Truth, Lies, and Memories

by Jerry Waxler

I’ve been transcribing recorded interviews from a digital recorder recently. I listen to the tape, and type it into my document, and if I miss something, which is often, I go back and listen to it again. I’ve noticed a peculiar thing about this project. As I listen and type, I often get the words wrong. I remember the sense of what they said, but I misremember the word choices only seconds after I hear them.

That calls into doubt the truth of any conversation I try to repeat. If I try to write some dialog, say from a year ago, or ten or twenty, I’m certain to get the words “wrong.” Does that make me a liar? Or more relevant to the topic of memoirs, does it make it fictional?

The fact is it’s difficult to remember conversations verbatim, and probably very few of us do it. It’s even harder to remember colors. In fact, two people can be sitting in front of a painting, and each will have a different set of words to describe the painting. Words only capture the best approximation of a thing, not the thing itself.

My mother and her sister would often get into arguments over how their childhood worked. I never really understood the nuances of their arguments – they were both too edgy about it to explain it clearly, but it had something to do with whether their childhood was happy. Their differences in memory certainly had something to do with the fact that they were seven years apart, so they grew up almost in different decades. A lot can happen in those seven years, and their experience could have been very different because of the changes in the world, and in their parents. And they had very different siblings. One had a sister seven years her elder and the other had a sister seven years her junior. I believe we all tend to underestimate the effect our siblings have on us. They are children, just like us, but their presence creates an important part of our environment. They indeed have different memories. Does that make either one true and the other false?

In my opinion, each has the right to remember her own story. Memoir writing is about our best memory, and if you hold yourself to some artificial standard of pure Truth, you’ll never be able to sit down and write. Memoir writing is story telling. If repeating dialog makes it a good story, it doesn’t matter to me as a reader if that differs from the actual dialog.

I just started reading the memoir “Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein. He begins with a scene he remembers from when he was 4 years old. He was 93 when he wrote it. That makes the memory 89 years old. I’m sure there are details in his account that are different from the events that actually took place. But I am thrilled to be reading the story that Bernstein tells, I am willing to suspend my concerns about truth of events decades ago, in exchange for the pleasure of the living, vibrant reality of Bernstein’s story of those events. Thank you Mr. Bernstein, and all you budding memoirists in the world, for sharing your story.

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