by Jerry Waxler
Harry Bernstein, author of the recently published memoir, “The Dream” describes a conversation with his mother in which he offers to support her. She hated the idea.
“What about college?” she says.
“I can put off going to college until I’ve made enough money to pay for it and leave you some.”
“No!” She said this with so much emphasis that the plan I’d just conceived was crushed immediately.
This argument took place at the beginning of the Great Depression and he wrote it in his memoir, “The Dream,” almost 80 years later. Are you wondering if he remembered the conversation in exact detail? I, am too, hoping to balance memory on the razor’s edge of Truth.
When we read fiction, we believe all sorts of wild things — travels to foreign galaxies, imagining fantastic creatures. But when we read memoirs we want to believe the events really happened. This is more complicated than it first appears. Memory is slippery. For example, I can not guarantee the exact words even a few minutes after a conversation. And when siblings talk about their childhood, it’s rare that they agree on the facts. Absolute truth, it appears, can never be pinned down like a butterfly on a cork board.
So how can I trust Harry Bernstein’s memory? It’s simple. I set aside my doubts, and enter the book “as if” it’s true. Here’s the contract I mentally construct with him. “He’s doing his best to capture the fluttering essence of Truth and I am doing my best to believe it. Together we walk through this particular rendition of the dream of life.”
When Harry Bernstein walked past a row of employment offices, pushing through the mob of hungry men trying to get a glimpse of the help-wanted posters, I didn’t need to fact-check his work. And anyway, there’s no way I could. When I set aside doubts and enter the scene, Bernstein’s words conjure up an image from the Great Depression that satisfies me emotionally and intellectually.
Some authors make this contract explicit
To research my own memoir, I peer into my memories. Some come to mind with an almost cinematic clarity, and others start out hazy and then reluctantly yield their secrets, eventually forming a convincing picture. In neither case, do I have absolute proof of their truth. So I am forced to make a deal with my own memory. After I have pondered, checked against any factual records that are available, and made my best effort, if I want to stay sane and enjoy the journey of my own life, I accept my own memories. If I don’t, I end up doubting myself, which diminishes the richness and pleasure of being me.
To see how other memoir writers deal with these issues, I look back through the memoirs I’ve been reading, and find a variety of statements authors use to help set the reader’s expectations. In the preface to Kate Braestrup’s memoir “Here If you Need Me” she says that to maintain the anonymity of her characters she went beyond changing their names. She distorted the descriptions of their towns. I enjoyed her book each of the three times I read it, and was never bothered by the alteration of these facts.
Nic Sheff’s “Tweaked” contains a broader disclaimer. “This work is a memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollections of his experiences over a period of years. Certain names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed, and certain individuals are composites. Dialogue and events have been recreated from memory and, in some cases, have been compressed to convey the substance of what was said or what occurred.”
With or without disclaimers, as far as I can tell, writers have been approximating reality since the beginning of time. The earliest stories I know, Homer’s “Odyssey” in the West, and the “Bhagavad-Gita” in the East, appear to be based on some unknowable conglomeration of history and imagination, through which we see glimpses of their world, exotic in the differences from our own, and uncanny in the similarities.
Is it really that simple?
Not everyone agrees with me that Truth can be approximated. Some people seem terrified that they have no way to prove their memory. Their voices pinched and clipped, they demand Truth. I am reminded of the endless bickering between my mother and her sister. These two women, apart in age by 10 years, argued bitterly about the facts of their childhood.
When the topic of Truth comes up in a memoir writing workshop, people speak faster, interrupting each other to express fear of betrayal, and bewilderment about the slipperiness of memory. Inevitably someone raises the specter of James Frey, whose memoir “Million Little Pieces” was recommended by Oprah. Later, it was revealed that he had misrepresented crucial facts. Oprah brought him back on her show and in front of millions of people demanded like an outraged mother to her lying son, “How dare you?”
For some readers this spectacular episode infects all memoirs with an aura of deceit. Others shrug their shoulders, unwilling to let one betrayal ruin their trust, believing that most authors will do better. Surely this lack of agreement demonstrates beyond any doubt that there is no single answer. It boils down to this rather confusing fact. Each of us has our own definition of what is True.
My position is that the most important reality is the one you know. This person-centric view lets me stay curious about people, even when they see the world differently than I do. Of course, you might disagree with my definition of Truth, and your perspective is every bit as valid as mine. But let me offer one observation to support my position.
We go to art museums, longing for a glimpse of the world through the artist’s eyes. These images we see of starry skies and fields of flowers are not valuable because they are Truth. Our yearning to see them is based at least in part on the desire to learn a different way of looking at the world. Memoirs provide the same benefit.
So rather than be threatened by the fear of lying, I take the opposite approach. I am exhilarated by the joy of trying. To understand the way life unfolds for other people, I open up to the sharing of their best approximation. By accepting the stories of others, as they remember, I am able to see through their eyes things I could never see through my own. And as I build trust for them, I gain a powerful side effect. I increase my trust in myself, strengthening my acceptance that there are valuable insights hidden within my memories. By aspiring to tell my story, I can learn about my own life, share it with others, and increase the value of my journey now and in the future.