The Fallibility of Memory, or, The Fabulists among Us

Memory is a funny thing. By “funny,” I’m not thinking Woody Allen amusing or Amy Schumer hilarious.

No, by “funny” I mean something akin to “strange” or “perplexing” or even “otherworldly.” And indeed memory can be perplexing, making it appear as the stuff of fabulists.

Trying to remember what happened last week, much less 50 or 70 years in the past, challenges a memoirist more than I once thought.  This truth hit home as I recently crafted a short, but pointed, personal essay about my days as a teenage cook in a very challenging environment, a rain forest in Washington state. The more I remembered, the more I did not remember, I found out. My memories did not always tally with those of others who’d been there at the same time with me.

Skepticism of historical memory stretches far back into time, in spite of the oral histories carefully preserved in various cultures around the world. I began to distrust my memory, and in doing so, I found a like-minded soul. Only this particular soul lived nearly 2500 years ago.

Greek historian Thucydides  complained in his History of the Peloponnesian War that “different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories.”  He chastised people  – implying Herodotus – for their uncritical acceptance of the words of the ancients, as one author called it, “hearsay history.”

“Hearsay history,” what a great way to describe what witnessing history often means. Memory being the fragile thing that it is, it takes highly skilled interviewers to tease out the most accurate recollections. So many social and cultural variables exist in the relationship between interviewers and interviewees. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects present one example of this situation. The other, as I have discovered in my own search for my family history, lies in the U.S. Census, with the unevenness of detail, the often awkward  and illegible handwriting, misspellings of names, and even the possibility of subterfuge on the part of interviewees.

All this reminds me of something crucial: I see once again just what I am up against when I peer at the past through these resources. Most of the time, what I want to see is not there. It’s then that I envy the fiction writers. Philippa Gregory, hey yes. And others.

My heart  makes room, though, for the fabulist memoir, James Frey or Jerzy Kosinski aside. This genre has enjoyed a long and turbulent and disreputable history – just consider  Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca (1997) and The Narrative of James Willams, An American Slave  (1838), both entirely fictitious. The bad part of these works is not that they exist, it’s that the authors claimed them to be true. Completely true. And did not so inform their readers.

In spite of memory being the frail and delicate shell game that it is, the memoir genre now enjoys an explosive popularity, because  everyone believes their life story to be unique, fueled in the wake of Twitter- and Facebook-generated narcissism.  Just consider all the foodie memoirs that clogged publishing lists a while ago.  Memoirists work with memory, a fluid concept at best, but decidedly non-static in the river of time. Unlike autobiography, memoir tends to portray the intangible: feelings and emotions. But the passage of time filters these  building blocks of memory in the same way that a sieve keeps out big chunks of bone when a cook strains meat broth. Something is always left behind.

And, like Thucydides, I tend to be very wary when someone bases a truth entirely on that slippery, half-there ingredient – memory.

Indeed memory is a funny thing, similar to passing sieve-like through a door into another world, one filled with ghosts and illusions and partial truths.

But what is truth?

Most human affairs happen without leaving vestiges or records of any kind behind them. The past, having happened, has perished with only occasional traces. To begin with, although the absolute number of historical writings is staggering, only a small part of what happened in the past was ever observed.… And only a part of what was observed in the past was remembered by those who observed it; only a part of what was remem­bered was recorded; only a part of what was recorded has survived; only a part of what has survived has come to historians’ attention; only a part of what has come to their attention is credible; only a part of what is cred­ible has been grasped; and only a part of what has been grasped can be expounded or narrated by the historian.

Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History (1950)


© 2016 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “The Fallibility of Memory, or, The Fabulists among Us

  1. Catching up on your posts, Cindy. Having kept a journal from my 15th year onward, I can go back to that in thinking about the past. There are gaps in that journaling — when my first marriage was ending, for example — but I find it useful to read some of those pages from so long ago, a help in capturing certain episodes in my life.

  2. Cynthia, when I was writing Mint Tea and Minarets, I took a class from Frances Mayes. She gave me the most freeing advice when I asked if everything she said in Under the Tuscan Sun was exactly as it happened: “A Memoir is halfway between fact and fiction.” Just FYI!

Comments are closed.