Backtalk: Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir

“To employ a textual structure which cracks wide open the whole literary convention of an age seems in more than one case to be the only means by which truth and literature can be reconciled.”

— Richard Coe When the Grass Was Taller, p.85

The act of remembering one’s life and examining it for meaning is the elemental act of anyone on a spiritual quest. The subsequent shaping of that understanding into a work of art or literature is an act of faith in the possibility of communal meaning, the essential work of the artist, no matter what post-modern, atomized, mandarin critics claim. Memory was, is, and shall be mother of all the muses.

It may be that, in our moment, the impulse to write memoir, the marriage of the personal essay with dramatic narrative, stems largely from the overload experienced by writers driven back by the torrent of propaganda that attempts to shape a consensus through the media. These writers can only trust the frail first-person narrator sifting through real, not fictive, experience, in order to establish the existence of a reality beyond the one described so loudly and incessantly not by human beings, but by talking money. Their telling, their honesty and willingness to stand by their words, is the untelling of those pervasive lies that a culture of simulation and propaganda uses to numb and subdue us and trap us into the politically de-fanged and spiritually neutered “virtual reality” of Plato’s video cave.

In other words, the ascendance of memoir may be a kind of backtalk, a cultural corrective to the sheer amount of fictional distortion that has accumulated in a society whose historians include Michael Eisner and Andrew Lloyd Webber. At the end of “the American Century,” what’s been called “the memoir explosion” may be our own “truth and reconciliation hearings,” life by life and book by book. It’s no wonder that this makes some uncomfortable; there can be no account without an accounting, and the desire for a blanket amnesty requires an amnesia that can be soul-destroying. We tend to most want amnesty when we are exhausted and the hope of justice, of setting things right again, is lost. It is because the memoirist refuses this comfortable despair that the genre can be seen as having a political meaning.

“The struggle of the people against power,” wrote Milan Kundera, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” and those involved in that work are more than narcissists for sale, licking their wounds in public, as threatened power, wielding a sneer (the saturday night special of American discourse), seeks to portray them. Faced with disinformation, the cynical cultivation of profitable compulsions, history as theme park, and lives increasingly defined by a pop-culture grid and nudged this way and that by market research, the memoirist beats a tactical retreat to real, i.e. subjective experience, as a starting point for reclaiming an authentic relation to the world.

Kundera, in exile, called the communist president of Czechoslovakia “The President of Forgetting”. Here, during the dark advent of the great, empty pseudo-culture of consumerism, brought to us through every tinny speaker in every fast-food restaurant ceiling, through megaplex theatres and cable TV, on the cover of every slick and content-free magazine clogging the shelves, we had an amnesiac actor in the White House. After he left, we were told he had Alzheimers’. As my children would say, “Duh.”

It simply became easier to lie after the second World War, at least in America; what I mean is that the new media made it much easier to repeat a lie over and over until it became the truth. This has always been a fundamental strategem of the propagandist, but it used to take a lot longer to lodge these credible untruths in the public mind. Each new untruth is easier to lodge there because it is congruent with its predecessors. Memoirists, those who take their work in the form seriously, are at the very least grit in the machinery manufacturing mass reality.

As a writer – and more than that, as a reader, since I read much more than I write – I want to know how it is that we have lost the connection between what people write and think and feel and say and the world in which they live. I want to know who sets out the terms by which we try to understand our lives and what strictures and taboos stand in the way of our finding meanings that feel authentic to us.

In the literary realm, particularly in the case of the novel, this disjuncture between what is called serious literature and the struggles of people to free themselves from social conditioning, learned compulsions, and the aftershocks of both public and private trauma is maintained by adherence to the creed of “ironic detachment.” Chief among its tenets is the belief that to pass judgments, to argue passionately, to take a stand of any kind is unsophisticated. To be a sophisticate is to be cool and detached, not heated and engaged. The trouble is that such a view precludes both blessings and curses. It is, simply, an attitude, a certain tone, and by now readers have been miseducated to believe that when they hear this tone they are in the presence of art. Worse, young writers, to be considered serious, seem to feel they must adopt this pose. Shall we be so willing to sacrifice literature’s ability to “praise and dispraise” as the late critic Terrence des Pres put it? If so, we consign our literature to a world apart and deny it any role in our social and political life except to keep alive the idea of the removed observer, an idea that in a world of 24 hour TV newscasts cannot be said to be threatened. A literature that shrinks from the question of meaning is, quite literally, demeaning. A literature that evades moral judgments is ultimately demoralizing.

