Walt Whitman

(Un)Reliability in Memoir

A) In full, chapter one of Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying: “I exaggerate.”

B) And this from Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir: “…memoir is undertaken not just as another kind of artistic expression, which is to say a work created for an intended audience, but also as an act of self-completion” (88).

C) What does a writer do if the act of self-completion forces her to consider the gaps in a life that cannot be filled? See “A.”


As memoir, Lying addresses both a unique and resolutely universal conundrum, the instability of memory, which complicates the writing of a piece of art that in its very definition depends on memory. If memoir seeks to think back on a portion of life, reinhabit memory, then apply the lens of time to make sense of those memories, the enterprise would seem to be utterly corrupted when the view through the lens magnifies a gaping hole or, in fact, if the application of the lens functions like a magnifying class aimed at an ant in the hot sun, the multiplication of energy causing the obliteration of the subject of study. Such a memoir would be a close-up image of a smoking hole. And in many respects, Lauren Slater writers of the examination of such absence. Hers is a story of reconciling childhood epilepsy (or appears to be…instability makes me question everything in this book), which she describes as having left gaps in memory. Experience has been erased, and in this memoir she seeks to write and examine that experience.

So, directly, Slater’s admissions of exaggeration are revelations of experience. I hope that doesn’t strike anyone as too post-modern, this intentional absence functioning as commentary on the absences of life. Indeed, this is the only tactic that Slater has in reconstructing her life. She cannot complete the self in the same fashion as other memoirists, because she cannot access or even pretend to access memories. About fifty pages in, she writes the magic words THE END, then flips everything around on the next page, just so we’re clear on what’s happening:

Not quite.

This is a work of nonfiction. Everything in it is supposed to be true. In some instances names of people and places have been changed to protect their privacy, but the essential story should at least aim for accuracy, so the establishment says. Therefore, I confess. To the establishment. I didn’t really fall into the grave. I was just using a metaphor to try to explain my mental state. The real truth is I went to the funeral, the hearse had engine trouble, the coffin was late, I looked into the grave, and I thought about falling in. (60).

Page 59 offers the narrative clarity we desire in reading, a story that comes to a satisfying and properly evocative ending, Slater lying at the bottom of a grave looking up at the faces peering over the rim. Page 60 presents the complication, that it didn’t happen even as it did, because things that happen in the mind are every bit as real to the body as things that happen physically. Perhaps obviously, in a memoir focused on the deep issues of the brain, writing through this aspect (and against the mind-body split) is crucial.

What memoir isn’t about this, actually? In Firebird, Mark Doty looks through lenses of time to repopulate the memories of his childhood, and he identifies his project as the construction of a perspective box, which is to say, a box built of distortions and viewed through different resolutions. In Descanso for My Father, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher assembles a version of his father through the collection of pieces, which is to say he reconstructs a false image through the act of tertiary memory. In I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl addresses the difficulty of could in the telling, and the slipperiness of memories of learning to play the piano, and how writing through the false memory leads to something…else.

While it’s too easy to repeat this aphorism, I repeat it anyway: all memoir is meta-memoir. How can it not be, if the project of the writing relies in the ethical engagement of memories that can never be fully trusted? I say too easy, though, because Lying cannot be reduced to mere meta-artifact; it is not just or even a book about writing memoir. Sure, we can read it that way, since the trouble of memory that Slater considers is the trouble of the genre, but Lying is also a tremendous act of ethical reconstruction. It is a memoir (how I want a strand of significant organ music to play as you read those words), and it is concerned primarily with the very construction of self that Birkerts suggests as central to this particular style of art.

I’ll back up here for a moment, to my aside about never trusting anything in Lying, that I’m never quite sure if she’s really writing about epilepsy or if she’s using it as a metaphor for something else. While this, too, sounds overly-meta, I think that’s part of the point. Even though Slater keeps reminding the reader of when she exaggerates, or when she is flat out lying (think, again, about page 60), that act works to weaken the reader’s resolve to see the action on the pages as fully literal. Yet, also, it encourages the reader to trust the moments that are presented as real, because Slater has established herself as reliably unreliable. She’ll tell you if she’s lying…right…won’t she?

