Do memoirs tell lies? The mind distorts the past

THE ARGUMENT

The nature of self-censorship tends to make novels far better vehicles of truth than autobiography can be.

March 19, 2000|By Jeanne Safer | Jeanne Safer,Special to the Sun

I have just finished reading nine books nobody else knows about. They were packed with drama -- lust, angst, betrayal -- as well as the occasional dull patch or lamentable poetic interlude. I found it difficult to keep track of some of the characters, but what I read alternately pleased, surprised and saddened me. Sometimes -- only sometimes -- I identified with the heroine.

This private library comprised the original volumes of my diary -- begun 39 years ago, covering my life from age 13 through 21. I re-read them to check the facts about events from that period for the autobiographical portion of a book I am writing.

Their gilt edges were hidden under three decades of dust. Their leatherette covers were cracked and tattered, their spines exposed, their flimsy locks long detached from the secrets they were meant to guard. The earliest one, from 1961, had a marbelized white background with a sketch of a then-archetypical teen-age girl in ponytail and peddle pushers lying on the floor writing as the notes from a phonograph as antique as her ensemble spell out "One Year Diary"; she had seemed an unrealizable ideal to me even when I bought it.

It took a month to become fully reacquainted with all the people whose images had been distorted, or entirely obliterated, by the intervening years. Several of them were me.

So I have concluded that every memoirist is suspect, and that every memoir contains self-delusions or lies.

Confronting the unrevised transcript of my earlier inner life shook my faith in the reliability of memory. The discrepancy between my subjective experience at the time and the feelings, even the perceptions, I remember, is vast, disconcerting and not easily explained.

Much of the intimate past is so redefined by the future that it is unrecognizable as one's own. The self is far more fragmented and contradictory than we like to think; the compelling reality of our reminiscences is a soothing fiction. To maintain a semblance of coherence and causality, the mind erases contradictions; the accuracy we attribute to our own histories is more subjective construction than objective recollection.

Fiction distorts memory less than autobiography. Novelists, who are not writing overtly about themselves, are less encumbered by the unconscious ulterior motives memoirists cannot avoid. As a psychoanalyst, I am acutely aware how much easier it is to see someone else clearly; by creating a fictional self, and by revising the past intentionally, a writer is less likely to revise the past unintentionally.

The very act of shifting perspectives creates a healthy distance from your own experience, hones your critical facilities, makes you question more and assume less. This explains why the accuracy of the reminiscences in Frank McCourt's phenomenally successful "Angela's Ashes" have been challenged on both sides of the Atlantic, while Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" rings true.

Readers seeking genuine understanding of personal history should flee the falsehoods of memoirs -- Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss" is a particularly meretricious recent example -- and discover the truth of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past."

A novel does not even have to be about the inner life to reveal the self-awareness of its author; Jane Austen's characters may engage in little introspection, but their creator clearly understood herself, as well as those around her.

Calderlos de Laclos' still shocking "Les Liaisons Dangeureuses" reveals the ploys of seductive narcissists far better than "At Home in the World," Joyce Maynard's whiny account of her affair with J.D. Salinger. Virtually any of Dostoyevsky's novels -- or Phillip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" -- depicts psychopathology with more accuracy, pathos and wit than Suzanna Kaysen's tale of her adolescent breakdown in "Girl, Interrupted." Joe Klein's Anonymous' "Primary Colors" revealed more about the character of a president than any political auto-hagiography from Nixon's "Six Crises" to the soporific tracts of Bush, Gore and their ilk. And can anyone trust the memories or the motives of any expose by anybody who ever wrote for the New Yorker?

The only diarist whose authenticity is guaranteed is the one whom fate tragically prevented from revising her work: Anne Frank.

Many of my own diary's revelations were predictable -- that my handwriting used to be much more legible, that I was more naive and self-involved than I am now, that my taste in music, literature (there were extensive quotations from "The Alexandria Quartet") and companions has improved.

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