READING MEMOIRS: EDITING LIFE

I am currently reading the memoirs by British pianist James Rhodes, Instrumental (2014), which caused quite a stir at the time of publication for his straightforward description of the horrifying sexual abuse to which he was subjected between the ages of 6 and 10 (and its aftermath). This is the sixteenth book of memoirs I read this year, and it is only May 2nd. I must clarify that up to now I have not been much interested in memoirs, finding them always a bit too gossipy for my taste, which has been no doubt conditioned by the tenets of a Catholic upbringing dictating that confession must be private, only for the priest’s ears. In Protestant Anglophone countries, confession, in contrast, is public. Memoirs actually come, or so I was taught, from the texts that Protestant believers composed to narrate how they had found grace after sinning. The idea behind memoirs was that they would help other sinners to lead an honest life, guided by example. Evidently, little remains today of that initial impulse, even though volumes like Rhodes’s always carry a bit of an exemplary intention, in this case to guide others in how to survive abuse (or, as he has the courage to call it, rape). On the other hand, the worst kind of memoir is that type which is basically a long list of trivial minor recollections, punctuated by constant name dropping. ‘I am important and I matter’ these vainglorious memoirs scream on each page.

Rhodes begins Instrumental by wondering whether, at age thirty-eight, he is too young to write his memoirs. This a common misconception: he is too young to write his autobiography, a text intended to cover the author’s whole life usually written at an advanced age, but not his memoirs. Any person at any point in their life can write a memoir as long as they have something worth telling. In fact, the pity about memoirs is that they need to be written when the subject is minimally mature to make sense of their recollections, which means that we are missing memoirs by children and by teens (I don’t mean memoirs of childhood and adolescence by adults, but texts written by minors). It is true, in any case, that memoirs usually contain plenty of autobiography of the classic Dickensian kind, mostly narrating the beginnings of the subject’s life. Usually, the first chapters of memoirs are for that reason rather more synthetic and better ordered than the rest. As the memoir progresses, more and more information and events are weeded out, which opens many gaps. Debbie Harry, former frontwoman of popular band Blondie, writes in her memoirs Face It (what a great title!) that this is because in memoirs life needs to be ‘edited’, so I’m borrowing her phrase for my title today.

Memoirs are, then, usually more partial accounts than autobiographies, which are supposed to be more comprehensive, though I would not want to be too dogmatic. What I find most intriguing about memoirs, and possibly this is the reason why I have resisted their appeal for so long, is that most are written by non-writers. Besides, we all know that in fact many memoirs have been penned by ghost writers (not all incurring the dangers of Roman Polanski’s protagonist in his thriller The Ghost Writer (2010)!). Being far less politically correct, in Spanish we call ghost writers ‘negros’, which is a way of stressing the enslavement of that kind of writer to the will of the master author. The existence of ghost writers and of acknowledged collaborators (the name following the preposition ‘with’ after the name of the main author) is nonetheless a factor that interferes in my reading of memoirs. Whenever I come across a great sentence, I always wonder whose turn of phrase that is. The same applies to the ‘editing’ that Harry alludes to; one thing is who makes the decision to narrate what, and another very different matter is who structures the book and how. Even when there is no ghost writer, the usually long lists of names of editors in the acknowledgements section makes me wonder what kind of Frankenstein’s monster text I am reading. This would not matter if it weren’t for the obsession with authorial integrity that we borrow from the novel and apply to the memoir, but it does ultimately matter.

