Jane MacDonald


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How "accurate" should memoirs be?

                                                                                  2002 Jane MacDonald

Friday, 15 March 2002

Recently in my writing group people were discussing "accuracy in memoirs." As an
occasional reader, but not writer, of memoirs, and also a sometime student of
history, I found this discussion interesting. At the time, I was in the middle of Jill
Ker Conway's second volume of memoirs,True North.

As far as historical accuracy goes, I expect a memoir to be correct on mundane
things--if somebody gets the wrong date for Pearl Harbor, I'm probably not going to
think much of her. But once you get away from that kind of thing, what is accuracy?

Conway made her reputation as an historian by analyzing the memoirs of women
who "made it" against heavy odds in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and
comparing their memoirs with their letters, official documents, other people's
memories of them, anything that was a credible source of historical data. She found
these women mostly kidding themselves, and giving out pictures of themselves that
were wildly at variance with the facts. They saw themselves as figures of romance,
when, in fact, they were "operators"--ruthless schemers, manipulators,
power-grabbers, people who continually outwitted others. Had they not done those
things, they would not have succeeded in their aims. But they literally couldn't think
in those images, because when they lived women just didn't do those things, or, if
they did, they were unable to admit it to themselves. We are all stuck with the

So those memoirs are not "accurate" pictures of events. Extrapolating from that
conclusion, I am warned that Conway herself wrote her memoirs at a particular
time, as a member of a particular society. Does she shade the "facts" about herself?
Of course she does. Fifty years from now somebody will probably give her memoirs
the same treatment she gave those of others, and, by doing so, will learn a good deal
about the culture in which Conway lived. If you write your memoirs, or I write
mine, we'll do the same--it's inevitable. That's if we set out to be as honest as we can;
of course we'll more or less unconsciously do a little judicious omitting and shading,
just to make ourselves look a little better, that's only human nature. Actually, should
I write mine, you'll understand, finally, that everything I do comes from the highest
motives, and that I'm probably one of the nicest, most intelligent, people you've ever
heard of, even though I do recall making mistakes once or twice--in 1983, and again
in 1992, if I remember right.

So when I read memoirs I'm well aware that what I'm getting is not "accuracy" in
the usual sense, but an impressionistic picture, pretty fuzzy around the edges, but in
some way a true portrayal of the person who did the writing. And that's fine,
because some of these people are absolutely fascinating to read about.

Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin' is one of the greatest, most moving books
of our era, not just a great memoir. And anyone who reads Conway's books, The
Road from Coorain
and True North, will get to know a fascinating and
admirable woman. Women also will realize that despite the hurdles we still have to
leap, we owe an immense debt to our predecessors. If men read Conway's memoirs,
they may understand better why we still bitch a little now and then.