Maybe. Maybe not. How could she if she herself doesn’t even know? Ultimately, that’s the point of the accent on unreliability, that we can never knows as readers because she can never know as writer. So we are forced to trust experience in the same way she trusts experience, which is to say that we can’t but also do. Which is to say that the memoir functions simultaneously as meta and literal text. Which is to say that memoir itself, even life itself, is about dealing with the unreliability of our own narrative centers. We do that automatically every day, yet also experience the frustration of moments when, say, a loved one remembers a cherished moment different than we do. Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Both…neither…we can never quite know.

Historical Perspective and the Position of Memoir

In the early going of Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir, Birkerts describes the act this way: “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning — with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story” (3-4). Today, my own consideration of the genre leads me to consider the way Patricia Hampl positions the narrative identity that is intuiting the meaning at hand, just whose contingency is telling which story. After opening with two essays that mull the nature and (un)reliability of memoir, Hampl moves to a curious trio: “The Mayflower Moment: Reading Whitman during the Vietnam War,” “What She Couldn’t Tell,” and “Czeslaw Milosz and Memory.” From the perspective of, well, perspective, these three essays address the narrative position of the American Self, the Memoiring Self Who Doesn’t Quite Understand the Whole Story, and the Historical Self. In the motion between these three essays, Hampl addresses a key question of the genre, that of how you position and fashion a narrator (the “I,” generally).

The bracketing essays of this trio describe two poles of that self. From Whitman, Hampl argues that the American memoirist writes within a national context that must reckon with a troubled national history (as must all who write within the context of any nation’s history) but also within an uttered sense of American unity, a conflict that can create some mental unease. “But reading Whitman I belonged: to what I felt was the true nation, to those who lived in the magic of the possible, in mourning for America, the pure idea” (49). Yet Hampl also develops the essay as a tracing of her path away, at least for awhile, from Whitman, in part because of the tension between ideal America and lived experience.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Hampl writes of Czeslaw Milosz, who she argues “has located the best grace of memoir: a method which allows the self to function not as a source or a subject, but as an instrument for rendering the world” (86). Instead of a Whitmanesque author describing the self, Milosz is a self inhabiting the residues of Eastern European atrocity, Nazism and Communism. For Milosz, then, or perhaps for the version of Hampl writing in this essay, “This presence which lies at the heart of the experience of memory is both personal and impersonal. This double nature of his memory, which Milosz says caused his post-War experience in the West to be ‘robbed’ of some of its ‘reality,’ is, from an American middle-class perspective, an enriching and intensifying of reality” (90).

The nature of the narrative self, then, can be considered from these two perspectives. One is the central I, the figure whose authority as individual  (something Hampl, I believe, would argue is rather particularly American), allows that I to serve as the vision for both a nation and the reader. This is an I who can see all, is an active participant in the making of meaning about the self in question. The other side, the Milosz, is the witness who walks through the wreckage of history and weighs the personal experience against the heft of the past. This is Milosz placing personal childhood memories in the context of killing fields (see 90-91). This is Milosz writing a self that is not so much a stand-in for Poland but a self who cannot be reckoned alongside the known history of the homeland.

The contrast here is, perhaps, one born of age. As any American tourist will report, Europe is so much older than the U.S. As facile as such an epiphany may be, an American abroad can rarely help but marvel at the number of buildings that are older than our country. This is a useless emotion, but one I’ve certainly felt when abroad — some combination of humility, wonder, and pride. We’re so new. So naive. So fresh. So full of hope. That’s kind of Hampl’s suggestion as well, in the choice of the I as conduit: Whitman’s I is one that isn’t yet jaded enough to deny the possibility of national ideology. The I of Milosz, instead, has seen enough to be less impressed with the hopefulness of a youthful national identity. And, as Hampl illustrates so well, the reading of Whitman during the Vietnam War is a dissonant moment of reading about the ideal while the ideal commits the atrocities of war. Reading Whitman now, of course, carries similar cognitive risk.

