The Fallibility of Memory

The Fallibility of Memory

I was reading Poets & Writers last night and was surprised (and happy) to see Anna Keesey featured in an article highlighting the best debut novels of 2012.  I met her eight or nine years ago, when she was a guest in my undergraduate nonfiction workshop.  She was tall and blond and sat in a desk at the front corner of the room, close to the door.  My professor introduced her as a friend from grad school.

At least, that’s how I remember it…and quite vividly, too.  I would have confidently bet $20 that Anna Keesey had earned her MFA at the University of Montana, where my professor had gone to school.  But according to Poets & Writers, Anna Keesey is a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  I know that my professor was not an Iowa grad because she and I talked a lot about her time at Montana; she hoped I’d get my MFA there — and I would have, too, if they’d let me.  (The college’s website confirms that my professor did, in fact, earn her MFA from Montana, so at least I remember that correctly.)  Even though I would have sworn it was true, Anna Keesey didn’t go to Montana, and I therefore have no idea how she ended up in my classroom.  How did she know my professor?  And if she wasn’t in Wisconsin to visit her old grad school friend, as I’d thought, what on earth was she doing there?

There was no doubt in my mind when I opened the magazine and saw Anna Keesey’s face that she was a Montana alum.  (For what it’s worth, my memory of her appearance was spot-on.)  If, for some reason, I’d published an essay that included that classroom visit, I would have — without any hesitation — said she was my professor’s grad school friend.  And I would have inadvertently published a lie in my so-called nonfiction.  It makes me wonder how many honest lies I’ve unknowingly published with good intent.

I sincerely believe that I have told the truth, always — but simply believing it doesn’t make it so. Memory is a fickle thing, and it’s unlikely that my memories, even the ones that seem so real, are entirely accurate.  Close, probably, but with flaws.  When I write, I try to do my research.  I call my grandma, I study photos, I find the historical facts.  But I don’t fact-check the things I take for granted, like Anna Keesey having an MFA from Montana.  To fact-check everything is not practical. There are only so many hours in the day.  So the question, then, is where to draw the line.

I’ve attended countless panels on this very subject at AWP and NonfictioNow, and it always seems so black-and-white during the discussions.  For example, a gem from Mary Karr: “If it didn’t happen, it’s fiction.  If it did happen, it’s not.”  Or Philip Gerard: “My duty is not just to tell the larger truths, but to tell the smaller truths.  To be truthful.”

Yes.  Obviously.  I know.  I agree.  But if I’d offhandedly written that Anna Keesey was a Montana alum, I would have thought I was being truthful even though I wasn’t.  It was my truth, not the truth. The implication, then, is that we must check everything.  Absolutely everything. We shouldn’t write anything that we haven’t verified — and if we must, then we have to preface it with “As I remember it….”

“As I remember it” and “I imagine” and “I think” and “perhaps” are among my favorite phrases when I write nonfiction, and I use them whenever I’m uncertain or speculating.  As I should.  As is ethical.  As I hope others do.  As I’ve taught my students to do.  But that doesn’t help with the accidental lies.  Should absolutely everything that hasn’t been triple-checked, even the things we think we know,  be prefaced with “it seems to me that…”?  Such a label is the only way I can think of to avoid those inadvertent lies…and also a good way to kill the prose.

Jennifer Brice told an accidental whopper in Unlearning to Fly.  She opens the book like this: “My mother kneels beside the clawfoot tub in the first-floor bathroom.  It’s an afternoon in April, that cruel month.”  She’s explaining what her mother was doing just prior to the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.  This is how she remembers it, exactly.  There’s just one problem.  In 1964, Good Friday was in March.  In the second sentence of the book, she establishes herself as a liar…even though, in her memory, it was April.  It didn’t occur to her that it might have been March.  It didn’t occur toanybody — not her agent, not the publisher.  And so she lied.

That’s the kind of lie I’m wondering about.  What can we do to safeguard ourselves from similar mishaps?  The date of an earthquake is verifiable, Anna Keesey’s alma matter is verifiable — but when we’re positive, why would we look it up?  Why would we spend precious hours of our writing time tracking down the things that, 99% of the time, we are correct about?  I’d bet that Mary Karr didn’t look everything up in The Liars’ Club, and I’d bet that she couldn’t have done it even if she wanted to — who would have been able to confirm her memory that she wore the nightgown with the Texas bluebonnets on that particular evening?  It probably wasn’t documented anywhere, but yet she doesn’t say, “I’m almost positive I wore my favorite nightgown…”  No.  She writes a scene, with no narrative filters, and the character wears, without any shadow of doubt, the nightgown with the Texas bluebonnets. But without that external verification, how can we know for sure that “it did happen”?  In other words, how can readers be sure that it’s not fiction by Karr’s own standards?  We can’t.

There’s no solution, except to label everything fiction out of fear of the inadvertent lies.  I’m not advocating that, and I’m not going to do it myself.  My point, I guess, is that we need to understand that memory is fallible, and we need to understand that writers sometimes get things wrong because they remember incorrectly.  And anyway, if Mary Karrdidn’t wear the Texas bluebonnets nightgown that night, what does it matter?  It doesn’t…does it? There’s a difference, though, between this kind of lie and the deliberate James Frey flat-out lie, the intentional John D’Agata manipulation of truth.  If you know it didn’t happen, or you know it didn’t happen in that way, then it’s fiction, and to present your work in any other way is dishonest. If you know it happened and you know it happened that way — even if it didn’t — well, that’s somehow different.

Is Jennifer Brice lazy for not looking up the exact date of the earthquake?  And if she’s lazy, does that make her lie inexcusable?  If we don’t interrogate every single memory, even the ones we would bet our lives on, should we be embarrassed to call ourselves nonfiction writers?  Undoubtedly, there are some who would say yes, absolutely.  I’m not so sure, though.  I’m not comfortable saying that it’s OK to get things wrong since memory is imperfect, because that seems like a permission slip to lie (or at least to be lazy), but I’m also uncomfortable condemning everyone who makes an honest error because of an inaccurate but vivid memory.

It’s a conundrum — nonfiction’s eternal conundrum, it seems.

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