Are Memoirs True?

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.


For more information about Harry Bernstein’s “The Dream”
Click here
for the Amazon page.
Click here to support your local independent bookstore.

For more information about Nic Sheff’s memoir, “Tweaked”
Click here for the Amazon page
Click here for my essay about Tweaked

9 thoughts on “Are Memoirs True?

  1. I appreciate your opinions on this subject.

    I write pieces of my memoirs on my blog, and regularly hear from my siblings that one or more of my details are not correct. (i.e. “The doll at grandma’s house had clothes.”) It makes me feel defensive. (Who cares? I remember the doll being naked!) But it does cast doubt on my memories. Since I’m the only one writing them down, does my version have to be perfect?

    I have decided that the lessons I’ve learned in my life are my truth, and the minutiae is just the background. The works of scientists and historians are regularly updated with further research. I won’t be offended If someone wants to dispute the trivia of my recollections; they can always write their own memoir.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Travelinoma. Your story highlights the fact that we have been shamed from the time we’re little not to tell stories, so when someone tells us a fact is “wrong,” it’s easy to experience a whole cascade of self-doubts. I’m glad you have found a way to steer through these well-intended “corrections” and come out with your dignity intact, as well as your determination to continue to share your stories.

  3. Dear Jerry,
    Your wonderful essay shows how curious and generous you are with your fellow humans,. It invites all of us to follow your path–to see memory as fluid and not absolute, and to respect the best in all writers who present memoirs as their truth.
    Unfortunately this week, the memoir world was rocked once more with another “false memoir,” and as in James Frey’s situation, it is not a problem with memory. There are authors who know they are making things up profoundly–not about colors or dialogue, but about core issues. In this case Mr. Rosenblatt fictionalized the love story that began during the Holocaust, which made the book Angel at the Fence so appealing. Oprah had the couple on her show twice, articles and interviews have taken place, and a children’s book was written about the story. It will be interesting to see how she responds this time.
    Back to the issue for memoirists. This week agents and editors were quoted as saying they are going to be very careful of memoirs in the future, and demand rigorous fact checking.
    This makes some writers clutch and entertain a serious case of writer’s block. I hope that the urgency to fact check all memoirs blows over, and people begin to distinguish between fluidity of memory and outright alteration with the goal of creating some kind of fame or effect–who knows the motivation for doing this kind of thing. But when a writer presents a memoir, it is understood that the power of the memoir is that the core of the story is true–as best the writer can present it.
    I wrote an essay about this situation at NAMW, and no doubt it will be discussed more in the future. In the meantime, I hope memoirists, most of whom have great integrity about their writing and their memories, will continue to share their experiences in this very special form of story telling that enriches all our lives.

  4. Hi Jerry;

    Wow! Now here’s a person who loves to write, secure with his own identity, and is confident to share his beliefs. So nice to meet you. When I first read your introduction, I thought of shopping. How reading blogs is like roaming through the stores, peeking at all the spectacular merchandise. Here, on my laptop, I have this wealth of opportunity.
    Anyway, you have a very interesting display and you present your thoughts very well.

    Jo-Anne Vandermeulen
    “Conquer All Obstacles”
    Prolific Writer of Romantic Fiction

  5. Hi Jo-Anne,

    Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for the compliments. I’m delighted that you find value in these pages. I like your tag line “Conquer All Obstacles.” That’s a great goal for the new year.


  6. Linda Joy,

    I share your concern about the validity and impact of the memoir genre. Based on your memoir and book about writing memoirs, and in your organization, National Association of Memoir Writers,, I know your passion on the subject. Personally, I feel that the false memoirs are a tiny pebble on the sands of a huge beach, across which are crashing the lives and stories of millions of people, who continue to reach for their own inner truth, even as they occasionally slip on a pebble. In my opinion, the memoir wave is alive and well, and will continue to fill us with insights into the human condition.


  7. I totally love your article. I have recently published my first book, Beyond the Present, and while the book touches on memories as far back as my childhood the memoir is specifically covering a 2 year period after my divorce from my first husband in 1996. Although my memories are vivid, there are often experiences that I write about which were perhaps during periods of heavy alcohol consumption and we all know that memories like that are often completely different than reality. My story is none-the-less real as those memories are the only memories that I have of the moments. I have also changed the names of the characters more to protect the guilty than the innocent and having done that it only made sense to change my own name in the book as well. While I’m anxious about the opinions of others who lived through some of that time with me, the bottom line is that this book is a book of MY memories and if they differ from the memories of others… well then to my readers I say, ….. write your own book!

  8. Hi Jerry, I really enjoyed reading your article. I’ve just finished my first book, Return to My Soul, which is a memoir, and was looking for examples of disclaimers to get an idea of how different authors approach this.

    It’s been very important for me to as honest as I can be about my story, and I feel I have achieved this.

    Thank you for writing about the matter of truth in a memoir.

    Best wishes,
    Gabrielle Bergan

  9. Hi Gabrielle,

    I’m glad you found the article useful. Truth is a huge issue in memoirs, because readers want some reassurance you are reporting your life as truthfully as possible. In addition, there are more sublime sorts of truths, deeper emotional truths that memoir writers spend hundreds or thousands of hours attempting to put into words. I spent a few minutes on your website, and am fascinated by the description of a soulful shattering that forced you to put yourself back together in a spiritual way. What an incredible journey! Thanks for sharing it, Best wishes, Jerry

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