Memoir, Truth, and Self

29 May 2022

This week we're thinking about truth and memor. Many of us love reading memoirs, but how many of us could write one? It might be fun for everybody to know the truth about our sordid lives—assuming those lives were interesting enough. Chances are many of us would have to make half of it up.

Now is that really a problem? After all, everyone embellishes a little bit when they tell stories, especially about their own lives. Well, it may be for memoir: either you’re there to tell people what actually happened, or you’re inventing things—in which case, just write a novel.

Or maybe it is okay to fudge a few details as long as you get at the essential truth of your life. Of course some details can’t be fudged. Think about Herman Rosenblat’s memoir, Angel at the Fence: he claimed he met his future wife when he was a child at Buchenwald, and she was feeding him apples through the fence. That turned out to be complete hogwash—he actually met her as an adult on a blind date!

Of course no one is saying it’s okay to make things up wholesale. But if you don’t remember the exact words of a conversation, perhaps it’s okay to fill them in as best as you can, in a way that captures what happened. Or at least you can try—but you’re never going to be able to remember things accurately enough. Not to mention that the very act of trying to turn a memory into a story distorts it. It’s like that bit in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea: “there’s no such thing as true stories. Events take place one way and we tell them another.”

But having just complained about somebody lying in their memoir, are we now saying there’s no difference between truth and lies? Well it's certainly not the case thatall stories are lies. But memoirs are especially likely to be dodgy—we just don’t know ourselves very well. And it’s also incredibly tempting to paint ourselves as great heroes, especially when we’re writing about our lives.

It’s tempting, but a good memoirist also has ways around that temptation. You can read your old diaries, check public records and correspondence, talk to your friends and family—though that last one could actually be the biggest reason never to write a memoir. You may not have sordid secrets of my own, but you might be tempted to reveal someone else’s.

And yet sometimes other people’s stories are part of your story. For example, if you’re in a relationship, that story belongs to both of you. So it's important to avoid unnecessary gossip, but we don’t necessarily owe it to people to be silent about what they did. 

But then who gets to decide what’s just nasty gossip versus what’s a necessary part of your story? Well, think about what a reasonable person would think if they read your book. Would they say “that detail really helped me understand the story?” Or would they think you were just being salacious, and out to sell more books?

Of course you may not care what some abstract reasonable person would think. Whether it’s reasonable or not, if it’s going to upset friends and family, then perhaps it’s just wrong—unless it’s important to reveal the things people are hiding. What if somebody was secretly embezzling money, or abusing their partner or children?

That may sound like a good reason for revealing some secrets. But it rerally even possible for memoirists to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
 Our guest will certainly have more to say about that: Helena de Bres, the author of Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Comments (1)

charllykorpa's picture


Friday, February 2, 2024 -- 2:00 AM

Exploring the realms of truth

Exploring the realms of truth and memoirs, the idea of sharing our own stories is intriguing. While many enjoy reading memoirs, the refrigerator repair prospect of writing one reveals the challenge of balancing truth and embellishment. It's a humorous reflection on the potential allure of fictionalizing aspects of our lives to make them more captivating and engaging.

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