In a recent issue of Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress, David Samuels takes aim at the recent increase in first-person nonfiction in an essay tellingly entitled “Mad About Me”. After acknowledging the genius of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Samuels begins the pseudo-sophisticated sneering that his title heralds. “Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams, beware! Stories of alcoholism and recovery, of addiction to sex, of incestuous fathers and other childhood traumas too numerous to mention, have broken free from the talk-show circuit and are arriving by the truckload at a bookstore near you.” In the face of such baiting, a memoirist might ask if Samuels would also agree that novels that tell of interlocking painful relationships, betrayals, indecision, infidelities, struggle, have broken free from the daytime soaps and are headed to a bookstore near you? Novels like Madame Bovary, Anna Karenin, The Wings of the Dove, Absalom, Absalom. Of course he wouldn’t.

Samuels’ essay illustrates the difficulty one encounters beginning from the wrong assumptions. I do not know what a memoir is. I don’t find most definitions very helpful. On the other hand, I don’t know what a novel is, either, and still believe that its very name suggests that it will remain a healthy genre only so long as it eludes the captivity of a definition. I believe, without having a definition for either genre, that memoir is at this moment in literary history best viewed as a sub-genre of the novel. In any case, the difference between the two is certainly not as pat as “fiction lies; autobiography tells the truth,” the straw man Samuels goes on to knock down in his essay. Most memoirists, with the notable exception of one now extremely wealthy liar, are frank in allowing that their works are re-creations and products of what artistry they have been able to bring to bear to give their lives a narrative shape. The larger question has to do with the relation between memory and imagination: in a memoir, the imagination serves memory; in fiction, it is most often the other way around, with memory indentured to imagination. Both can be ways of speaking the truth. Both can be ways of lying. So the issue is — uh-oh, where’s my ironic detachment? — honesty.

Samuels is by no means the only dog barking at the caravan. Articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and elsewhere all seemed to agree that memoir is a third rate genre peopled by unseemly victims licking their wounds in public. Mostly this backlash was driven by the media’s unceasing appetite for controversy, for removing complexity and replacing context with contest. For example, on a recent NPR call-in show, The Connection, host Christopher Lydon interviewed his guests, Frank Conroy and James Salter, by way of a factitious argument that somehow memoirists are a threat to novelists. Of course it didn’t come off since Conroy and Salter both hold dual citizenships in the countries of fiction and memoir. In fact, at one point in the program, it appeared the game was over when Lydon lobbed his serve out of bounds by asking Conroy if the memoir was to blame for the death of the novel. Conroy answered, of course, that the novel is not dead.

At another point in that program, Lydon asked his guests about the literary value of unsavory personal details like alcoholism, violence, and perversion. He seemed unaware that one might need to treat those subjects explicitly in order to make sense of the rest of the story. Worse, he seemed unaware that in asking whether such things should be included in a work of literature he had drifted from a discussion of how those subjects might best be treated and was talking instead about what was in fact censorship.

The aesthete and the reactionary both deny the reality that the private and public spheres are twin arenas where the same ethical and political battles take place. Our personal histories are part of history. We are all children not only of our families, but of our communities, our nation, our culture, our historical moment. This is a truism but one, it seems, that the present zeitgeist wants us to forget.

When my father, who had grown up in the depression, returned from the butchery to which he was exposed at the age of nineteen, he was told he was one of the good guys, one of those who had saved the world from tyranny. Like so many others, all he wanted now was a private life, the illusion of an escape from history.

Those of us who grew up during the postwar years (as opposed to the ahistorical fiction called “the 50’s”, a time of peace and plenty which did not include the Korean War, McCarthyism, or the constant terrifying threat of atomic attack) were born into some version of a shell-shock ward. It was a tile and chrome world of survivors who heard, with understandable relief and tragic credulity, the gospel of forgetfulness and were happy to believe it: you must put the past behind you; you mustn’t dwell on the past; that was then, this is now. We, their children, had no history, but we lived in the aftermath of war, in the emotional rubble of our parents’ rages and sorrow. As we came of age in the era of “the balance of terror” and “the missile gap” and learned what had happened in Europe and Asia, we were enjoined to forget it. The gospel of forgetfulness is alive and well today and informs much of the clucking and sneering at recent memoir cited earlier.

