Says Who?: Controversial Memory in Autobiography

In chapter two, Autobiographical Subjects under the subsection “Memory”, there is an emphasis on the important role that memory plays in writing an autobiography. It is essential in order to tell the story of ones life, to remember interesting and essential details from their past. However, as Smith and Watson point out, memory is not fact but a recreation of perceived events. They quote Daniel L. Schacter as saying “memories are records of how we have experienced events, not replicas of the events themselves”(22).

The authors also point out the scientific dynamic of memory, which they say “involves a reinterpretation of the past in the present” (22). The term interpretation hints at the fact that autobiographies are not based on fact but on a more subjective viewpoint, which allows the author a certain amount of creative leeway when it comes to recounting their past.

What this leads to is the potential controversy that can surround an autobiography, memoir, or other form of life writing. Such controversy stems from the simple fact that someone can just come out and say “that’s not true. I was there and it didn’t happen that way.” This is a particular concern in regards to people who are intimately involved in the situation being discussed by the author in the book, and even more so for the people that are not depicted in the most flattering way.  The counter argument to claims that a story is not true, is that the author may have just remembered it differently. As Smith and Watson mention, “precisely because acts of remembering are relational, they are implicated in how people understand the past and make claims about their versions of the past” (26). As the memoirist David Sedaris once said in an interview with journalist Mike Sachs “I don’t remember every word that was said to me when I was like eight or even when I was twenty. There are older stories that if you told me to now rewrite, I would rewrite slightly differently.”

Time plays a strong role in the way that an autobiography can be written, however that is what seems to make them riskier. Also the fact that there are real life characters creates a kind of tangible drama or emotion. To know that there is a person out there who is capable of reacting to what is written in an autobiography is for me, as a reader, much more alluring than something that was made up in a fiction story.

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