Unreliable Truth: On Memoir & Memory
by Maureen Murdock
Fact can exist without human intelligence but truth cannot.
— Toni Morrison
For a piece of writing to be called a memoir it must include self-reflection. Without it, the recollection of an incident or incidents lacks depth and cannot lead to transformation. Like any good piece of writing, memoir must affect our experience of what it is to be human.
— Maureen Murdock, Unreliable Truth
There is a perhaps universal conflict (unconscious in some, conscious in others) between the actual facts of existence — and our assertions and memories of who we are and where we came from. Murdock examines this individual conflict in Unreliable Truth, crafting a wistful, almost plaintive retrospective of her personal quest for understanding. Her memoir is crafted as a tutorial on how to write a memoir, as that is her chosen metaphor through which she views her life. Part one of her book is a gentle, rambling exploration of her troubled relationship with her mother, richly studded with personal reflection and (perhaps slightly justificatory?) snippets from other people’s memoirs; while part two has more of a workbook feel to it, giving suggestions and encouragement on writing one’s own memoir.
This is a memoir, not a history book, but in an effort to make it accurate, I’ve tried to check my memory against the facts. It is distressing for me to note how infrequently the facts concur with my memory of what happened. I assume, in cases like this, that the facts are wrong.
— Andy Rooney, My War (quoted by Murdock 147).
As someone who has struggled with the often aggressively fought nature of “truth” within family-crafted “realities,” the title alone intrigued me enough to pick up the book. I found the slow, rambling stories within to be both thought-provoking and curiously reassuring. As the author herself notes,
Memory is rarely whole or factually correct. If the image of the event we have participated in does not match the image of the self we have carefully constructed, then we rarely remember the facts of the event at all. What we remember is a reconstruction of image and feeling that suits our needs and purposes (5).
That certainly matches my personal experience. I am reminded of a riding accident my natal family of four once observed occur right in front of us, less than 20 feet away. Within an hour, when the incident should still have been fresh in our minds, we were discussing our relief that no one was seriously damaged — and that was when we discovered each of us remembered something entirely different occurring! I was fascinated; it was the first real proof I had, as a child, to support my silently rebellious conviction that I was not always wrong when it came to remembering family conflicts and their causes.
Each of your family members may tell the story of a particular event differently because of their particular point of view, but that does not mean that your account is untrue. …the reader [of your memoir] has the right to expect that what you claim to be true will be accurate to the best of your recollection. Remember, memoir is about honesty, not about how you appear to others (Murdock 147).
Reading that was curiously freeing; I’m (mostly) happy to allow others their beliefs and truths. I just want mine to be accepted as well, rather than almost automatically denigrated. Perhaps most importantly: I now know I am the arbiter of both my own memories… and my own truths.
Since that time I’ve gained more understanding, and perhaps a bit more kindness to myself. I’ve learned I neither have to convince others of my personal truth, nor battle to deny a denigrating truth someone else wishes to impose on me. As Murdock notes,
Whose memory is correct, and how does each of our particular memories reflect our purpose and identity? Certainly, memoir is a reflection of how we see ourselves. The way we tell our life story is the way we begin to live our life (9).