If we cannot forget the atrocities of this century, the least we can do is deny we’ve been affected by them: all those pesky wars, mass murders, class inequities, threats of planetary death. In this project we will be abetted by pop psychology and self-help texts that treat the individual as either well- or maladapted, and the family as if it existed under a bell jar. What meanings are encouraged, celebrated, sanctioned as truth will be those expressed in comfortably apolitical psychological terms; i.e. it’s all in your head.

Woody Guthrie: “If you make two words that say, ‘I Haven’t Got a Worry in My Head,’ or ‘The World’s Okie-Dokie It’s Just Me That’s All Wrong,’ they will pay you more money than you can carry off in a big sack. Your two words don’t even have to rhyme or make any sense. They will stretch them into songs, plots, dramas, true confessions, detective stories, and run them in serial form to sell stuff with.

“If you make up two words that tell something that’s wrong about your life and how to fix it, of course, then you are a Communist.”

The aesthete’s nearly theological idea of art for art’s sake depends at least in part on writing for posterity, but it’s hard to sell the concept of posterity to those raised in the shadow of Hiroshima, and the twin state-terrorisms of the Cold War. Those who know we have been and are still only half a step from a real, not mythic Armageddon, aren’t buying it.

I’m reminded of the comic Jimmy Tingle’s story about his agent telling him that he’d blown his chances by doing political humor on the Johnny Carson show. “But Johnny himself does political humor!” says Tingle. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says his exasperated agent “but Johnny doesn’t MEAN it!” We mean it.


“He who tells the story of his life is the most oppressed of all slaves among storytellers.” — Georges Duhamel

“True stories have no end,” Charles Fish tells us in his masterful memoir, In Good Hands: the Keeping of a Family Farm , “but a storyteller must find boundaries, or else from three small sentences in a diary he could be drawn to the beginning of the world.”

The beginning of the world. In his essay, “My Caedmon: Thinking about Poetic Vocation”, Allen Grossman reminds us that the first poet in English, called upon by his fellows to sing a song, something familiar, as they sat before the fireplace, declined, having no song to sing. Later, “Caedmon was commanded by someone in a dream to sing something. Confessing himself unable to think what or how to sing, he was directed to sing, in his dream, the beginning of the creatures. And he did so. Upon awaking, in the presence of persons of authority in the monastery (Whitby) where he worked, Caedmon remade, again on demand, his poetic text.”

Memoirists, regarded for the time being as poets (and many of them are), can be viewed as singers who found no other song to sing and sang the beginning of the world, this world; i.e. how this world became the particular shape of this consciousness.

Writing a memoir becomes, eventually, like turning over a circuit board and seeing how the connections have been made. Going down below street-level. Checking on the worn-out, maybe dangerous plumbing and wiring, learning how things really work. And finding that little has been “built to code.” This is more than recalling events and stringing them like beads. This is a do or die existential command from deep in a dream. Those who merely “play the market” with a “hot” story are impostors, pretenders, and worse.

The memoirist discovers his destiny, not his destiny hereafter, not some soothsayer’s fortune, but what causes and effects, influences and resistances, circumstances and compulsions have been, often unnoticed, at work. He discovers what subjects, predicates, objects, and modifiers have sentenced him. He comes to understand what the future was.

Maybe this engenders the selfsame process in the reader. Some of these readers are also writers. Maybe that’s enough to explain the “explosion” of memoir. But I suspect the current runs much deeper than that.

According to Plotinus, who enriched and humanized the Rome of his day by re-membering the body of Hellenic knowledge that had been sundered, or dis-membered, by imperialism and war, “Memory is for those who have forgotten.”

Now, you can read that sentence to mean, merely, that you have no need to remember unless you have first forgotten, a reading that seems both obvious and true. It seems so because this is the way we usually understand memory; i.e., that faculty which allows us to recapture something that we once had, or at least almost had, before it slipped into unavailability like a dropped pop-up, or a fish hooked tenuously and lost, or a prisoner escaped before securely in the lock-up.

