I finished a mesmerizing story of a horrific but in some ways magical childhood, and started musing over it. The story and its particulars stayed with me all day. In fact, I had kept reading long into the night, and when awakened early, read some more. In the book a woman tells of her childhood, from the time she was three, until when the book was published, in 2005. The truth is stranger than fiction label fits here. The descriptions of where she lived, how she lived, and what her parents did and didn’t do, would be completely unbelievable in a work of fiction. What makes a memoir different than a fictionalized account of a person’s life? Why is her book, universally praised and a bestseller, not looked at more as a bit of extrapolated truth, than a true fact based autobiography? The reason I question the veracity of the book is the way it is written. Entire conversations from this woman’s childhood, from age 3, 5, 7, 10 and on are quoted. Maybe whole scenes can replay in the mind of a 10 year old, but not a 3 year old. And yet as the reader we never think twice about what is being said, and that’s because the power of the prose and the way the story is being told almost blinds the reader to the improbableness of exact memories. I think back to my most traumatic experience at age 5, and conversation between adults and between myself and adults do not exist in my memory banks. Do I have a particularly bad memory span? Should I be able to recount discussions made way back then? I don’t think so. Certainly I remember certain phrases and things said to me–and the circumstances surrounding the event–but do I remember what my mother said to the next door neighbor when she asked to be driven to the doctor because I claimed my arm was broken? Do I remember what the doctor said to my mother, other than, yes, it’s broken, the bone is sticking out? Or what was discussed in the emergency room, or by the sadistic nuns at the hospital or the kid in the next bed to me? No. I don’t have total recall. So, if I were to write of this episode, is it within the guidelines of memoir writing that I create possible conversations among the participants? Or does that push the bounds of truth, and turn the reality of breaking my arm and the aftermath into a speculation of what happened, rather than what really happened?
I looked up the definition of memoir, and although used interchangeably with autobiography, it is supposed to have a slightly different meaning. Memoir is looser, more lax in the fact department than the latter. When writing a memoir, it is from the p0int of view of the person, how the person sees their life and the things and events within it. Whereas an autobiography depends on fact checking, history, research. But how does one research something as nebulous as conversations 40 years ago between people never seen again? It can’t be done, therefore an autobiography would only be made up of the dry facts, the when, where, how of an event. My broken arm incident would be recorded as occurring on May Day in 1961, across from my childhood home, in the Martinez’s front yard, in Lenola NJ, and my being taken to a fairly close doctor by the next door neighbor Mrs. Pierce, and then on to the hospital the doctor was associated with in Camden NJ, Our Lady Of Lourdes, where the nuns were known to treat the children without compassion. Those are the facts. If I were to tell the story from my point of view, these facts would be rounded out and elongated into something quite different. If written as a straight prose recounting, without dialog, I would consider it a memoir. Adding conversations I couldn’t possibly remember, would turn it into. . .? Would it change what the piece is categorized as? Apparently not. Should it?
So many so called memoirs lately have been shown up as fakes that a reader almost goes into a book such as The Glass Castle with misgivings as to the truth it will reveal. There is a new term for these types of recounting of lives–’misery lit.’ When the truth, i. e. the misery one has endured, provides the reader with a spirit over adversity tale, something to look to for inspiration, that’s a memoir. When proven to be complete forgery, made up stories, lies, it becomes a piece of ‘misery lit’ which damages the author, the publishing house, the reviewers who regaled it, and by extension makes the reader feel duped and unlikely to trust another memoir.
So, when 3 year old Jeannette Walls sets herself on fire while she is cooking hot dogs, and she’s taken to the hospital and swathed in bandages, does she really remember conversations she had with the nurses about looking like a mummy? Or does she recall conversations over the years between herself and her family as to what she said or did during that time? Again, does it matter? If the essence of the truth is there, if she did set herself on fire, she was in the hospital for weeks, and was completely covered in bandages, and these facts are discoverable if need be, does it matter if poetic license is used to make a story even more compelling?
I don’t know. I do know that the manner in which she recounted her life was haunting, and I am fairly certain had she not inserted supposed conversations throughout, it wouldn’t nearly impact her audience as it has. I just needed to ask the question.
To view an interview with Stephen Colbert and Ms. Walls: