Lies and Consequences

June 1, 2008
Christina Askounis

Christina Askounis

 

Lies depress me, especially when, until they're exposed, they're rewarded with hefty advances and an enthusiastic review from Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Not even the potential for schadenfreude could make me feel better about the revelation that Love and Consequences, Margaret B. Jones' memoir of life as a half-white, half-Native American foster child growing up in gang-infested South Central Los Angeles, was pure, unadulterated, 100-proof snake oil.

As it turns out, Margaret Jones is really Margaret Seltzer, who is white, was reared in the bosom of her biological family in a tony L.A. neighborhood, and graduated from a private Episcopal day school. Her older sister blew the whistle on her after seeing her picture in the paper, a fact that seems to have interested many readers more than the fraud itself. (Her own sister outed her? What's the story there?)

Literary fakery is nothing new, but the memoir has suffered more than its share of abuse in the hands of the chronically hyperbolic, the melodramatic, and the mendacious. The genre has also been maligned by critics who see it as a vehicle for the narcissistic and exhibitionist spirit of the age. The memoir craze continues nevertheless, and while plenty of readers out there may turn to the form for gossip, for entertainment, or because they are, in novelist Julia Glass' phrase, "mortification junkies," I think the genre speaks to a deeper need-for connection, for intimacy.

I've been mulling over all this while teaching a course in spiritual autobiography. The class reading list includes memoirs ranging from St. Augustine's Confessions to Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies. Students also write their own autobiographical forays on themes as diverse as they are, reflecting on loss, loneliness, and struggle, but also on moments of elation, insight, and gratitude as well. What distinguishes the best of the students' memoirs and those on the reading list-apart from the writing itself-is a sense of authenticity, a sense that the writers have had the courage to look deep into their own hearts and experiences and have reckoned uncompromisingly with what they found there. "I'm peeling away every layer to disclose what I hope will be helpful to you," writes novelist Larry Woiwode to his son in a recently published second memoir, and "setting in place for you the truth of who I am."

Truth in memoir-the "truth of who I am"-means of course something different from fact, although certainly there will be facts in any memoir that ought not be tampered with or suppressed. The memoirist says in effect, "This is my take on what happened; this is the way I remember it."

We do not expect the memoirist to be a disinterested chronicler of her own life, nor can we demand that her memory be more reliable than our own. And in any case, as scientists tell us, imagination plays an integral part in memory retrieval. Experiments reveal that a good deal of what we think we remember has not actually been "stored"; as we recollect, we are filling in-so quickly that we do not even realize it.

To remember at all is, at least in part, to invent. To put any experience into words is an act of interpretation; in doing so, we are making something other, something new of it, and once we have transposed a memory into language, the new version tends to supplant or block out the memory itself. To then artfully arrange what we have written into a narrative is to alter and transform it still further.

This is why the memoir is such a tricky form, and why so much depends on the ethical orientation of the writer. One has first to want to get it right, to resist the temptations of self-interest that would lead one to mislead. The memoirist is faced with thousands of choices in the course of composing. Many of them have to do with creating a narrative, discerning or creating a structure in a personal history that is more than likely full of loose ends and roads not taken and with much that remains shadowy or unknown-what Melville described as truth's "ragged edges." The writer must choose not to smooth over those ragged edges, must decide what to put in and what to leave out without misrepresenting her experience, grapple with what to say or not to say about what can only be imagined or what might wound another.

And while doing all that, the writer must ask herself continually whether, to paraphrase the closing lines of King Lear, she is speaking what she feels, not what she ought to say. Writing itself aids us in this process, for writing reveals us to ourselves, and the choices we make in writing a memoir not only create a story in which we are the protagonists, they create us.

The choices matter first and most of all for the writer, but they matter for the reader, too. In reading as in life, an intimacy based on anything less than truth is counterfeit, a mere simulation, and must inevitably leave us feeling uneasy and unfulfilled. Lies make ghosts of us all.

The Dream of the Stone