But I understand that statement a bit differently. I choose to think of this neo-Platonist’s shimmering, ambiguous remark as a description of the artist’s vocation, one that grounds that calling in a social responsibility that grants real power — personal, cultural, political, and spiritual — to the art it produces. In other words, Memory is for the sake of those who have forgotten. For the love of, for the health of, for the sustenance of those who have forgotten.

This way of looking at Plotinus’ statement bears in mind also the fact that Mnemosyne, or Memory, is the mother of all the muses. Hers is the power of continuity that, shaped by the arts, brings forth from the past not monsters but recognizable, unique variations of her pattern. For those who have forgotten.

When a poet looks to the past, he or she does so with a different motive than one who searches merely for a lost fact or artifact. The poet is interested in the past not merely as the antecedent of the present, but as its living source. Poets are animists, however much they may see fit to deny it in such a cynical age; they can’t help knowing that the world, all of it, breathes and lives.

The motive of the memoirist is grief, with its accompanying outrage and incomprehension. The intent is the oldest poetic quest: to interrogate death and win the release of the beloved dead. The method is to dream them alive, both the lords of the dead and their captives, with the help of one or more of Memory’s famous daughters, to enact the Orphic ritual, the descensus inferni, singing with the time- and death-defying passion of the poet. The one who makes this journey cannot bring back the dead, of course, (although if the poet is young and naive enough to be still outraged by loss, he or she may believe it possible.) What the poet does bring back, however, is an understanding of the subterranean structures of the world, the ways that the past reissues in the present, and in his or her work, for those who have forgotten, those structures — existential, psychological, cultural, and political — inhere. In the best work, work that is both truthful and beautiful, the reader comes to assume these structures in his or her own consciousness in order to understand first the work’s shape, and later the solace it gives, the strength it imparts, the change it demands.

Ultimately, a memoir must be about the myriad ways the past and present conjugate to produce the future. This commingling includes the dead as well as the living, our forbears as well as our children. The memoirist’s disciplined practice must include an openness to grief, regret, and remorse in order to see reality clearly. This extrication from lies, shame, and silence, this liberation, is the result of many individual acts of truth-telling performed by choosing this word or phrase over that, by honoring the integrity of each event as opposed to modifying its contours to fit, by the quest to understand how time, along with place, class, and culture, has unfolded character and determined history.

The Greeks (and no doubt others) made distinctions between various kinds of memory. There was anamnesis (lit. the absence of or resistance to amnesia) which we call, inelegantly, “long-term memory.” This can also be used to describe the memory of a community or people, that is, “history.” As Elie Weisel said, in an interview in Bostonia, last Spring: “Memory is not only a victory over time, it is a triumph over injustice.” Anyway, this is different from what the Greeks called mnemne, or recall, i.e. our contemporary “short-term memory.”

Anamnesis, the re-membering of the dismembered past, is a sustained stance toward the world, a political committment as well as a literary and spiritual undertaking. If forgetfulness, amnesis, is a kind of death, then the kind of reunification and reintegration of experience or history is not only life-affirming for the practitioner, but also confers, in the hands of a skillful artist, a kind of immortality on those who would have otherwise disappeared, drowned in the waters of Lethe forever.

Like a novel, a memoir is a dramatic work, one constructed to embody a unity or pattern discovered by means of a sustained and resolute attention to the interplay of characters and events as they happened (without manipulation based on a priori intent.) An honest memoirist can only discern this pattern after he or she has tracked and traced it through fog and despair, driven half-mad by love, grief, and fury.

A memoir is communal history told from the individual’s vantage. Woody Guthrie again:

“A folk song tells a story that really did happen. A pop tune tells a yarn that didn’t really take place.”

A memoir, a good one, is always about more than its subject: it gives voice to suffering, not solipsism. Although it need not always be written against something, fueled by outraged idealism, it must also never have its author’s personal concerns as beginning and end. That is diary, journal, correspondence, of little value except as record.