The current fashion for memoirs is to be candid and sincere, even when they expose the author in a less than favourable light. This can be unwitting. In Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (1994), a memoir of depression that has taken me ages to read because it is so painful, the author paints a most negative portrait of herself, revealing shortcomings that were not strictly speaking part of her illness. In contrast, I struggled with Anna Wienner’s Uncanny Valley (2019) because her indictment of Silicon Valley’s sexism totally lacked any self-criticism. I don’t mean that she is in any way guilty of provoking her own discrimination, but that she seemed unable to explain why she chose to be employed by that obviously sexist industry. Adam Kay, once a young doctor employed by the British public health system, is extremely critical of his work environment in This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident (2022), but he is also candid about his own misguided idealism and the errors he committed in choosing Medicine as a profession. Memoirs are always partial but they should not be so in a way that raises more questions than answers. Mariah Carey’s narrative of her enslavement by her former husband and Sony recording company CEO Tommy Mottola in The Meaning of Mariah Carey (2020) is perplexing because she never acknowledges that she did benefit professionally from their marriage. I don’t mean that she is disrespecting the truth, what I mean is that her account has gaps which make the reader ask ‘but…?’, which should not happen. Naturally, perhaps not even Mariah Carey fully understands why her life went through certain turns, but, then, that is the danger of the memoir: one must be in control, if not of life, at least of the narrative shaping its account.

Not all memoirs are obvious memoirs. One of the most beautiful books I have read in a long time is Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland (1977). This cannot be really called a memoir since Shepherd is not there narrating her life but paying homage to this feature of the Scottish landscape. Nor is this travel writing since this is not a text about a specific journey but a recollection of many trips along the years into the hills. Yet, Shepherd herself is there in each page of the short book, loving the mountains, enjoying them alone or in company, first as a girl and later as a mature woman. Shepherd, the author of three well received novels—The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930), and A Pass in the Grampians (1933)—wrote The Living Mountain in 1944, but abandoned the idea of publishing it when one of her literary mentors (a man whose name I forget) told her it was not really worth issuing. She decided thirty years later that, after all, her slim volume should see the light, and the result is a prose poem of rare beauty in which Shepherd is an enchanted onlooker, enjoying in body and mind a total Romantic communion with the hills of her land. “On the mountain, I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy… I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. That is the final grace accorded from the mountain”. Her admirer, landscape writer Robert MacFarlane, wrote that “This is Shepherd’s version of Descartes’s cogito—I walk therefore I am. She celebrates the metaphysical rhythm of the pedestrian, the iamb of the ‘I am’, the beat of the placed and lifted foot”. Pure poetry, as I say, coming from a writer who needs no ghost writer in a text that almost became a ghost.

I do not mean with this praise of Shepherd’s unique memoir that more standard memoirs are lacking in literary ambitions, for what is remarkable about this genre is how protean it can be. Memoirs can be written by fine professional writers and by less gifted amateurs, and that is the beauty of their kind. Novels are read for the insight they provide into human experience but novels are not alone in providing that; besides, novels tend to focus on invented characters. Memoirs complement that search for human experience by presenting readers with recollections of life lived by persons who are in one way or another interesting. I never thought, for instance, that I would be attracted by what professional rock climber Alex Honnold has to say, but I found his memoir Alone on the Wall (2015) truly engaging (collaborator David Roberts claimed that he had worked very little on it, mostly as an editor). Memoirs require being a very open-minded reader and trusting that gems can be found amongst the most unlikely authors. One never knows.

Perhaps the secret reason why I admire memoir writers is that it takes courage to narrate your life, even when you do it out of sheer vanity. The woman professor whose courses on autobiography and memoirs I took as a doctoral student used to say when I raised this point that in the end human experience is not so dissimilar in terms of the general narrative arc of life, and so there is no reason to feel embarrassment. I believe that there is good reason to feel embarrassed about the specifics of each life, no matter how similar they can be. Memoir writers have crossed the boundary of embarrassment, with some, like Trevor Noah (do read please Born in Crime) making the most of rather painful recollections.

Privacy is not much valued these days but it still matters to many of us, which is why reading memoirs is so paradoxical: because they are the most private of texts (apart from diaries, yes). I thank, then, for their courage the authors that are giving themselves up for inspection, revealing big and small corners of human experience which go beyond fiction to connect with actual life.


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