Memoirs – Fact, Fiction, or “Truthiness”?

Memoirs – Fact, Fiction, or “Truthiness”?

Some might disparage the memoir as unverifiable history – perhaps inflated or poorly remembered facts from the past. Memory may indeed be seen by historians or journalists as somewhat inferior, flawed, imperfect history.

But as a folklorist and a book editor (currently editing several memoirs), I want to encourage you to consider what memoirs do well . . . and why they are so popular and powerful.

The memoir is a literary form that blends documentary first-person history, mixed to some degree with (consciously or not) selective memory and value-rich storytelling.

Yes, memoirs are, in part, documentary history, albeit from one person’s perspective. Events are seen and interpreted through one person’s point of view. Therefore, they can bring a valuable, boots-on-the-ground perspective to history. And when it comes to history, we’d like the facts to be accurate. While sometimes facts in memoirs are misremembered, just as often they document and record things that are simply missing from official records. (Most documents are typically created and kept by the high and mighty, less often than by the grunt in the trenches, the man or woman on the street, etc.)

But it’s as important, I believe, to recognize that memoirs are also a type of personal story.

Indeed, that is probably their main role: to bring insight into the invisible realm of the memoir author’s values. A memoir raises on a pedestal what an individual felt was most important to remember and honor and share through his or her stories. While this may not create a documentary, impartial account . . . it is all the more interesting and valuable because of that.

After all, stories are how we chose to organize information so that it makes some sort of meaning . . . even if that meaning is invented or revised or selected to tell a particular story. The process of selection – what we choose to remember, and how – reveals so much about what we value. Therefore, memoirs are very successful in communicating values – out in the open or intangibly through the web of stories.

A folklorist sees memories as “true”: true memories. They are indeed what people remember, and choose to relate. I was often asked in my documentary projects if I knew the stories I was told were true. I always answered yes: they are true stories. No more, no less.

In many ways, the full range of culture (community, family, or personal) is almost impossible to understand without these organized clues. They suggest what’s going on invisibly, beneath the surface . . . the things people almost never record or acknowledge, sometimes even to themselves . . . except when pressed to explore and speak or write about those things after the fact, in things like memoirs.

And as a folklorist, I’ll also note that what we perceive as “factual” is often quite biased, as I’ve discovered in working on documentary projects. While the written or photographic evidence may be “accurate” in one sense, it is often quite slanted. Just as often, it turns out that the official record is fabricated or selected to create its own “truthiness” (Thanks to Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report for that word).

So memoirs, yes, should be evaluated for factual reliability . . . just as a corporate memo or a historical society overflowing with documents of rich people should be.

So here’s to memoirs.

Their richness can help us form a more accurate, balanced picture, including more of what otherwise may have been overlooked or swept under the rug . . . not always because it was sensational but often because was considered too ordinary, and thus in danger of being lost to history. Without memoirs, we would have a skewed record of what people really cared did and thought and cared about.

And the points at which a memoir may depart from fact are, in my view, not necessarily errors. They might be insights.

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