Memoirs and autobiographies offer a glimpse into the lives and experiences of others. Unlike fiction, memoirs are based on real events and personal accounts, though some storytelling conventions are applied.

These include, at the very least, a beginning, middle and end to the story being told in the book. You can also find even more story theory applied when these stories include problem structure and good guy/bad guy dynamics. The arcs seem familiar, with darkest hours and eventual triumphs. They often feel suspiciously formulaic.

Memoirists can recall scenes and conversations from the past, as far back as their childhoods, with unbelievable detail. They also live lives full of dramatic, amazing and highly emotional events, rather than the humdrum everyday life the rest of us slog through.

In the Ebbinghaus curve, or forgetting curve, R stands for memory retention, s is the relative strength of memory and t is time. The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled… People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.

― David Carr, “The Night Of The Gun”

Of course, being in an unusual position in society will make your life unlike the majority’s — that’s part of the fascination of reading about the experiences of someone who has been and seen what you never will — but this doesn’t change the fact that whenever homo sapiens tells a story, we edit out the boring bits (even if it’s just swapping stories down the pub).

Considering that memory is fickle and its intended purpose is not at all to remember events exactly as they happened, memoirs are more based on a real story than the real story itself (because that would be rather boring to read).

Some people argue that all memoirs (not just the straight up fake ones) should be shelved in fiction, because memoirists don’t tell true stories, they tell truth-based stories. And, like fictional movies that dramatise historical events, maybe all memoirs should come with that same standard disclaimer of ‘inspired by real events’ or ‘based on a true story’.

Every time there is a new memoir scandal, we huff about being tricked. We moan that the writer has betrayed a sacred trust, and we brand the writer as a cheat, a liar, a scoundrel. And then many of us rush out to buy the next grippingly truth-y memoir [. . .]

— Jonathan Gottschall, “The Storytelling Animal”

While we’re here, let’s talk about the fakes.

We can’t talk about memoirs without mentioning that many memoirs have been complete works of fiction.

Such as, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, a gritty account of his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction.

Frey had presented the book as a novel initially, but publishers only developed interest in it after it was described as a true story, looking to meet the reading public’s hunger for hard-luck memoirs.

Around the same time as the truth about Frey’s memoir came out, another writer’s true identity was uncovered and his memoirs revealed as fiction. The Navajo author Nasdijj turned out to be Tim Barrus from Michigan, who hadn’t gotten the kind of attention for his gay leather porn and sadomasochistic novels he’d desired.

Writing under the byline Nasdijj, Barrus submitted an unsolicited manuscript to Esquire magazine, noting that the magazine had never published a work by a Native American author. His essay The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams was published in Esquire in 1999 and was a finalist in the National Magazine Awards that year. His three “memoirs” became critically acclaimed and Nasdijj got several literary awards and recognition from major institutions.

Then there’s Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca, in which Belgian-born Misha described how she set out alone, at age 7, to find her Jewish parents who had been deported by the Nazis. Over the course of five years, she walked 3 057 kms (1,900 miles) across Belgium, Germany and Poland, got trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, stabbed a Nazi rapist and was adopted by a pack of kindly wolves. (Yeah, like Mowgli.)

In 2008, birth documents revealed Defonseca’s real name to be Monique de Wael. The baptismal certificate confirmed she was Catholic, not Jewish. And rather than trekking across Europe, she had been attending school in Brussels in 1943.

It turned out the Nazis had executed her parents, who were members of the Belgian resistance. “It’s not the true reality, but it is my reality,” Defonseca/de Wael admitted in 2008. “Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world”.

We all have protagonist energy.

We all tell stories about ourselves. In essence, we are a figment of our own imagination, because the stories we tell ourselves are our identity.

While I’m not condoning the fake memoirs and think that, yeah, maybe all memoirs should be filed under fiction, I’ve long had this theory that the people in society who are the most successful ones are the best bullshitters.

The ones with the best story.

I watched The Last Forest recently that made me think this, in itself, is a story as old as time.

Let me explain.

In the film, a husband goes off to hunt. When he doesn’t return from the hunt, the wife beseeches the shamans to help her. She had a dream that Yawarioma, a woman-shaped fish, lured him into the water and now he lives there with her instead of returning to his family. She wants to drink the Yequana medicine and go after him, to bring him back.

They tell her that even if she drinks the medicine, she may not be successful, or “see the spirits” as they put it. While they essentially forbid her from doing it, the shamans get together with even more shamans and drink the medicine and set off on a quest to bring the husband back.

As I watched these fully grown men dancing, singing, crawling, I thought, “It’s always been the biggest bullshitters, who have the best stories, who have the most power in society. Because what they essentially did, was tell a woman ‘no’ and then proceed to get high as kites themselves.

And I get it that this is their religion, this is what they believe, and they have a right to practise their spiritual beliefs as they see fit, I can’t help but feel the frustration of the woman missing a husband, missing the breadwinner for her family.

While in their mind, the shamans go on a spirit quest to call down the spirits to protect them, unsurprisingly, the quest yields little results in the way of a missing husband.

I completely understand how helpless they must feel, in the face of mercury poisoned rivers, the forest around them being devoured by “earth-eaters” as the outsiders look for oil and ore (freeing evil spirits in the process), pneumonia and tuberculosis killing their children.

So, the Yanomami shamans get together to call on the spirits, smoking and snorting their traditional medicines with coughs and winces. This then turns into chanting, dancing, and all sorts of ritualistic performance. One shaman rolls around on the ground, another develops an intense fascination with the ground, and the whole thing culminates in a collective movement around the village whilst shouting their frustration at the universe.

I get it. I do.

But that also just had me thinking that this is how it’s always been. The biggest bullshitters have the most power in human society. While we all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, it’s those individuals who expand those stories about themselves outside of themselves whom we listen to, whom we vote into office, whom we bestow power over us upon (in the modern world through money).

They have that ultimate protagonist energy.

So why, after all this, read memoirs?

Reading about someone else’s life, I can gain a better understanding of their perspective and the challenges they faced. This makes me more empathetic and open-minded, which is particularly important in a world that can often be divided by differences, rather than brought together by similarities.

While every person’s story is unique, I can often find common threads that connect us.

Reading memoirs feels like a very human act.

It’s almost a continuation of sitting down around a campfire to listen someone else tell their story. And in hearing about someone else’s journey, I find solace in the fact that I’m not alone in my own struggles.

As time passes, first-hand accounts of important events can become scarce, making memoirs an invaluable resource for capturing and preserving the essence of past eras.

For instance, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank continues to educate and inspire readers worldwide, ensuring that the atrocities of the Holocaust are never forgotten. Similarly, Maya Angelou’s memoirs, such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, give voice to the experiences of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, providing a rich historical context for future generations.

Memoirs are a treasure trove of knowledge, inspiration, and connection, because through these personal accounts, we are able to explore the diversity of human experiences, broaden our horizons, and develop a deeper understanding of the world around us.

Memoirs serve as a bridge between different cultures, generations, and perspectives. In a world that often feels fragmented and divided, reading memoirs can help us rediscover our shared humanity and remind us of the power of storytelling to unite and inspire us all.

If there’s one thing you should take away from all of this, it’s that the one the we all have in common as humans, is storytelling. (Just maybe take the stories people tell about themselves with a grain of salt, just as you’d do down the pub, eh?)

[. . .] Homo Sapiens, that’s a pretty good definition for the species, but Homo Fictus, fiction man, that’s about equally accurate. Man is a storytelling animal.

— Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal at TEDxFurmanU

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