I’m reading Memoir: A History, which, like most books I read these days, is taking me weeks because every time I get into bed and open the book, about three pages in I’m sound asleep. But this is a great book that covers everything from the very first autobiographies to the present day Six-Word Memoirs by Larry Smith at SmithMag.net. The most interesting tidbits so far (I’m halfway through) are the earliest confessions and celebrity biographies—Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, in which he discusses his masochistic proclivities and sexual frustration. Rousseau’s memoir was groundbreaking at the time and was a precursor to today’s memoirs, which are known for their frankness and for their emphasis on the inner life of the author, the author’s childhood, and the mundane details of the author’s life.
One of the earliest tell-all biographies was written by the dressmaker and best friend of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. The book was titled Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Year in the White House. In it, Keckley describes Lincoln’s raw emotional state the day after her husband was assassinated. Not surprisingly, Lincoln unfriended Keckley upon publication of the book.
What I found most interesting, though, is a chapter about memory itself, and how incredibly faulty it is. I mentioned ina previous Memoir Monday post that I was shocked, after describing a Parisian restaurant in my book to revisit the place and discover that it was nothing like I had remembered. But according to a plethora of research done on memory, we all mis-remember events MOST the time:
“Psychiatrist Daniel Offer asked a group of high schoolers a set of questions about their lives, and thirty-four years later, asked the same men to think back and answer the same questions about their earlier lives. The differences were dramatic. Only a quarter of the grown men recalled that religion had been important to them as teenagers; at the time, nearly 70 percent reported that it was. About a third of the adults remembered receiving physical punishment; as teenagers, nearly 90 percent had answered yes to the same question.”
This is the perfect example of how difficult it is to recreate, in a memoir, an honest picture of who you were twenty years ago. You may remember yourself one way while someone else may remember you another way, and the truth may be yet a third way. You may even remember yourself differently depending on the day someone asks you. Or maybe some of your memories are memories of memories and no longer memories themselves. I remember, for example, when I was young that my earliest memories were my brother giving me my plastic yellow piggy bank for my third birthday, and going to the airport to watch the planes. I lived near an airport only until I was 10 mos old, so whether those first memories were real or not, I don’t know. Either way, if you ask me now, my first memory is probably the ice storm that happened on my sixth birthday because the airplane and piggy bank memories are only memories or memories now. I don’t remember the actual events anymore, only my telling people when I was younger that they were my first memories. (By the way, it blows my mind to think that my two-and-a-half-year-old isn’t going to remember ANY of his life at this age when he gets older. If I died now, he wouldn’t even remember ME. How depressing is that after the number of diapers I’ve changed??)
One memoirist quoted by Yagoda, Robert de Roquebrune, in his Testament de mon enfance (1958) stated that he can only accurately reproduce two words spoken in his entire childhood, when his mother said, “It’s tomorrow!” but that he cannot remember was “it” was.
So how does one write a memoir with no accurate memories to draw from, especially one like those published today that are full of dialogue and description that make you feel you are RIGHT THERE? This is how I did it:
2. Research (mostly online)
3. Interviews with other people about their memories of that time
4. My own memories
5. Made the rest up. (By “the rest” I mean what someone was wearing, the exact words they said, and what the weather was like that day. It’s 100% truthful in the sense that I recreated the scene to the best of my knowledge after having done interviews and research, but the fine details? Made them up. Just like every other memoirist does.)
What about you? What is your first memory? How accurate do you think it is? Have you had it corroborated by anyone else?