In this age of "boo-hoo" journalism, it seems anyone who has ever been the subject of abuse, illness, or loss --- or who knows someone in such conditions --- has or soon will come out with a memoir. A quick look at the new book section in my local library shows MY JOURNEY WITH FARRAH: A Story of Life, Love, and Friendship, written by Alana Stewart and published less than two months after the pop culture icon died in June 2009, and Patrick Swayze's posthumous THE TIME OF MY LIFE, released just 15 days after he passed away. Can it be long before we see something from one of Tigers Woods's consorts?
You might think that such gut-spilling is a relatively new phenomenon, but according to Ben Yagoda's MEMOIR: A History --- a fascinating, well, biography of the genre --- that's not the case by a long shot. From the days of the classic philosophers through medieval times, men (mostly) have been telling their stories of conquest, failure, redemption, doubt and/or belief with the notion that the world (much smaller in those days) was anxiously waiting to know their thoughts.
There are many subgenres that have enjoyed their "fad-dom" over the years, such as the founding fathers, war heroes and former slaves. In contemporary times, we have the "extreme misery memoir," which chronicles "dysfunction, abuse, poverty, addiction, mental illness, and/or bodily ruin."
How much detail should be told and how much should be kept between the writer and his maker? And how will that decision color the reader's perception? According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his own CONFESSIONS, he "presents himself as he wants to be seen, not at all as he is. The sincerest of people are at best truthful in what they say, but they lie by their reticence, and what they suppress changes so much what they pretend to reveal that in telling only part of the truth, they tell none of it."
Next, we must define what "truth" is exactly. And since much of that truth is based on memory, what role does that play? Two people who shared the same situation might have vastly different recollections of the same affair (as represented by the "I Remember it Well" duet from the film Gigi).
Then there's the infuriating issue of false memoirs, perhaps best illustrated by James Frey's A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, in which he totally misrepresented himself. The manuscript was originally intended as a novel, but when it garnered scant interest, he thought it would be more successful if he "personalized" it. He duped thousands of readers, thanks in part to his endorsement by Oprah Winfrey before the facts came to the surface.
Perhaps worse are those who prey on the public's sympathy by publishing ersatz Holocaust memoirs, such as FRAGMENTS: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, 1939-1948 and MISHA, both of which, it turned out, were totally fraudulent and a disservice to all those who were subjected to Nazi degradations.
While Yagoda --- a journalism professor at the University of Delaware --- chastises those who would simply lie about their circumstances, he takes a laissez-faire approach when it comes to more innocent misstatements and questions the importance of absolute accuracy: "Get a life, people. Human memory is flawed and everybody knows it. And memoir, as a genre, is universally understood to offer subjective, impressionistic testimony. It doesn't pretend to offer the truth, just the author's truth....The people who spend their time scouring these works for mistakes, and then proudly trumpet their findings, are hypocritical scandalmongers." It's a fine line between exaggerating for emphasis and being purposely disingenuous.
There are several passages trying to connect perceived memory and actual fact, all of which make for fascinating pondering. And whether Yagoda meant it or not, MEMOIR might have the ancillary effect of making readers question every such book they come across in the future.
--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan