One of the most genuinely fatiguing aspects of teaching memoir in the post-James Frey era is the topic of Telling the Truth in a Memoir. The conversation is inevitable, and, of course, necessary, but it is also tiresome in its absurdity.
Somewhere between the argument that a memoir should read with the veracity of a court report and the David Shields/Vivian Gornick-type argument that the barbed wire fence that runs along the DMZ between fiction and non should be torn down (forgive me, David, for reducing your argument so simply. Vivian, you don’t care what I think,I’m sure)and the inmates of the two camps should be allowed to run amok, somewhere in here is the territory where most memoirists live. If the book has the word “memoir” stamped on the back, we don’t get to make up characters or say stuff happened that everyone knows didn’t. We really don’t need to spend class time, air time, or pages of the New York Times talking about the contract between the reader and the writer etc. We are civilized, we know the rules.
And yet–and this is why all the above having been said I myself really wouldn’t care if a writer were to have made up a few factual details–the truth that really matters in a story is the truth to which no one can hold us accountable, because it is the truth of the story that only we can know for ourselves and it has nothing to do with did we spend a few days in jail or not.
And this takes me back to that conversation I had with Frank McCourt about how honest is a story. Like I said to Frank in that conversation, there’s an honest story we can tell and there’s a story we only dare to tell ourselves that tugs at us as we write and whispers, yeah, but what about that?
In “Part Huit,” I talked about how the Alienated Youth story of being a debutante (god, how embarrassing) transplanted reluctantly to a milltown was in its essence true but that there was a truer story–it feels truer to me–that I hadn’t written, the story of three strangers living together and calling themselves a family. I never sought out not to tell this story. I didn’t even know the story was there until I started to write the milltown story. And this is why, I think conversations about the “truth” in memoir are a bit of a diversion from the real story. If we sit around worrying about whether a story’s factual details are correct, we don’t have to worry about whether we told what it felt like to lie to our parents about who we are or to carefully arrange ourselves in order to hide our depression.
As I’ve been writing the story of Alienated Youth, I realized that I’ve skipped over a very important part of the story, not initially because I was trying to hide the truth but because it would have been a distraction in the story I was telling about class differences. But, as the story deepened, I realized that the despair I felt living in this town was caused only in part by being an outsider, and the “real story” couldn’t be portrayed without backing up a bit.
A few months before we moved to Mill Town, my 23 year old stepsister was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. From the very beginning, we knew she would die, even though we also knew that she would try every available option before she could die. As sad as I was about my stepsister, the hardest part of this diagnosis was seeing my stepfather miserable. I wanted to turn back time to when he was happy but I couldn’t. Barring that, I wanted to do everything I could to show him that I knew how he felt and that I would do what I could to help him.
When the news of the transfer came, my parents realized that it would mean me missing out on what should have been my fun-filled senior year of high school in the city. My mom suggested that maybe I could live with a friend for the year, my parents paying the family room and board. And, briefly the thought thrilled me. I could have the independence that I longed for. But, besides the fact that I loathed the idea of “boarding” with another family, the main reason I wanted to go to Mill Town was to telegraph to my stepfather the message that I was there for him, that he wouldn’t lose me.
But, it wasn’t long after our move to Mill Town, that I realized how helpless I was over my stepfather’s happiness, that being good and doing the right things–my fallback tricks for keeping the world happy–were quite useless where life and death were concerned. So there we were: the three of us in a town where we didn’t belong, in a house that wasn’t quite right, in a family that wasn’t quite one, getting ready for a long rainy winter.