Dani Shapiro
January 9, 2009

On Memory

The latest memoir-publishing scandal hit me even harder than all the others. Herman Rosenblat, in turns out, invented the story about his meeting his wife because she passed him apples through the fence of the concentration camp where he survived the war. The concentration camp part is true. Mr. Rosenblat is indeed a Holocaust survivor. Which, I suppose, is what makes this story sting. Why make up a story about the Holocaust, then pass it off as true? Wasn’t there drama enough? The book has been canceled (though now it may be published as fiction!) and the outcry has died down. But the cumulative lasting effect of these scandals makes me sad. I know they’re affecting the way readers approach memoir. I’ve seen the distrust, the cynicism in my students, who wonder: why should I believe this? How does the writer remember all that? Prove to me that it’s true. Show me.

The way the publishing industry is addressing this is to suggest that memoirs now be fact-checked. But how do you fact-check memory? How do you fact-check childhood? To think that memoir can be fact-checked is to misunderstand the whole idea of what memoir is. Which is to say, a story. A story told by a writer who is plumbing the depths of her memory. Who understands the sacred pact she is making with the reader. This story is what I remember. This is the truth of my memory–which is faulty, singular, mine alone. It is not The Truth. It is a small, personal attempt to wrestle with the recesses of time and history and the way memory plays on one’s mind. It is not invention. A writer writing memoir (unless that writer is actively attempting to trick the reader like Mr. Rosenblat and his fellow scammers) is engaged in the deep and very genuine process of piecing together a patchwork quilt of the past.

When I sit down each morning to work on Devotion, especially when I am writing the pieces of the quilt involving my childhood, that is where I’m headed. The past: my own history. I’m not inventing it, or supplying details that would make it better–or worse, or more dramatic–than it was. I don’t understand what the point of that would be. If I were doing that, wouldn’t I be writing fiction?