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Truth in Memoir

Memoirs: the Novel Approach to Facts

Jane Sullivan
August 31, 2003

Jane Sullivan investigates the increasing popularity of memoirs, but asks, are readers getting what they expect?

One of the reasons for the extraordinary rise of interest in the memoir in the past few years - both as a literary genre and as a bestselling commodity - is that readers believe they are getting a true story. But at the same time, truth in memoir is turning out to be a disturbingly slippery creature.

My dictionary defines "memoir" as "an autobiography or a written account of one's memory of certain events or people". So a memoir is a true story, or at least as true as memory can make it.

But that was not quite the view expressed by Vivian Gornick, a distinguished and celebrated American memoirist, when she gave a recent talk to students at a seminar at Goucher College, a US institution that offers a well-known creative non-fiction course.

Gornick's talk was based on her book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, and she finished by reading from her acclaimed 1987 memoir about her mother and herself, Fierce Attachments. So far, so good. Then she took questions from the audience. And as one student tells it, she shocked her listeners by describing the liberties she had taken with the truth.

According to Terry Greene Sterling, an award-winning journalist from Arizona, Gornick told the students that she had "composed" some of the walks and conversations with her mother in the memoir and had invented a scene between a street person and her mother. When she was asked if she had explained this in a prefatory note, she replied that no, her readers were "wilfully ignorant".

Sterling was so concerned by this revelation that she rang Gornick afterwards, spoke to other students and teachers who had attended the seminar, consulted an editor and a memoirist and reported on the whole episode in the online magazine Salon.com.

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