let’s be honest

the truth about memoir

Glowing reviews abound already for Reese Witherspoon’s salt-of-the-earth, no-makeup turn in Wild, the newest memoir-made-movie adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s book of the same name. The memoir recounts Strayed’s 1,100-mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail, an incredible physical feat undertaken in the wake of personal tragedies including the death of her mother, the fracturing of her family, and the end of her marriage.

During press interviews for the film, Witherspoon insisted that she loved the book because Strayed’s portrayal of her life and struggles was so honest—perhaps the biggest buzzword for successful memoirs.

“I loved that it wasn’t sentimental,” said Witherspoon. “It wasn’t saccharine. It was just her being so honest about her life, and I had rarely read a woman or man or anyone write about their life with that much brutal honesty.”

Witherspoon’s words ring true to the book. The tone of Strayed’s memoir is sometimes barefaced and defiant. She describes the events of her life, including drug use, infidelities, and painful stories about her father and family, without reservation or self-pity. But she’s not the first one to strike that particular tone—Wild is only the most recent in a series of exceedingly popular women’s memoirs praised, more than anything, for that same sense of brutal and unapologetic honesty.

As of now, memoirs comprise more than half of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and not infrequently, commentators suggest that memoir may be outpacing the traditional novel as a major source of mass-consumption entertainment. From Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, memoirs specifically detailing the lives of ‘ordinary’ women have established themselves as major players in the contemporary book world.

As with any other cultural craze, the increase in popular consumption of memoir has come a blitz of critical commentary. More and more frequently, I encounter articles connecting memoir’s increasing popularity with the pervasive cultural criticisms of the so-called self-absorbed, self-indulgent, naval-gazing millennial generation. The descriptors ‘confessional’ and ‘therapeutic’ are tossed around no less than the criticisms ‘voyeuristic’ and ‘oversharing’ in reference to the highly personal, intimate life stories with claim to same sense of honesty that Witherspoon hails. These words can be seen snidely accompanied by comparisons between the memoir and other popular forums for public expression: the revelatory blog post, the Facebook status, the uncensored Twitter update.

Admittedly, the intimate nature of certain scenes in Wild and other memoirs gives some credence to the idea that sharing personal details such as drug use, sexual histories, and infidelities acts as a seal of truth for a memoir. It seems that the more graphically open you are about your life, the more readers will venerate your honesty, and the more they will feel assured of the truthfulness of the stories you tell. But contemporary criticisms of memoir seem to refer to more than just the explicitness of certain descriptions. By undermining the seriousness of memoir as an artistic endeavor, words like ‘therapeutic’ effectively condemn the effort a memoirist makes to use writing as a tool for understanding his or her own life.

As an avid reader of memoir, I think that these criticisms are decidedly untenable. I find books like Wild or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, while also thoughtful and well written, so readable precisely because they feel so vulnerable and uncontrived. From my perspective, they provide literary heft to the project of sharing and searching by making the effort for personal growth seem meaningful, worthwhile, and accessible.

Although one could argue that memoir has been around since the days of St. Augustine, it seems in some ways a distinctly modern art form. It is something different from autobiography, only in part because in a great memoir, subjectivity and personal exploration are baked in and expected. Memoir does derive from the French word “memoire,” meaning memory. As such, the word already hints that a memoir entails a remembered sense of a life—a series of anecdotes carefully selected and examined, conveying a story more impressionistic than the ones you might find in a straight-ahead autobiography.

Memoir really feels to me like autobiography with a modernist twist. The traditional story of ‘who I am’ becomes distorted through the fun-house mirror of retrospective examination. Certain aspects are magnified, others obscured. Chronology is roughly adhered to, but narration often follows a stream-of-consciousness orientation. There is some claim to truthfulness—memoir is shelved under nonfiction—but an expectation that the events described have been refigured by memory. And this characteristic of memoir is particularly resonant in Wild: Strayed wrote the book a full seventeen years after completing her hike across the Pacific Crest Trail.

Because of a memoir’s commitment to personal reflection, there seems an indelible difficulty about managing the subjective and objective—what is honest on one hand, and on the other what is true—within this particular kind of nonfiction account. Granted, it seems somewhat antithetical to the concept of memoir to claim objectivity, as the foundational sources of memoir, from my perspective, are reflecting, working to understand, and purposefully describing events through the author’s subjective lens. But, at the same time, objectivity seems to be at the core of what nonfiction means, and what distinguishes memoir from the many novels detailing similar challenges of everyday life.

I cannot forget the media uproar that resulted when James Frey’s ‘A Million Little Pieces,’ a memoir about his drug abuse and eventual recovery in rehab, was revealed as partially fictionalized. What interested me most about the scandal, aside from the popular conception that the import of the book was somehow changed because the events described were not veritably ‘true,’ was that after the story broke, Frey went on CNN and said the book remained “the essential truth of my life,” fabrications and embellishments aside. He repeated those words—essential truth—a half a dozen times over the course of the interview.

Reading the painstaking accounts Strayed draws in Wild, and knowing how much the inevitably distorting effects of time must have changed her sometimes incredibly minute ruminations, I started wondering where the ‘essential truth’ of a memoir really comes from—the events themselves, or from the author’s reflections on them? The reason I loved reading Chery Strayed’s Wild, as well as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was because Strayed, Didion and Gilbert went so deeply into their own hearts and minds to share and try to come to terms with some of the most difficult experiences of their lives. In that way those authors said more to me about their own strength and vulnerability than they did about the events themselves.

All these modern-day everyman’s memoirs share a certain frankness about the self, openness about experiences, honesty about the choices these women have made, and more than anything else, a certain ‘savvy’ character about them; a sense of know-how indicating that through their sometimes painful experiences, these women have come to a confrontation with the reality of the world that enables them to just ‘get’ things. Fortunately, there is something in a book about the physical placement of words on the page—the last sentence in a paragraph, the last paragraph in a chapter—that gives a sense of finality and purposefulness and significance to the events relayed there.

When Strayed writes the final line of her book, she ends her story on her own terms. She seals the events of her life with the mark of her own understanding, and makes an honest effort to teach us something about the journey she made, both literally and metaphorically, towards coming to terms with her life’s challenges. The end of the book is Strayed coming to terms with the unknown. And like Witherspoon, I ended the book grateful to have followed her journey towards that personal feat. Thanks to the brutal honesty of her account, I felt as close to Strayed as to a friend—and that’s the truth.