Putting the Memory Back in Memoir

484px-augusten_burroughs_by_david_shankboneThis past weekend CBS Sunday Morning ran a piece on the credibility of memoir, featuring author Augusten Burroughs.  The gist of the report was that the last several years have seen a spike in published memoir sales and a parallel spike in fraudulent memoirs getting past editors’ scrutiny and onto bookshelves. 

By now we’re all familiar with the James Frey-Oprah scandal, in which Frey duped Oprah, and millions of people, into believing his book, A Million Little Pieces, was a factual account of his life as a drug addict.  Turns out it was all a lie, and he was summoned back to Oprah to publicly face her wrath… “Liar!”. 

Burroughs has written a handful of well received memoirs (Running with Scissors is probably the most well known) in which he describes the exceptionally strange and tragic details of his childhood, much of which revolves around his “psychotic and homicidal” father.  It so happens that Burroughs’ older brother, John Elder Robison, is also an author, and has also written about their father, though his recollections are far fonder.  Sitting side-by-side during the CBS interview, the brothers’ difference in perception about their father was striking.  To one, the man was a psychotic, brutal sadist who enjoyed both physically and psychologically torturing his children.  To the other, the man was an unfortunate alcoholic who, when drunk, was destructive to others and himself, but the rest of the time was of moderate temper, even gentle.

200px-running-with-scissorsSo what’s going on here?  How can two people, growing up in the same house with the same parents, arrive at such different conclusions?  Burroughs recounts an episode in which his father chased him through the woods with a butcher knife. Robison recounts throwing around a baseball in his backyard with good old dad. 

A couple of things are worth noting about this. First, and easiest, is the issue of lying.  Frey is a liar.  He consciously wrote a fictional account and passed it off as his life. How he did so with such success (all the way up to Oprah for goodness sakes) is attributable both to his skill as a writer (of fiction), and his skills as a salesman.  He is a fabulist, and it’s beyond debate that what he wrote is a fantastic lie.  The same can be said of many others, like Margaret Selzer (alleged infamous gang drug runner, not) and alleged holocaust survivor Binjamin Wilkomirski.

The second issue is more challenging and gets to the central question regarding authors like Burroughs and his brother — namely, what is a memoir?  The popular misconception of memory as retrieval of facts from a cerebral data-bank is important in this debate, because it overlaps with the popular perception of memoir.  We want to believe that memory approaches near-perfect recollection, as if we are forever running well-structured algorithmic searches in our brains, but it doesn’t.  As science writer Jonah Lehrer has pointed out at The Frontal Cortex  (in several good posts like this one),

We like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them. But they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.

We also know that memory is tightly interwoven with emotional response.  If this is true, and ample research suggests that it is, then not only will the creation of memoir be fragmented and redacted, but it will also hue closely to the most emotional events in ones life. 

Burroughs has come under criticism for what he’s written in each of his books, and to what extent it’s deserved I don’t know.  But, it seems plausible that in his case, and in the case of anyone writing a memoir not blatantly based on lies (ala Frey), the published product is exactly what we should expect a product of memory to be.  That many people expect perfection in the rendering says more about general misunderstandings of memory than it does about the intentions of the author. 

The choice we’re left with is to either accept the author’s memoir as the truest recollection of events within the mutable and emotive context of their perception, or simply dismiss any pretense of truth and read it as a fiction (or not read it at all).   But the option of expecting perfection, or near perfection–or anything like it–is not a realistic one.  It’s understandable that with so many liars trying to pass off their books as memoirs we should be skeptical, but a healthy skepticism understands the limits of discernment.  When it comes to memory, we’re only going to get so close to ‘truth’ even under the best conditions. 

That is unless you happen to be one of the few people with perfect memory, in which case, living in your own personal infinite loop,  you deserve our sympathy more than our skepticism.

2 Comments

Filed under About Perception

2 responses to “Putting the Memory Back in Memoir

  1. Having led a life much like Burroughs.And seeing what happened to Frey .I hesitate to share for fear of being called a lier.We have become so nit picky about facts.Can I not just write it as i recall it?
    Thank your for this interesting article.
    P.S My older sister has perfect recall. And none of us envy her for it.

  2. This is a very useful article about memoir and memories. It brings to mind the brain research about how traumatic memories are stored, and the idea that each of us has a different brain, sensitivities, and most likely, even if living in the same house, slightly different experiences. As a memoirist and writing coach as well as a family therapist, I find that most people are very careful in recounting their tales, and worry about other family members thinking they are lying, and they are often haunted by certain memories that recur and distress them. I recommend writing as a healing journey, and after writing the memoir, decide who should see it and whether it should be published.
    Thank you for your article.

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