Imaginary Memoirs

Why would anyone want to put fantastical creatures and sea monsters who edit for the Village Voice into their ahem, truthful memoir?

When James Frey was revealed to have inserted some er, lies into his addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces, all hell broke loose. He was publicly humiliated by Oprah, and attacked by literary luminaries like Mary Karr and journalists from Maureen Dowd to Seth Mnookin, loudly lamenting the end of a clear division between truth and falsity. Readers even sued his publisher for their money back. So why would I choose to put some bits into my own memoir that are not only untrue, but physically impossible?

In my new memoir Growing Up Golem, I say that instead of giving birth to me, my mother used ancient Jewish magic from the Kabbalah to create me as her own personal golem, a little walking, talking clay servant. (In the Talmud and in Jewish myth, golems were artificial persons whose only purpose was to obey the will of their masters.)

Now, ahem, my mother couldn't really do magic, and I am in fact not an animated clay figure compelled by magic to enslave myself to anyone who asks. (Although, sadly, I have been known to be excessively obliging in real life). So why would I want to contaminate my otherwise-true memoir with these metaphorical lies?

Because I think people have the completely wrong idea about what memoir is for.

Frey made for a ridiculously easy target because he is such a bad writer, but journalists and many writers used him as a stalking horse for all the things about literary memoir that made them anxious: 1) the proven inaccuracy of most of our memories, which neuroscience has revealed are continually updated and indeed changed throughout our lives; 2) the need for memoirists to shape events into an artificially imposed "story" and in fact to make the overall work beautiful, guided by aesthetic and not simply reportorial concerns; 3) the puritanical apprehension that writing about one's life might be inherently "narcissistic," which I believe is motivated by the deeper fear that one will, if one writes a memoir, risk the embarrassing exposure of one's most personal difficulties, along with considerable mockery; 4) and last but not least, the anxiety provoked by the competition of genres in a shrinking landscape of literary prestige, and an even more shrinking landscape of literary pay.

But none of these anxieties are reasons to desert the disreputable, beautiful, and yes, absolutely unreliable genre of memoir.

Those looking for a perfect adherence to fact have been looking for the wrong thing from memoir all along: that goal is not only impossible to achieve, given the distortions of memory, but would prove untenably boring if it ever were.

If it were, it would have to include a gazillion instances of going to the bathroom, brushing our teeth, and sitting in traffic, as well as the things that the memoirist herself would like to emphasize, like falling in love or being abused.

Memoirs are stories, and for good or ill, real life does not happen in the form of stories. Yet stories are tremendously important (not to mention pleasurable) to our human brains, and we want and will continue to want to read, write, hear and tell them. But to arrive at a "story" from a "life," the memoirist has to furiously whittle, cut and shape her memories into a coherent narrative with an "arc," some colorful and/or dramatic bits, parts that will be deeply meaningful to other human beings, and hopefully a point.

When it came time for me to write a memoir, I decided to use the tall tale that I was a golem to gain full access to the powers that myth and archetype hold in the human brain. Why let fiction writers have all the fun? Carl Jung showed many years ago that ancient stories color the ways we all understand our own lives. Rather than a slavish literalism, people should be looking for art that grapples with and represents a life as best as possible to be understood. I also chose the golem metaphor for the reason Emily Dickinson had in mind when she wrote, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." In that poem, Dickinson wrote that the absolute, literal truth was sometimes too glaring, overwhelming, or unbearable for readers to take in at all once: "The truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind." I determined that my own story, with its emotionally and sexually abusive mother, and physically abusive, but bullied and mentally ill father, would be easier for readers to connect with if I wrapped it in a fairy tale about a witch who forced me to tell her she was beautiful, and the monster she kept locked inside our house with us, my dad.