I am in the sunset of life, and I feel it to be my special mission to tell people what they are not prepared to hear.—Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s mission is shared by many of those who write life stories in their senior years, who feel they have no time left for prevarication—from the Latin varicare: to walk crookedly. Their veins may be varicose but their talk is straight: they write, they claim, what they saw and thought, whether ideologically correct or not.
Elderly memoirists often decide, like Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living—or, at least, isn’t as rich as the examined one. And history, after all, would be less informative without the idiosyncrasies of memoir.
Academic history can be narrow and over-curated. Memoirists’ personal witness statements offer a different sort of window on the past. They contribute spot checks. Memoirists write micro-histories, which are rather like microclimates. Microclimates create niches in which new species can evolve: micro-histories create niches in which diversity of thought can be protected.
Memoir produces not only history, but histories in the plural. No doubt House of Stone, Anthony Shadid’s 2012 memoir of home in a “lost Middle East” doesn’t describe the same Middle East as any other Middle-Easterner might. Similarly, Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran eloquently describes a—not the—Iran. Trevor Noah’s picture of apartheid South Africa in Born a Crime, will transport us to his—not to everyone’s—South Africa.
In the memoirs workshops for Canadian seniors that I facilitate, the participants present historical detail drawn from their personal lives. The story of, for example, a prairie farmer, a member of a peacekeeping force, a wartime bomber pilot, a functionary at Bletchley or a teacher in a Moldovan village or in the Canadian Arctic, can convey how such a lifestyle felt from inside—and it often wasn’t the way ideological revisionists assume it was. Reality is revealed in the particular, not in the general or prescriptive. Memoir journals the jour—the dailiness of life. One gets a different perspective, for instance, on the sequestering of Japanese fishing boats in Canada during World War II if one reads an account by a Canadian navy sailor who delivered the boats to berths on the Fraser River. How could they do such a thing? we often hear now. Read the accounts of those sent to do it, and you’ll know.
When they tell us what we don’t want to hear, we sometimes condescendingly humour seniors, as if they had forgotten what’s appropriate. Yet the proper use of the mind is free, not appropriate. The more we open our minds to the flavour and detail of a skillful memoirist’s story, the more history we absorb. The past birthed the present, and those who were there can show us how that happened. Like a historian, a memoirist writes text—a word stemming from the Latin verb textere, to weave. There’s no text without context, without the whole tapestry to which a memoirist adds her square. When judged outside its context, a memoir is only half able to do its job of revealing not only the past, but the feel of the past.
Having got beyond the stage of worrying about reputation, many an elderly memoirist claims the senior’s prerogative of frankness. What can they do to me now? Fire me? Disinherit me? Kill me?, they ask. They saw what they saw. Whether or not what they saw fits our own preferences, we need to acknowledge their testimony, and not expect them to trim their sails to fit the ideological crosswinds of today. Serious students of the past needn’t be afraid of being seen reading memoirs. The general reader isn’t afraid: according to Publishers Weekly, memoir enjoyed a surge in sales in the first decade of the twenty-first century and is still showing growth in this second decade.
Memoirists’ freedom from academic trappings liberates them from history and literature as disciplines. Both disciplines have tended to look upon memoir as a poor cousin from the wrong side of the literary tracks, but a good memoirist will turn this to her advantage, by expressing herself in her personal style. All writers aim to impose order on the unruliness of experience. There is pleasure in life-review, in bringing half-forgotten experiences out of the dark corners of the mind into the light of day. There is pleasure for the reader in comparing notes with the author, and perhaps discovering a fellow traveller. This is energizing—but, for some social historians, the untrammelled pen of the memoirist creates anxiety. In ideological circles, some memoirs seem beyond the pale, and on campuses may be subjected to ideological chill. Yet, for the braver students of history, memoir is a treasure trove of detail.
For the general reader, the pleasure lies in the narrative arc. Story-sharing behaviour is a vital part of social interaction, and, in Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman explains this in evolutionary terms as providing a survival advantage
Our minds are inherently narrative. Gregory Berns found that the left temporal cortex (seat of emotion) lights up in brain scans when or just after a subject reads a story. Paul Zak found that reading narratives caused an increase in “happiness hormones” like oxytocin, which makes the reader empathetic toward characters—and real-life people, as he explains in “How Stories Change the Brain.”
Who, a memoirist often asks, were my grandparents and great-grandparents, and who were theirs? Where did they come from, what historical episodes did they witness? Uncovering their stories creates a sense of continuity over generations for both writer and reader. We all had ancestors: go back far enough and we all had the same ones.
History is created by everyone. It is not only the famous but the masses, whose attentions made them famous, who made each era what it was. Is a memoirist, who places herself in the role of the hero—or antihero—of her story merely an exhibitionist? Perhaps—by presenting themselves as Exhibit #1, memoirists tacitly confirm that any review of or commentary on the world is at least partially subjective. History is all about movements and trends, but fundamentally it’s made up of the amalgamated doings of individuals, and life-writing adjusts the focus to the subjective point of view. There is fiction in autobiography and autobiography in fiction. Much fiction is memoir in disguise, and perhaps there’s a novelist trying to get into print within every memoirist. Both fiction and nonfiction use the narrative arc to tell their tales. Accurate witness statement and subtle fabrication work side by side in memoir and autobiography, and interpreting the dance between them makes detectives and psychologists of readers and writers both.
Memoir, then, can be refreshingly vibrant, freewheeling and unencumbered by academic artifice and ideological correctness. It is a genre of subversion, a bulwark against thought-control. It is not always written in old age, of course, but often it’s an elder’s final Declaration of Mental Independence.
Students attending universities that concern themselves with rights-talk and apology-offering in the name of inclusion and equity may accept a chill on their speech, but the elderly typically reject the option of self-censorship. In so doing, they may be the last of a species. Maybe we should provide a refuge for them inside the agora. Maybe, the serious reviewing media should set aside a protected critical niche for the historian who came in from the chill.
Image by Clay Banks