email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
The title of this book is somewhat misleading; it aims at a history of false memoirs as well as true ones. Moreover, the author can't seem to decide which history he is telling, or how to integrate both into a coherent history of the memoir as a literary form. The approach is one of compilation rather than interpretation, long on facts but short on meaning, and the result is disappointing. Ben Yagoda, a widely published journalist and professor of journalism, says he has spent "several years thinking and reading about the standard of truth in memoir", but the book doesn't read that way. It's more of a hodge-podge of lists and summaries, sometimes interesting and amusing, but in the end unsatisfying. A sentence in the "Acknowledgments" is telling: "This book was dreamed up by Geoffrey Kloske of Riverhead Books." It shows. The book reads more like an assignment dutifully carried out than the labor of love that characterized Yagoda's well-researched and always engaging earlier history, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. Indeed, the book on memoir seems to contain some overflow from the New Yorker book -- but none of its charm or cultural importance. The author might have done better to follow his own dreams, rather than his editor's.
It's too bad, because there are parts that are quite interesting, such as the sections on slave narratives (both true and false), Grant's memoirs (he was diagnosed with throat cancer while writing them, and died five days after delivering the manuscript of the second volume), and the influence of Defoe on both the novel (a familiar story) and autobiography (less so). We are introduced to the Indian imposter who called himself "Chief Buffalo Long Lance". The son of former slaves, Sylvester Long ran away from home at 13 to join a Wild West show, and later was the great Olympian Jim Thorpe's classmate at the Carlisle Indian School. After fighting in the Canadian in World War I and then working as a reporter in Calgary and Winnipeg, Long invented a past for himself as a Blackfoot Indian, including buffalo hunts and a tour with Buffalo Bill. The first edition of Long's 1928 "autobiography" sold out, and was later translated into Dutch and German. As "himself", Chief Buffalo Long Lance starred in a 1930 anthropological docu-drama titled "The Silent Enemy". But Long's film debut was also his swan-song. His co-star happened to be Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe, Sitting Bull's grandnephew, who exposed the fraud to the film's producers, and the following year Long shot himself in the head.
As the narratives of Chief Buffalo Long Lance and other colorful but spurious memoirists suggest, what makes the best story is not the same thing as the truth -- a truism that Yagoda nevertheless explores to good effect in the strongest chapter of the book, "Truth, Memory and Autobiography", which elucidates the conflicts between the capabilities of memory and the demands of narrative. Successful narrative often requires the distortion of events, and research in the science of memory has discovered that patterns and situations are more important than facts. Nietzsche was right again, as the apt epigraph to the chapter demonstrates: "'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains intractable. Eventually -- memory yields." (Unattributed by Yagoda, but it's Epigram #68 from Beyond Good and Evil.) Memory "is itself a creative writer," Yagoda says, "cobbling together 'actual' memories, beliefs about the world, cues from a variety of sources, and memories of previous memories to plausibly imagine what might have been, and then, in a master stroke, packaging this scenario to the mind as the real one." In the words of psychologist C.R. Barclay, "our autobiographical memories are 'reconstructions aimed at preserving the essential integrity' of our sense of ourselves and our histories." Near the end of the chapter, Yagoda sums it up nicely: "Once you begin to write the true story of your life in a form that anyone would possibly want to read, you start to make compromises with the truth."
The story of those "compromises", and their theoretical underpinnings, are the most compelling part of the book, and might have been expanded and developed to make up the more coherent whole that is lacking here. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson (who managed somehow to be both a lover of the truth and a great raconteur), had Yagoda written often thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him. Unfortunately, the style of his prose is sometimes as slapdash as the content is desultory, with such infelicities as "generally generic", "edited an edition", "from the get-go", "nifty new widgets", "No problem!", "zero changes", and the interjection, while telling the tragic story of Abelard's castration, "Ouch." We learn that Quakers produced the most spiritual autobiographies of any Protestant denomination, but there is no effort to ascertain the possible reasons for this. We are told that Benvenuto Cellini's is "the first autobiography that feels utterly modern", but what constitutes this feeling, or its modernity, remains unexplained. Looking at the numbers -- which he likes to do -- Yagoda gives us various figures on copies sold and percentages of increase, and lists 31 "celebrities who have been quoted as claiming to have written their opus 'without a ghostwriter'". Just why these statistics are important he doesn't say. The result reads more like a digest than a sustained analysis, which is ironic for a book that claims to be a history.
But from the outset, Yagoda seems to have a narrow understanding of what constitutes history. "My main approach," he tells us on p. 3, "is not thematic, theoretical, generic, psychological, moral, or aesthetic, but historical" -- as if a truly historical approach could not include all of these categories (and more). He is dismissive of the writing of recent cultural theorists like Lacan, Foucault, Derrida and Barthes, "in which the traditional idea of truth has no value, and indeed is pretty much a bourgeois plot against the people." While I am sympathetic to Yagoda's impatience with the far-from-perspicuous writing of Lacan and Derrida, this is hardly an adequate characterization of their work. One thinks here of Coleridge's remark, in his own intellectual autobiography (the Biographia Literaria): "Until you understand a writer's ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding." But there is not much time for understanding here; the author seems more interested in summarizing and compiling than interpreting. It's a disappointing performance from a writer who knows and has done better. The real history of memoir -- both true and fabricated -- remains to be written.
© 2010 Joshua Gidding
Joshua Gidding, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Dowling College, Long Island