My brothers and I had different mothers. Oh, she was the same DNA-donor, the same physical being. But because we were born years apart, and shattering experiences apart, she was a different emotional person. My two brothers’ mother was still soft and interested in her children, proud to be their mother. My mom was a very different person than the ones my brothers knew in childhood.
What is the story that goes into a memoir? Several years ago, I took a memoir-writing course from Natalie Goldberg, the author of Writing Down the Bones There were rules: we were to listen to any readings and not react. No applause, no critique, no comments at all. That allowed, Natalie said, for each person to be able to share without fear. And only one Q&A.
My question was about the validity of personal memory. From Natalie’s teaching I gathered that we can own and explore only our memory, and that not objectively. People may disagree with your memory. My brothers certainly had, often describing a woman who was a stranger to my memory.
I have no desire to write a memoir, but I enjoy thinking about memory, its tricks and shapes. If I wrote the story, wouldn’t I fall under the same scrutiny as James Frey who wrote “a semi-fictional memoir” called A Million Little Pieces? His memory was disproved and he was disgraced, reduced and humiliated into being a couch-confessor on Oprah. My writing is non-fiction. Memory may well be fictitious.
Years passed, and one of my brothers agreed that we were raised by different mothers in different times, although she was the same person. But I still chewed over the whole idea of how to defend memory, interpretation, and the flexibility of Truth. I fully understood the billboard I had seen in China that said, “We must separate Truth from Fact.” It made sense now.
A few weeks ago, I was reading Judy Collins memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, and smiled at her handling the memory question. Here is a woman who has known a lot of people, interacted with them professionally, socially, personally. She had a colorful, alcoholic, sexual, artistic, creative, talented, big-ups-and-down life during which she fought for custody of her son, lost it, gained it and then lived through her son’s death. Now that had to have a lot of opportunity for interpretation from just about anyone she might have worked with, loved, shared a stage, a bed, a song, or a record label. How did she handle her memory? Here’s the quote from the book:
In all cases, it is my memory of an event that supersedes the memories of other participants who might have been at the same party. There are no accidents in memory, for memory has its own reasons and its own logic. What I remember is what happened to me as I best recall it.
–from the introduction to Judy Collins’ Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music.
She claims the memories as hers neatly, cleanly and without apology. She doesn’t make others wrong, and leaves room for others’ opinions. But not in her book.
And that’s the way to claim a memory that belongs to you.