After the book was discredited, he said, “I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it’s a story, and one that I couldn’t have written without having lived the life I’ve lived.” There he admits that it’s a subjective truth altered by the mind of someone who was in recovery. Does that make it any less true?

At the time the book came out in 2003 I happened to be teaching memoir in San Francisco. I was surprised by many of my students’ reactions to the book. Most thought he was confabulating. When I asked them why they thought that they said, “He’s a drug addict; what do you expect? Of course he’s lying.” I discovered that many of them had experience with drug addicts who were either former lovers or siblings and they had little tolerance for being conned. Their prejudice (as well as their experience with) about people who abuse drugs blinded them from seeing the value of his work.

In an insert that was included in his books as of 2006, he writes, “A Million Little Pieces is about my memories of my time in a drug and alcohol treatment center. As has been accurately revealed by two journalists at an Internet Web site, and subsequently acknowledged by me, during the process of writing the book, I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book. I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed by my actions.

“I started the book in 1997 and didn’t initially think of what I as writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography. I wanted to use my experiences to tell my story about addiction and alcoholism, about recovery, about family and friends and faith and love, about redemption and hope. I wanted to write a book that would change lives, would help people who were struggling, would inspire them in some way. I wanted to write a book that would detail the fight addicts and alcoholics experience in their minds and bodies, and detail why that fight is difficult to win. I wanted to write a book that would help friends and family members of addicts understand that fight.” He could not continue the book at that time and picked it up again in 2000. It was published in 2003.

As I remember, his agent first tried to sell his book as fiction and after some 20+ rejections, his agent suggested he sell it as memoir. Frey acknowledged that he fabricated the amount of jail time he served, which in the book is three months, but in reality was only several hours as well as certain criminal events including an arrest in Ohio which was embellished. He also addresses the discussion about his root-canal procedure done without anesthesia. He says “I wrote that passage from memory, and have medical records that seem to support it. My account has been questioned by the rehab treatment facility and they believe my memory may be flawed.”

He admitted to portraying himself in ways that made him seem tougher, more daring and aggressive than he is or was and he says, “People cope with adversity in many different ways, ways that are deeply personal. I think one way people cope is by developing a skewed perception of themselves that allows them to overcome and do things they thought they couldn’t do before. My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.”

This last point is very important. When we sit down to write a memoir our reader expects us to be as authentic a narrator as we can possibly be, but when we recall ourselves in a certain situation, we may find ourselves wanting to portray ourselves as tougher, like Frey, more compassionate, better, less culpable, etc. I know in writing Blinded by Hope, I didn’t want to see my own denial of my son’s addiction—I only found that out in the writing of the book when I realized how blind I had been to his drug use because I was focused on his bipolar disorder and couldn’t admit that his behavior was often that of an addict. I blamed his behavior on his mental illness. It was uncomfortable for me to see my character in my memoir as an enabler.

Vivian Gornick, who wrote the brilliant memoir, Fierce Attachments in 1987, which is structured around Gornick’s walks with her mother in NY City in the 50s and 80s, was criticized in for “composing” some of the walks and conversations with her mother in the memoir and for inventing a scene that involved a street person and her mother.

What she actually said was “I made a composite out of the elements of two or more incidents—none of which had been fabricated—for the purpose of moving the narrative forward. (I might also have played loose with time, for the very same reasons, relating incidents that were chronologically out of order, for the sake of narrative development). Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”

She went on to say, “A memoir is a tale taken from life—that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences—related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story—to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader. What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters. As V.S. Pritchett said of the genre, “It’s all in the art, you get no credit for living” (The Situation and the Story, 91).

I agree with her completely. You have to serve the work. The memoirist must recount to the best of her ability her memory of what happened but the real core of the memoir is what meaning the memoirist makes of what happened.

Gornick said that what she came to realize in writing her book was “I could not leave my mother because I had become my mother. This was my bit of wisdom, the story I wanted badly to trace out. the context in which the book is set—our life in the Bronx in the 50s and Manhattan in the 80s—was the situation. The story was the flash of insight.”

Thomas Larson writes about the fact that our memories change with time and we “re-cast” our memories to bear what we haven’t been able to or what we may not have wanted to bear. He writes, “It may be that only when we arrive at a present predicament that needs a more or less amelioratory re-shaping of the past do we then put that past together as a way to serve our interests now. Each re-assemblage is different because each is based on our emotional need at the time we recall the experience. And each one is similar in that, like a string of pearls, there is a common ancestor, a pre-existing shape” (American Book Review, 3) So, in other words, when we re-member, or put back together the fragments of our memory, we also re-cast it.

Abigail Thomas seems to agree. She writes: “My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line. It zigzags, detours, doubles back. Most truths I have to learn over and over” (Thinking about Memoir 56).

Ethics of Memoir Writing
Psychiatrist Michael Stein wrote The Addict which describes his treatment of a young woman for Vicodin dependency. When asked, after a presentation, if he had gotten his patient’s permission to tell her story, he paused and read his author’s note:

“As an author of nonfiction who is also a doctor writing about his patients, I have particular storytelling challenges. When I began The Addict I knew that I would have to change names, places, and many details of her life to protect her privacy. If she were ever to read this book, I wanted her to remember things about herself but feel safely disguised” (Winik E6).

In other words, it sounds like the patient had not agreed to be portrayed in the book and did not know that Stein had written it. Would that be a violation?

When Marion Winik wrote her first collection of essays about her own drug addiction, lawyers for the publisher marked every “actionable” sentence, every instance where she mentioned someone else’s drug use, homosexuality or criminal behavior. Apparently there were a lot of them. The lawyers suggested omitting specific street addresses, changing the names of people taking drugs, and getting consent of one particular person who was taking drugs even though her name was changed. The people who were in the book all read the ms. and signed releases, the street addresses were eliminated and one of the people was dead so there was no problem getting his permission.

