Poor Saint Augustine. For years now people have drawn the source of the memoir back to his Confessions. As if because of that book, Augustine’s hands now bear the ink stains of James Frey, tales of addiction, incest and mental illness, the word “momoir,” and a dozen Holocaust survivor fakers. Just like Jane Austen, who occasionally bears the blame for the candy-coated chick lit aisle of your local bookstore, Augustine deserves a better legacy.
- Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda. 304 pages. Riverhead. $25.95.
Even Ben Yagoda accuses Augustine of the crime of inventing the memoir in his new book Memoir: A History. It’s a long road from Confessions — written around 400 A.D. — to the memoir’s current dominance in the publishing scene, although the template hasn’t changed much in all of those centuries: I have done some horrible things, and I would like to tell you about them. The difference comes mostly in the filter. Augustine framed his writings around the concept of sin, an outdated concept that has been replaced with the more vague idea of “recovery,” whether from a trauma or a mental illness or an addiction. Either way, the goal is mostly redemption and so the pathway is the same: confess, confess, confess.
There’s a lot of talk about the fakers in the memoir industry, and Yagoda takes a particular interest in them. The Holocaust survivors who turn out to not even be Jewish, the faux Native Americans, the white suburban girls who pretend they are inner city hardasses. We swallow their tales whole, even the bit about being raised by wolves in the European countryside while the rest of the continent tore itself into pieces, and then become indignant when they’re revealed as frauds. It doesn’t even take the James Frey-level deceit to raise the audience’s ire. Judy Blunt exaggerated a scene in her memoir Breaking Clean, saying her father-in-law smashed her typewriter with a sledgehammer when all he did was unplug it. Called on it by the New York Times, Blunt said the machine’s bludgeoning was “symbolic,” not to be taken literally. And so we’re outraged, and we engage in online debates about what the definition of “truth” is, and then someone else comes along claiming he was a teenage male prostitute, and we say, “Oh you poor thing, aren’t you brave, aren’t your books powerful,” never mind the fact that the books were never that good to begin with.
And that’s all very interesting to Yagoda, who fills Memoir with accounts of liars and exaggerators, discussing the malleability of memory and our reality TV culture that really just wants to watch a pretty woman eat a spider for cash, or a “symbolic” memoir equivalent. But lying is not that interesting once it’s divorced from the lie itself. There’s something curious about the fact that everyone, if pressed, could describe what it would be like to survive the Holocaust and could get the atmosphere correct enough to write a convincing memoir. It’s kind of like people who really want to be abducted by aliens, and can rattle off the probing and the big eyes and the telepathic communication well enough to sound like everyone’s story, thereby gaining access to a community of abductees. Maybe they believe it themselves now, too. But in reality, it’s just a bunch of people who wish they had more interesting lives. Maybe things came a bit too easily to them, and they never really had to struggle and as a result their lives lack gravity. So they make up a story wherein they are tested, they survive, and they inspire others with their bravery and their transcendence. “I wanted to tell my tale, you know, because if I help just one other person like me, then it was all worth it,” you imagine them practicing in the mirror for their Oprah appearance.
Meanwhile, in the other corner, live the people whose lives have all the gravity they’ll ever need, so much gravity, in fact, that hey can barely stand up straight. Their memoirs are understated and graceful; they don’t need to add “raised by wolves” just to liven things up. Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday is so bittersweet, a love letter to pre-World War II Vienna, a city that doesn’t love him back. Or Caroline Knapp’s quietly furious Drinking: A Love Story. It lacks the bombast of James Frey’s fairy tale about how hard, how addicted, how strong he is, but that’s because she was hard, she was strong, and she didn’t need this ridiculous “Look at me! Look at me!” persona to get that across.
With all the talk of the liars, however, I want to know more about the people who tell the truth. Not the writers of extraordinary memoirs — the Primo Levis, the Michael Greenbergs, the Calvin Trillins, the Lucy Grealys — but the mid-list authors who now believe that writing a memoir is just another step in establishing a writing career. They’re willing to serve up little bits of themselves, taking something unusual that happened to them and constructing a narrative out of it, handing it over to the world to examine and poke and judge. And the world does judge. When Julie Myerson released The Lost Child, her memoir about her son’s addiction to skunk, I wonder if she was at all prepared for the mess she was about to step into. She was dragged in front of cameras to be chastised as a bad mother on live television, she was called filthy names and accused of being a famewhore, of being willing to sacrifice her son’s future by using his name and calling him a violent addict in exchange for a spot on the bestseller list. Whether you are telling the truth, or spinning fraud, once a memoirist becomes a target, all civility seems to be denied.
It’s easier to hate or judge the writer of a memoir than the author of a novel. The novelist at least has the shield of fiction to hide behind (so long as they bothered to disguise whether they were plundering their social circle for their characters). But if the memoirist is not self-aware, is trying to convince the world that her molehill is a mountain, then it’s easy to sneer and conflate writer and book. After all, they are presenting themselves and their lives as a consumable product. Hence my mean-spirited, petty reaction to a memoirist who wrote a book about cheating on her husband, but without any self-reflection, as the actions happened right before she began writing. Her cheating came off as something she was proud of, something she still took pleasure in, and I started to hate her after a while. I didn’t hate the book, although it wasn’t great, but the author. I began to watch as many interviews with her as I could, smugly reveling in her obliviousness, her self-delusion that the reason people didn’t like the book (it was getting very poor reviews at the time) was because she was telling dark truths people didn’t want to hear. “That’s not it at all! Not even close!” I wanted to howl. Then I felt gross and like a horrible person, but that didn’t stop me from watching more interviews with her whenever I found them.
The memoir is a weird gig. Yagoda barely scratches the surface of that weirdness. When one person is simultaneously the artist, the muse, and the model, you can get a fierce, genius Frida Kahlo. But for every one Frida, you get a couple hundred 22-year-old girls who plaster their Facebook page with faux-arty pictures of themselves and feed off the anonymous male commenters who tell her she’s hot. It’s the 22-year-olds that interest me. I wonder what happens to them when they finally get sick of living their lives in full view of the public. But there will always be another pretty girl for the audience to fawn over, even if in reality the whole thing’s being run by a 50-year-old overweight man. • 17 March 2010