I remember how it rocked my world when a New Yorker article showed that Madeleine L’Engle’s portrayal of her life and family in her Crosswicks journals was more of a fictional construct. Since then I’m cautious about assigning factual truth to memoirs, but I tend to give the authors some leeway.
Goodness knows, if I had to write the story of my own life, there would be a lot that was not strictly accurate. Our memories are not photographic records, and we do tend to “re-remember” the past as a defense mechanism against painful experiences or to make sense of disconnected incidents.
If this is done unconsciously in the writing of a memoir, it’s understandable and human. If it’s done consciously, with deliberate intent, then such a book seems to depart from the realm of nonfiction. And given that sometimes it’s hard to know what really happened, maybe all memoirs should be assumed to be “fictionalized.” But is there something wrong with that?
There can be different levels of truth, and sometimes the truth of a narrative is not in the bare facts. Some memoirists are able to tread that line gracefully, letting their real selves shine through what will necessarily always be an interpretation, a reordering of lives phenomena.
If too much is concealed or distorted, though, it seems problematic. If it’s an attempt to push some agenda, or present a false persona, the claim to any kind of truth should be discarded.
What do you think? Should memoirs be considered fiction or nonfiction? And does it matter?