Unreliable Truth: On Memoir & Memory
by Maureen Murdock
I believe there are as many different truths as there are people to hold them, and likely even more than that, considering how we all grow and change over the years. Mine is in the process of being re-crafted, in fact — the master’s program in Women’s Spirituality is causing me to pick through my memories, turning them curiously over like pretty rocks and shells on the beach where they’ve been cast up by my Self. This one is particularly lovely, and I shall keep it. That one is ugly and flawed, but teaches a valuable lesson — definitely a keeper. This sad little memory here tells me it is time for me to forgive myself… I can do that, and I shall gently release the tattered remains once I’ve done so. I need not retain someone else’s projections as my inner truth.
Memoir is not autobiography — a recounting of linear events from birth to death — but rather a selected aspect of a life. How the writer selects that aspect is crucial to the success of her piece. The writer has to know — not necessarily right away, but at some point — what it is she really wants to write about, which in turn will tell her what to leave out. Being willing to leave things out is vital. Writing is ultimately about making choices [italics hers] (Murdock 120).
Murdock quotes Jenny Diski in cautioning us that the stories we’ve crafted of our memories to retell and remind ourselves of who we truly are, are utterly unreliable.
Memory is not false in the sense that it is willfully bad, but it is excitingly corrupt in its inclination to make a proper story of the past (11).
Exactly. Who wishes to remember the times when one was less than effective, when a satisfying resolution is never reached? Murdock further notes:
And if the memoirist is a self-conscious cultivator of his or her own myth, then it is even more difficult to separate fact from fiction (11).
This eventually became a realization based on logic for me: I found it statistically impossible to believe my shared history with another consisted entirely, over the stretch of decades, of my being consistently and irrevocably wrong; of his being always and triumphantly right.
But if I refuse the imposed truth of another… who, then, am I? I have only my suspect memories to turn to: “Memory … is a way of creating one’s identity” (11). While I do not share Murdock’s troubled, fearfully loving, deeply tangled emotional relationship issues with her mother, I have my own relationship tangles to sort through. Murdock became a Jungian therapist, and her efforts to separate herself from her mother, to claim and create her own identity, deeply (and, I believe, faultily) inform her interpretation of the myth of the Rape of Persephone in another of her books: The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness (to be reviewed in the future).
My solution was to leave my snarled relationship, putting over a thousand miles between me and the source of the Self I so hotly contested, and decades between who he and I were relationally “supposed” to be. It is a relief now to understand memory is simply created — and whether he realizes that or not is no longer my concern. Murdock states,
The job of writing memoir is to find one’s truth, not to determine the accuracy of what happened; that is history, a testimony, perhaps even an interesting tale. The memoirist, instead, both recounts an event and muses upon it. … But because these events are not happening in present time, we have to use our imagination to reclaim them. So we can never separate the remembered event from our imagination: They stick together (12).
Reading, the statement rings piercingly, pleasantly true to me: we craft our memories and ourselves. Further, I feel it is only by self-reflection that we can discern our inner meanings, our deeper truths hidden within us. I am pleased to later read,
True memoir, that which struggles with insight and self-reflection, demonstrates a yearning to connect with the whole world. In the act of remembering, we expand beyond ourselves (Murdock 28).
Yes: this is why I write! Even though I’ve yet to write memoirs, packing thoughtful meaning into well-constructed sentences is, to me, a worthy and useful craft which not only allows me to communicate my beliefs and musings to others, but also helps me define who I am.