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Memoir, Memory, and the Stories We’re Allowed to Tell


memoir and memory - hands typing on a laptop with sun pouring in the window

tw: coercive sex, intimate partner violence, emotional abuse

If you are a writer of creative nonfiction, chances are high you’ve heard a lecture (or ten) on the unreliability of memory. It goes something like this. The person at the lectern will say something pithy or do something remarkable or, I don’t know. Dance a jig. Then, they’ll get to the meat of the lesson. The point.

Five minutes from now, two hours from now, ten days from now, they’ll say, I could ask five different people in this room about what transpired… and I’ll receive five different stories.

How we do determine who’s correct?

Is there any such thing as ultimate truth?

What follows will be a discussion about the fallibility of memory. Speculation over the fact that different perspectives yield different “truths.”

Thanks to the James Freys and the J. T. LeRoys of this world, writers will continue to debate the nature of truth until the end of time. Is factual truth the only truth that matters… truth that can be fact-checked and corroborated, researched and confirmed? Or is emotional truth — a truth that feels emotionally resonant to the writer, one in which the details are less important than the significance of the event — just as valid?

Does emotional truth transcend the facts?

Who Owns a Story?

Once upon a time, it was writer Mary Karr up at the lectern, speaking to a roomful of conference attendees on the nature of memory. She said something that struck me.

In a nod to the fact that each person involved in an incident will remember it differently, she pointed out that whoever publishes the essay or the book, whoever shares their perspective in a public forum, will end up over-writing the truths of the others.

Their truth will become — in the public’s eye, at least — the ultimate truth.

How can writers manage that responsibility?

When I was working on my own reported memoir (about rape culture, the medicalization of female sexuality, sex education, and more), I struggled with truth. I would never fudge the facts, never write anything I couldn’t stand behind 100%. But how would my “supporting characters” see my story? My mother, who never spoke to me of sex until it was too late. My then-boyfriend, who coerced me into penetrative sex before I was ready and emotionally abused me for the duration of our relationship. My therapist, who years later listened to me speak of my struggles with “female sexual dysfunction” and never connected the dots. Would they see themselves in my book and think I’d gotten it all wrong?

I knew that their truth would look different than mine. But I also felt strongly that my story belonged to me, and that it was worth being told. I managed the ethical conundrum of story ownership by being hardest on myself as I wrote, and by not presuming the thoughts, emotions, or motivations of others. In publishing my memoir my truth became the truth.

Even in the realm of fiction, we debate the ownership of story. Just this past summer, there was the debate over “Cat Person.” And more recently, the New York Times brought us the saga of Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, a story of appropriation in which no one came out looking good. In each of these stories, the writer in question borrowed heavily from the life of someone else… someone who had no idea their actions were being mined for story fodder. Where does inspiration end and thievery begin?

And speaking of appropriation, who gets to tell the stories — fiction or nonfiction — of people who carry identities that are not their own? Is it okay for a white male to have a BIPOC and/or female protagonist? Should an able-bodied person snag a story assignment about disability rights?

Or should editors and publishers be making more of an effort to seek out writers of varying identities?

Is the answer somewhere in between?

In September 2015, author Corinne Duyvis coined the hashtag #OwnVoices. It was intended to uplift the work of writers who shared the identity of those they were writing about. While the meaning of the hashtag has since been watered down, used as a marketing tool, and criticized for its lack of specificity, the intention behind it still stands as a statement about story ownership.

In encouraging a more diverse range of voices within the literary world, what stories might we be told? What perspectives might we see?

How might our view of the world expand?

The Mythology of a Culture

We can infer the answers to these questions when we look back at our oldest stories. The ones that have been told and retold over the years. The ones we validate within our culture and our school curricula, and the ones we ignore.

The Oxford Languages Dictionary provides multiple definitions for myth.

The first describes myth as “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.”

The second describes it as “a widely held but false belief or idea.”

WELL, THAT’S INTERESTING.

It’s interesting to me because it makes me think about the myths we dismiss as quaint fiction, and the ones we uphold as truth (there’s that slippery t-word again). I think of Greek mythology, the tales of gods and goddesses that gave people their origin story, and that continue to capture our imaginations. I think of the Persian myth of the simorgh, a mythical bird that taught readers a lesson about self, a story I only recently became aware of, and that I love. I think of the oral histories passed down through generations, such as those shared by Indigenous folks, as described vibrantly by Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass.

These are stories that connect people to their past. To their beginnings. They are stories that maintain culture and community into the future.

And then there are the myths we tell that supplant the truths of others. The stories we tell ourselves in order to center ourselves. To proclaim our inherent goodness.

One terrible and timely example is the story of Christopher Columbus, a story we are finally acknowledging to be false and incredibly damaging. In continuing to teach our children this story, we have erased the truth of an entire group of people. We tell the same half-truths about many populations that do not fit in with our white, European ideal. We fill our textbooks with these stories. Present them as fact. But they make up our mythology and, like any other mythology, they are made up of exaggerations and fiction.

Who decides which stories we share and which we suppress?

Why do we persist in telling our stories — our truth — anyway, and what happens when we do?

The Denigration of Marginalized Voices

This takes us back, in a roundabout way, to the question of why we write.

Though it may surprise you to know that my mother has long wished my journalistic focus on sexuality was a passing phase, and that I didn’t grow up dreaming I might someday write about coercive sex and the orgasm gap, it’s true. I’m as surprised that I’m a sex writer as you are. The reason I’ve embraced it, however, is because I believe it’s essential to break the silence that exists around “taboo” topics. In doing so, we can encourage wider discussion, and also help people feel less alone in their experiences.

And though I don’t like to presume the motivations of others (see above), I imagine other writers do what they do for similar reasons. To shatter the silence around their story, their experience, their truth.

This is even more important when it comes to voices and experiences and stories that are routinely suppressed.

In recent years (the past decade or so), this suppression has taken the form of a critique against the first-person industrial complex (the rise in popularity of first-person personal essays). While the critique has honed in on the fact that editors’ hunger for personal stories can end up being exploitative in the way “it incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure,” it’s also become a way for readers to look down on personal writing as navel-gazing, narcissistic, and less literary.

Does it come as a surprise that these criticisms are often leveled against the works of women?

As writer Emily Gould once told New York magazine, “If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist. If a man does the same, he’s describing the human condition.”

And the same goes for our critique of personal writing written by other marginalized populations, work that centers the ways in which they are othered. As I wrote the other month, we need to give writers permission to write about something other than the thing that makes them feel othered. This is still a valid point. But at the same time, stories about marginalization lay bare an important truth about all the ugly things that lie at the heart of a culture. These are stories we must be allowed to tell.

This is such a huge, unwieldy topic, and it raises difficult questions that often have no easy answers.

But writing this hot mess of a post (sorry, Natalia!) makes me think more deeply about the stories I consume and the stories I nominate and vote for within this group. Maybe reading it will do the same for you.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, VQR, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of GuerrillaSexEd.org. Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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