Yet stories that are read and loved and kept as our own can be extremely personal, containing the kind of knowledge and experience that until now would have been censored by government, or publishers, or, via shame, by the authors themselves (indeed preventing many from authoring their “lives” at all, the internal censor is so strong.) In literature, whether fiction or fact, a story has to be someone’s before it can be anyone’s and anyone’s before it can be everyone’s. Otherwise it is no one’s story. And there are always multiple interests arrayed against the story becoming anyone’s in the first place, and, after that, arrayed against the possibility that the story may be taken up and become read, embraced, loved enough to become, at least potentially, everybody’s. This is what the relationship between writers and readers is about, not book sales, best-seller lists, etc. This is why books are powerful and considered by many governments to be worthy of censorship: they are subversive of silence in that they tell the stories of nobodies, allowing many somebodies to reclaim the truth of their lives, to grieve and feel outrage and make demands, i.e. to wake up, to be reckoned with, to act.


After you publish a memoir, you learn a lot about people, about their frames of reference, about the various provinces of their mental country, the way the world is tendered, sundered, gendered, the way they make themselves safe. It’s sad. And yet it helps you see your own indefensible categorizations. A few identify with you. They are your readers. You, the author, on the other hand, identify as much with the others, especially the ones who show their fear. You know all about fear. These are the people who lead you back to your desk, to the notecards, the questions, the page.

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke regrets that no one any longer has an individual death — “One dies the death that belongs to the disease one has,” he writes. Well, we’ve done this with our lives now – a memoir by an incest survivor, a patient turned doctor, a doctor turned patient, a camp survivor, a man with AIDS (ah, Rilke, dear prophet of this insane century!) a parapalegic, a black man with a white mother, a white father with a black daughter, etc. etc. How can we find the humanity so abundantly and variously evident in these books if we have consigned them to one or another cubby-hole like this? If we define them by publishers’ abhorrent sub-titles? So we read about experience that we think may shed light on our own because we have an event or an illness or a place or a trauma in commn, when what we truly have in common is our humanity and, ironically, we might learn more about that from a work that at first seems far from our usual concerns or our own chancy autobiography up until now.

Soon after Half the House was published, I was interviewed by a reporter for Time magazine who was doing a story on memoir. It was clear to me early on in the interview that she already had her angle; she just wanted a quote or two to buttress her thesis, which was that the rise of memoir as a genre was the result of 12-step programs. I disagreed. She insisted that since I mentioned in the memoir that I was a member of a twelve-step program, that that is where the impulse came from. “What influence has your 12-step program had on your work?” she asked. I said that she was missing the point, that there was a long and honorable tradition of “coming of age” memoirs. “But surely 12 step programs…” I said that I thought that a memoir limited to a psychological view of events would not be very interesting to me, and that there were many other layers of anyone’s story that beg to be explored. “Yes, yes, but surely,” she said again, and I finally blurted out, “You want to know how 12-step programs have influenced the memoirists you’re interviewing? I’ll tell you: 12-step programs kept some of us alive long enough to do the work instead of jumping off of bridges, drinking ourselves to death, or sticking our heads in ovens like the previous generation of writers who tried to get in close and work with this kind of material.” Maybe I overstated the case. Forgive me. I was provoked.

What are the obstacles to remembering? What are the kinds of fear?

• the fear that all we have come to hold dear will be seen to have been smoke, so many phrases written on scraps of paper, in a language we can no longer read, and shredded past understanding anyway.

• the fear that all the people whom we have loved will be unmasked as strangers.

• the fear of remorse and its pain, for things both done and undone, for time wasted.

Sometimes I think that because it is so difficult to reconcile the wonder and horror of childhood, people make a choice to remember only one or the other. Thinking of my own boyhood: when it wasn’t horrible it was wonderful; when it wasn’t wonderful, it was horrible. Sometimes, but not often, it was neither wonderful nor horrible, and, particularly as I got older, there were times when although it was horrible it was also wonderful, or when it was wonderful and at the same time horrible.

To balance or offset corruption, violence, ignorance, I was given the smell of greenhouse soil, the wonder of staring fish, the laughter of grownups, the songs of my mother, the cool shade under a wooden bridge, the smell of a baseball mitt, the feel of a nightcrawler as you tug it from the wet ground, the trellises loaded down to crooked near-collapse by roses, the wedding cake rosettes of colored paint on a housepainter’s spattered shoes. It was enough.

Would I go through such a childhood again? The question is academic. I have. I will. Again and again.

1 Comment

  1. […] and sample essays, where in addition to powerful op-ed pieces on child abuse, he includes an essay on memoir, explaining that: “As a writer—and more than that, as a reader, since I read much more than I […]

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