Memoir depends on memory, yet memory is often selective and thus fallible.
For my father’s fortieth birthday in 1966, my mother threw a surprise party, in the small dining room at our country club. It was the end of August and both Alan and Barry, my brothers, were just home from overnight camp. I was six years old, still a day-camper.
I have two actual memories from that party: I recall the moment of the surprise, but not my father’s reaction; and I have a body memory of feeling petulant because nobody was paying attention to me.
Nothing else is true memory; it’s all mediated and molded by photographs.
For years now, I’ve had the photos from this party, all crammed into a box on a shelf in the closet, except for one that sits on my bureau. In it, my late brother Barry is sitting next to me, looking at me intently. His focus on me that evening was the antidote to the neglect I had been feeling.
I wove a narrative around this photo, complete with dialogue: we snuck out of the party to go put our feet in the pool; that’s the setting for our most intimate talk yet. He spoke frankly about Dad’s controlling, violent nature and how he handled it. Alan, our older brother, came looking for us, and warned Barry that he only had a few minutes before Mom and Dad started looking for him. I skipped back to the party holding Alan’s hand.
Nice story, eh?
That photo, along with the others, was part of a formal, gilded-edged album filled with pictures from the party. I inherited it in 2012, when my mother died and Alan and I cleaned out her apartment.
Among the photos that I saved but had stored away, is a similar picture of Alan and me. Why did I display the Barry-photo so prominently that I saw it every day, and had daydreamed about it enough that a story grew around it, while the Alan-photo languished out of sight in a drawer?
In the photo with Alan, I’m sitting on the edge of a cushion. He is also leaning toward me, concern and love expressed in his complete attention. It looks like I was trying not to cry. I’m not having any of what he’s saying to me: my mouth is set in a straight line with a slight downturn at the corner, my brow is furrowed, my back is straight. The light is flat. There’s no magic, beauty, or joy in this photo.
As humans, we are drawn to beauty, and the photo of Barry and me is simply gorgeous. The light is on my face just so, illuminating my futile attempt to hold onto my pout, and my eyes give away my delight at his attention.
This photo captured a quality of our relationship I’ve sorely missed since Barry’s death in 2007. It also supported my grief-induced idealization of a sibling whose foibles and faults were no longer around to annoy me.
It so happened that I had just placed this photo of Barry and me in its showcase spot on my bureau when McKayla Maroney, a gymnast on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, made the same lopsided look famous. Then,
when she and her team visited the White House, Maroney posed with President Obama, and they recreated the crooked, skeptical expression together. I delighted in the coincidence, which amplified the photo’s significance to me.
Regardless of the tricks of memory, both photos of me with a brother show crucial aspects of the larger story of my childhood. My parents were nuts, alternately abusive and neglectful, but my brothers got me through it. Alan and Barry both were there for me, treating my concerns with the gravest attention, particularly when the adults were consumed with their own affairs, figuratively and literally.
Indeed, having both images gives me a fuller, more three-dimensional understanding of my relationships with my brothers, and our dynamics within the family.
In any personal writing, truth and authenticity slip and slide like penguins on melting ice. My memories are my own, subjective by definition, but memoir creates its own sharpened truth out of this murkiness. If the memories that hold emotional significance in my heart are simply a function of what I’ve endured and how I’ve healed, where does truth reside?
The conventions of the memoir genre allow for fictitious scenes and dialogue, provided that the emotional truth of the memory is honored. In this case, the memory of Barry’s attention held greater emotional weight because I was drawn to the beauty of the image, because I still grieve his death, because I’m way more adorable in the photo of my illumined half-smile than in the photo of my angry scowl, because that expression had its moment of fame. Did I attach my memory to beauty, to my cuteness, to my ego, and call it truth?
Memory’s saving grace is that it changes as we learn, heal, and grow. For me, that’s the dual purpose of memoir: to dig deeply into memories to find their bedrock truth; and to capture the universal process of human development through the most human of modalities — storytelling.