When I was growing up, memoirs were written only by famous people. They were not works of literature, but rather, chronicles of historic achievements.
The first memoir I read was in Marathi and was written by Sane Guruji. Guruji’s anecdotes of his mother patching up saris or offering her children fake milk made of flour and water brought tears to my eyes.
Years later, Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography about his poverty-stricken mother going insane in London of the Raj era not only evoked echoes of Sane Guruji, but resonated personally with me. When Chaplin mused that if only his mother had had a cup of tea that afternoon, she would never have gone mad, I felt a pang. Because I, too, had grown up with a mentally ill mother.
The first American memoir I was enchanted by was Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. I read parts of it aloud to my children. “Nothing can compare with the Irish childhood,” he wrote, “The poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters…” McCourt mined such pathos and humor that I sat up all night reading his book.
That was in 1996, when controversy had not yet surrounded the memoir genre. James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces, changed all that, when, in his memoir, he invented drug addiction, jail time, and rehabilitation.
Controversies still plague the memoir genre. Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a self-deprecating, admittedly fictionalized account of raising his young brother after the deaths of his parents. His sister blamed him for not giving her any credit for the critical role she played in caring for their younger sibling and later committed suicide. Readers were so stunned. Some even wondered if the suicide was invented too. It was not.
What Eggers had committed was the sin of omission. He simply focused on his own interaction with his brother and thereby offended his sister.
When I read Eggers’ memoir, I did not know about the suicide, yet I wondered how, at the age of 21 or 22, he was able to be such a perfect parent to his younger brother. But I loved the book so much that I did not care if he had invented the whole thing. Because his writing was mesmerizing. The book, which was nominated for the Pulitzer, would have been popular even if it had been fictional.
Ann Patchett, a writer of blockbusters, wrote a memoir about her friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, titled, ironically, Truth and Beauty. Because Ann Patchett had such a literary cachet, her book overshadowed Lucy Grealy’s own memoir titled Autobiography of a Face, about her bout with cancer of the jaw and the resulting facial surgeries and disfigurement she faced all her life. Lucy’s sister protested the clingy, needy person that Ann had portrayed her sister to be. I felt saddened by the controversy, because, Lucy Grealy, who died of a heroin overdose, will remain for me one of the finest American writers.
Whether a writer deliberately invents scenes of her life or purposefully exaggerates them for dramatic effect, the truth is that no one can know, nor depict, the absolute truth. Everything is subjective. Particularly when it comes to life experience.
As I write my own memoir now, I ponder the nature of memory.
My younger brother has a habit of always prefacing every conversation with, “I am telling you the truth.” He does that even when he is telling me things that supposedly happened to me. I always wonder; how can he know more about my life? Wouldn’t I be the best person to recall details of my past? But he feels sure of himself. He sees things in his mind’s eye and thinks they are the truth. It does not occur to him that memory can be deceptive.
Yet studies on memory have shown that memory is anything but reliable. We remember things that are important to us. And we remember them in the context of our own biases and perceptions. As the oldest and the female child, what I remember about my mother’s illness is vastly different from what my brother remembers. He does not remember me slogging in the kitchen or riding my bicycle late at night to fetch the doctor. He does not remember my father getting up at five o’clock in the morning to light the charcoal stove and make us tea so we could go to school. What he remembers is my father’s temper. What he recalls is the sense of abandonment he felt when I left the home to marry a stranger.
When I went back to my hometown recently, I said to my brother, “After we go away, what each of us will remember of this meeting will be different.”
I don’t think he quite understood.
So what is a memoirist to do? Clearly, Frank McCourt had to dramatize certain dialogues that took place when he was four, five, or six years old. Ultimately what was important was the truth of his experience, not the literal truth about what words were exactly uttered.
Fortunately, I can remember a lot. As a child, I had a photographic memory; lessons I had read only once or twice were memorized by heart. When I went to India recently, my cousin told me that my essay about my mother’s mental breakdown had evoked for her the very picture of her aunt she had witnessed years ago.
Yet, my memory is only mine. Therefore, my truth is only my truth.
So I ponder the dilemma, should I dramatize certain scenes for effect? Should I make a composite character out of two professors, say, just for convenience? As long as the kernel of the experience doesn’t change, does it matter? Will my relatives in India, who have never openly discussed my mother’s mental illness, deny it altogether out of a sense of taboo? It is a possibility. But then again, when I met my childhood friend recently, she remembered the names of the tranquilizers Equanil and Tofranil we used to go to the pharmacy together to buy for my mother. I felt reassured that my memory had not lied to me.
Memoirs remain for me a favorite literary genre. To live someone else’s life is a rare privilege, and one that I cannot stop relishing. When I read Eggers’ descriptions of my favorite Tilden Park, I was there, riding a bike alongside him. I hope that memoirs do not suffer from a backlash just because of a few detractors. At least not until my own one is published.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com