Is Memory the Memoirist’s Worst Enemy?
New research shows that memory may be the most unreliable narrator of all. But what seems like bad news for memoirists may turn out to be their new best friend.
Memoir writers portray themselves as telling it like it is. “Trust us,” they seem to say, “we are not making things up.” As readers, we are asked to credit their veracity. Blatant alteration of the facts is viewed by most as a violation of that trust.
Hence the extraordinary expression of anger and disillusion over James Frey’s admission that his best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces contained deliberate embellishments. He’d composed the book as fiction, he belatedly explained, but couldn’t find a publisher, so re-marketed it as memoir. Not good enough. Embarrassed, his publisher withdrew support from the book, then re-issued it with Frey’s acknowledgement that parts of it were fictionalized.
When I teach memoir writing, my students ask, is it OK to change people’s names, create composite characters, invent dialogue, and compress events? In other words, how far can you go before crossing the line between memoir and fiction? I don’t really answer this question—mainly because individual practices are so variable. I point instead to examples of the genre.
For Lauren Slater, author of the memoir Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, the unreliability of her self-portrayal as epileptic is part of her overall strategy of highlighting the significance of metaphor. She admits that “just because something has the feel of truth doesn’t mean it fits the facts. I don’t even know why the facts should matter. I often disregard them.” But she’s being open about her deceptiveness, hence not actually lying to us. Some of my students don’t care for this book, but no one feels actively betrayed.
When I teach Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, I observe how much of the book is written in the present tense and how much it relies on dialogue. Who could reproduce from memory such accurate transcriptions of the spoken word? My students get it that all dialogue is reconstructed.
Then we move to John D’Agata (whose work is very popular among students who prefer to push the boundaries of nonfiction), who plays fast and loose with factual data for the purpose of dramatic effect.
And what about authors such as W.G Sebald, whose haunting novels read so much like memoir that we tend to regard them as personal narratives rather than fiction?
There are no rules I can put forth that clearly delineate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, at least in terms of actual literary practice. You must survey the field of possibilities, I tell my students, and draw these lines for yourselves.
Personally, I favor sticking to my own best recollection of what actually happened, although I understand how fluid and malleable our individual constructions of memory can be—especially since I began attending to the neuroscience of memory. Memory itself, I have discovered, is an unreliable narrator.
I first encountered this field through articles in the New York Times, reporting on laboratory studies of rats. What these studies revealed is that memory is not something fixed (like a data bit) and easily retrievable in its original form, but rather a highly mobile process, involving connections among neural networks in the brain. A memory as such consists of a pattern of neural activity that recurs in response to something happening in the present—a “cue” like a strain of music, a visual impression, perfume, or flavor. Marcel Proust articulated this process in his fictionalized memoir In Search of Lost Time, through his description of dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea. This cue resurrected for him an entire world of childhood memory.
From the neuroscience point of view, a fleeting impression in the present may spark a similar network of neural activity that relates to something not present, i.e., a memory. When this process occurs, the two patterns of brain activity interact, leading to a new combination—a hybrid, which then becomes the newly formed memory. Many books for lay readers describe this process, e.g., Daniel Schacter’s Searching for Memory, Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory and Alison Winter’s Memory.
What’s a memoir writer to do? The genre seems hopelessly compromised—in terms of the necessity of creating dialogue and/or the strategies of altering and compressing events in the interest of dramatic effect, but also more deeply and problematically in terms of the ceaseless reprocessing of our own memories. As faithful as we may wish to be to “what actually happened” in the past, our brains will keep transforming these events in the light of what is happening now.
Here are some of the practices I recommend to my students: inform your readers of your personal stance in regard to the amount of fictionalization you consider appropriate to your writing; admit (at least to yourself) the fallibility of your own memories and their shifting relationship to the moment of recall. I choose to incorporate the latter awareness into my writing—not only from an ethical imperative, but because this is how I have come to understand my own life.
I subscribe to the neuroscience view of memory because it resonates with my experience. As I age, I find myself continually revisiting my store of personal memories. It’s not that the memories themselves (in terms of what actually happened) change, but rather that my relationship to these events keeps shifting—in response to everything that has occurred since. The present, in this sense, does affect the past—and alters it as a result.
In my case, this process has been positive. My early life involved trauma—my dad’s death by drowning when I was 9 years old, and my stepfather’s death (most likely suicide) when I was 18. Because no one in my family talked about either of these events, I felt very much alone with them and haunted by fears that I had been somehow responsible for both. This was foolish, of course, but I didn’t learn that until I began to talk and to write about what had previously felt unspeakable or forbidden. This subject matter fueled my early attempts at memoir writing—at a time when there was no specific genre category for what I was doing. The term “creative nonfiction” came into use just as I was beginning to write in this form. My first collection of essays, Rivers, Stories, Houses, Dreams, was described by my publisher as “familiar essays,” not memoir.
I was writing in order to understand myself and my life—from a place of silence and repression. What I found is that this process of self-exploration was not fixed, but mobile. Each book I wrote, like each personal memory that I retrieved, changed the way that I viewed my past. Reconstructing my memories in the light of my present life buffered them in ways that allowed me to remember them differently—not only with less angst, but also with more understanding and compassion. Recontextualizing my most difficult memories, in turn, helped me to access some of the happier and more pleasurable ones from my early childhood and complex adolescence.
The difference is this: whereas I used to be focused on how much I lost in the process of growing up, now I am more aware of everything that I gained. I credit the process of memory retrieval—which keeps subtly altering and updating the past in the light of the present—with this surprising and unanticipated result.
I am aware that some writers, like many people, seem to keep repeating themselves—as if, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, they had only one story to tell. In this view, memory is fixed and unchangeable—much like our previous cultural metaphors of memory as an impression stamped on a wax tablet, or a computer data bit stored intact. Freud referred to this psychic tendency as “repetition compulsion” and considered it a form of pathology, related to trauma.
But that is not the full story of memory, which is far more varied and interesting.
We see and understand in individual ways, and our minds record primitive impressions of the relationships and events that most matter to us. But these first impressions are not immutable, nor can they remain so. Our own minds keep altering them, whether we wish them to or not. In the best-case scenarios, we are not controlled or dominated by the childhood histories that we did not choose, yet suffered. Present day experience incorporates and updates the past in ways that may soften its painful impact. This is the upside of memory, as contemporary neuroscience represents it and as I have experienced it. The downside, of course, is that we cannot ever return to the paradise of an original memory formation. There is no “garden of Eden” of memory. All we can do is attempt to capture the fleeting sense of the present as shaped and informed by the past—as both move us continually forward in time.
In this sense, memoir writing is as elusive, unpredictable, and wily as our own brain functions. And that, from my point of view, is a profoundly good thing.
Madelon Sprengnether is a poet, memoirist, and literary critic, and Regents Professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Her most recent books are the memoir, Great River Road (New Rivers Press) and the poetry collection, Near Solstice (Holy Cow Press). Follow her @spren001 or on Facebook.