Unreliable Truth (I of IV)
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).
Yes, exactly; I’m glad you caught that. I know I’m guilty myself of obsessing over negative responses to my creativity, while simultaneously nearly casually dismissing positive ones as not being truly sincere. It’s silly, but it’s also a hard habit to break.
I was having a bit of disagreement for a moment, in response to the above quote about memory matching the image of the self, and if it does not, then it is forgotten.
And then I reread the line, and thought about it again, and realized that my initial interpretation of the sentiment was that we always cherry pick and only remember the best things about our lives. And that’s not what the writer was saying, I can see that now. ‘Image of the self’ is a key component, here.
If we are the sort to jump up and down on ourselves over the things that we have done wrong, the mistakes we have made, then of course, we will remember the untidy parts of our lives quite clearly. Self-serving memory does not always mean *positive* memory.
Ouch; I’m so sorry, Rick. Well, regarding the maintenance of memory, I guess I’d recommend what I was told by a very wise woman who was very much at peace with herself, and wasn’t worried that others in her family might have different or conflicting memories: what helps you live better? What works best for you? It’s you, after all, and not anyone else that has to live your life.
I had a very vivid realization of the mutability of memory a few months ago. One night, while struggling to sleep, I suddenly and violently was back in my mother’s hospital room watching her die. But I noticed that, in the midst of trying to shut off the persistent and far too vivid memory, some of the details had changed subtly. Her hair was no longer missing in places, her face no longer slack and rubbery. My brain was trying to paint a beatific scene of peaceful passing, rather than the horror of what I had actually seen. Some tell me to just let that happen, while I rail against letting my mind change the memory to soothe my own soul ache. It is an…interesting…conundrum.