But Winik had to face some issues that were less cut-and-dried. She writes, “When Nancy read the essay “My Sibilant Darling,” it wasn’t the law that concerned me. It was her reaction to my public confession of our past drug use (Nancy is a CPA) as well as the intensity of my competitive feelings toward her and my sadness and frustration at what I perceived as our growing apart. To my relief, nothing bad happened. Though she corrected me on a few minor details, the distance between us actually narrowed as we talked about the piece” (E6). Would this have been different had she first seen it in print?

Winik continues, “This was the beginning of my understanding of the most serious moral principle of memoir: The act of writing about another person occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about” (E6).

So how does writing about another person change your relationship with that person? I found that in writing about my mother’s decline from Alzheimers’ and her eventual death in Unreliable Truth I was able to gain a new appreciation for my mother and much more compassion for her than I had ever had while she was still alive.

Ruth Reichl talks about this in depth in her new memoir Not Becoming My Mother and other things she taught me along the way which she saw as a way of making amends to her mother for the earlier memoirs she had written about her: Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples. Reichl wrote hilarious stories about her mother in these books which she referred to as “Mim Tales.” Her mother did outrageous things; in fact her first book opened with a tale about her mother accidentally poisoning a couple of dozen people at a party. She was a terrible cook.

After the book was published people kept asking Reichl, “Did she really do those things?” and Reichl tells us that she did but her mother probably wouldn’t have wanted the world to know about it. Reichl says she would never have written those stories while her mother was alive but the first time she held the printed book in her hands, she winced thinking she had betrayed her mother.

She writes, “It was not a good feeling and I wanted to make it up to her”(5). So the day that her mother would have been 100, Reichl found a box of her mother’s diaries and letters and pieces of paper with random thoughts written on them. She started to read them and found out who her mother really was instead of the memory she had created from her childhood.

She writes, “Like most women, I decided who my mother was long ago, sometime during childhood. The comic character of the Mim Tales was safe now; I had spent many years making peace with her. Her voice was no longer inside my head and it was a relief to have all that behind me. I was reluctant to replace the mother I thought I knew with someone else. Why go looking for trouble? But I owed it to my mother, and I knew it (12).”

Reichl then does a masterful job of presenting her mother’s hopes and dreams that she culled from her letters, journals and bits of paper and comes to understand that her mother was part of the generation of women who worked energetically and purposefully during WWII, and then were basically sent home to have families when their husbands came home from war. They were never able to actualize their dreams and hopes for themselves and many ended up in later years depressed and medicated. In her mother’s letters she reads repeatedly that her mother wanted a different life for her daughter.

She writes, “Getting to know her now, I realized how much I missed by not knowing her better when she was still alive. …She did not have a happy life, but she wanted one for me. And she made enormous emotional sacrifices to make sure that my life would not turn out like hers” (18).

Fictional Memoirs:
Love and Consequences (published by Riverhead Books), by Margaret B. Jones who wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central LA as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods. The author is actually Margaret Seltzer, all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of LA with her biological family. She graduated from a private Episcopal day school, has never lived with a foster family, did not run drugs for any gang members.

She was outed by her older sister who saw an article on her in The New York Times and called the publisher to tell them that her sister’s story was untrue. Her book had already received positive reviews. Michiko Kakutani praised the “humane and deeply affecting memoir” but also noted that some of the scenes felt “novelistic at times”. Her editor was stunned saying that she had worked with her for three years and her story never changed. All the details remained the same. So of course, she believed her.

“It’s very upsetting to us because we spent so much time with this person and we felt such sympathy for her and she would talk about how she didn’t have any money or any heat and we completely bought into that and through we were doing something good by bringing her story to light. There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one.”

Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived by Herman Rosenblat is the account of a Holocaust survivor who said his future wife had helped him stay alive while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp as a child by throwing apples over fence to him. After several scholars and family members attacked Rosenblat’s story in print, he told his agent and editor at Berkeley Books he had concocted the tale. Berkeley Books cancelled publication.

He had gotten Oprah’s endorsement on her show before writing book after winning a contest for love stories in NY Post. Oprah’s endorsement and her saying it was the most beautiful love story she had heard turned into a book contract. It seems as if Rosenblat got carried away with his own fiction.

Unfortunately, Holocaust stories are fertile ground for fabricated personal history. Misha Defonseca wrote Misha: A Memoir about her childhood spent running from Nazis and living with wolves. It was false.

Partial List of Sources Mentioned
Birkerts, Sven. “Then, Again: Memoir and the Work of Time.” Poets & Writers. (May/June 2005): 21-26.
Frey, James. A Million Little Pieces. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 2006.
Gornick, Vivian. “A memoirist defends her words.” Unpublished. Partially quoted in The Situation and the Story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Larson, “Introduction to Focus: Memoir Now—A New Kind of Narrative Truth.” American Book Review 30:3 (March/April 2009): 3.
Moore, Honor. The Bishop’s Daughter: A Memoir. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Murdock, Maureen. Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory. New York: Seal Press, 2003.
Reichl, Ruth. Not Becoming My Mother and other things she taught me along the way. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.
Rich, Motoko. “Gang Memoir, Turning Page is Pure Fiction.” The New York Times, 4 March 2008, A23.
Thomas, Abigail. Thinking About Memoir. New York: Sterling Publishing Co, Inc., 2008.
Thomas, Abigail. A Three Dog Life. New York: Harcourt, Inc. 2006.
Winik, Marion. “The Memoir Minefield.” LA Time Book Review, 21 June 2009, E6.