How then, might a memoirist move forward from these two extremes of the narrative position? As Hampl puts it, “We embody, if unwittingly and partially, our history, even our prehistory. The past courses through our veins. The self is the instrument which allows us not only to live this truth but to contemplate it, and thereby to be comforted by meaning — which is simply the awareness of relationship” (97). This persistence of the past animates the most interesting of these three essays, the centerpiece that is nominally about Hampl’s relationship with an elderly Czech woman in St. Paul, “What She Couldn’t Tell Me.”

First, consider the relationship of that essay’s title to the title of the book, I Could Tell You Stories. Here, immediately, is the opening and closing down of narrative fullness. Together, the book promises the possibility of story (an issue covered deeply in the first essay of the collection) and, then, the refusal or inability to tell it. Spoiler: the problem of Mrs. Beranek is that she is a Czechoslovakian refugee of the wrong sort. She and her husband left the country not to flee Communist oppression but because, immediately after WWII, the nation wasn’t a friendly place for a couple who had fared well as collaborators with the occupying Nazis. Beranek wants to tell that story, starts to at one point, but cannot: it’s a story of the wrong sort of struggle, since it is the bad guy trying to argue for his humanity. Yet, at the same time, it is a quintessentially human story of loss, and a story we typically refuse to hear. We prefer the St. Paul newspaper version of it, that the family had had enough of Communism, than the troubling reality of collaborator suffering. A) We’d just as soon have them suffer as not; B) We’d just as soon not hear stories from collaborators; C) We’d just as soon not consider the historical residue of living collaborators.

Thus the structure of Hampl’s essay moves the reader through a fascinating progression. Her own choice of narrative presence is an intriguing combination of Whitman’s American ideal and Milosz’s historical witness. Hampl reveals unease throughout the essay, moments that indicate that the historical self knew something was up with Beranek. And by the end, she returns to Prague to find a relative of Beranek who reveals some part of the truth, that the couple had left the country at precisely the moment when only national traitors would have. Hampl writes of Beranek to write of a narrative self that gradually must contend with the rupture of national idealism.

Hampl has befriended an enemy here, has shown great kindness to a woman who history marks as traitor. For this, she inherits a book of photographs that forever fix the images of Mr. Beranek, the soldier-collaborator, the wartime wealth of a couple who profited from the loss of their country. Whatever is left of Hampl’s American idealism must succumb to this reality: Mrs. Beranek could be used as a story of American dreams only by ignoring the nature of what brought her to the country. Notably, the essay is written mostly as a narrative of Mrs. Beranek, without a heavy consciousness by Hampl; she breaks for reflection seldom, until the end of the essay. Here, I see the imprint of Milosz, of what Hampl herself identifies as the position of memoirist and lyric poet: “consciousness in the light of history” (100). This is an essay that traces the coming of age of a voice. It is a narrative self that recognizes the limitation of stories that could be told but cannot, that recognizes the importance of using history to consider experience. In fact, Hampl herself does not know that Mrs. Beranek was a collaborator; she has only intuited this, and been told by someone else that such was the case. Factually, there’s little “evidence.” Yet the reality is clear: this is the only reasonable explanation.

Here it is at the very beginning of that essay, the commentary on the nature of figuring the memoirist’s stance: “Everything about Mrs. Beranek…should have told me that she harbored a secret. But I was incapable of recognizing a secret of her kind” (61). At this moment in the collection, Hampl’s narrative position is not yet one capable of hearing the story that could not be told. She was, perhaps, still too much steeped in Whitman and not yet tempered by Milosz. At the same time, Hampl chooses to end the essay not with the final revelation of the full truth of Beranek’s guilt but, instead, with the revelation that this is a fake name, at the request of the woman, who is long dead and, therefore, who would never read these words. That Hampl chose, still, to honor that request indicates the persistence of Whitman’s hope, that she has written with the gravity of history even as she participates in the peculiar hope of a young nation. The last word, in fact, is “innocence,” tied to Mrs. Beranek, who we know not to be innocent in any pure sense. In this move, the self of Hampl’s narrator has  populated a sophisticated place of hope and history, has set aside the naiveté of Whitman, which in fact Hampl recognize as a misreading of Whitman and not a problem with the poet. Hampl writes a consciousness that reckons with the relationship of the past and the self, and in so doing makes a contemporary revision of Whitman: an American self that writes what she sees, all the while understanding that there is much she cannot see.