Believe It

Is it just coincidence that we began to worry about truth in memoir just as long-silenced classes began to tell their stories?

In any social order, you will know the powerful by who is believed and the subjugated by who is doubted. Today in America, for instance, a woman who indicts a celebrity for rape is accused of seeking money and attention; a dark-skinned man who insists he’s minding his own business is wrestled to the ground by police officers; a young diner cook who blogs about her missing teeth receives death threats. Meanwhile, a white male news anchor’s inflated battlefield tales are piped, unchecked, into millions of living rooms amid network negotiations for a multimillion-dollar contract renewal.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that the most democratic of nonfiction genres—memoir, in which any citizen might be the ultimate authority on her own experience—is the one most scrutinized for veracity. The accuracy of memoir, for centuries the sport of affluent white men, became of grave concern around the time that women, non-whites, and the poor stopped dipping mops into buckets long enough to dip quills into inkpots. Until the eighteenth century, Ben Yagoda writes in Memoir: A History, “truth was of a general quality; it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that every detail happened precisely as described.” Yagoda ascribes the shift toward more modern sensibilities to Robinson Crusoe—initially presented as nonfiction, soon unmasked as fiction. But our collective fixation on memory’s fallibility and truth’s subjectivity also became fashionable just as formerly silenced groups gained the freedom and literacy to document their lives.

Crying “Fiction!” is often a convenient first line of self-defense against stories that blow the whistle on unjust structures. Men balk when women describe harassment, white people insist racism is over, and the wealthy discount tales of poverty not just because they can’t fathom realities they haven’t witnessed firsthand but because those narratives threaten systems from which they benefit. Belief is a choice, however unconscious, and it self-sustains: we believe what serves our purposes, and the world we’re thus open to seeing validates those beliefs.

Crying “Fiction!” is often a convenient first line of self-defense against stories that blow the whistle on unjust structures.

In my German Catholic farming community, we believed in Jesus. The crucifixion story, in particular, resonated: someone had given up his body for a cause. Jesus suffered on a cross for someone else’s soul, and we suffered in wheat fields for someone else’s bread—maybe even for the wafers we accepted on our tongues after priests transformed it into the body of Christ.

Some features of Jesus’s story were more difficult to swallow—his dark skin, say, or the oil-rich deserts of a Middle East, to which we’d not yet sent our small-town children with Stealth bombers. We found ways to trust the messenger by finding in him our own likeness. Like us, Jesus came from peasants. Near the altar of our tiny country church rested a sculpted scene of carpenter Joseph, teenage Mary, and the baby Jesus. When I was very small, I thought my dad, who built houses for a living, was Joseph; my grandfather had hammered together the steeple above us and carved the Communion rail from a walnut tree on our land. Females weren’t allowed to stand, let alone preach, at the altar beyond that rail; at the nearby Pietà, dusted with care by elderly women, I recognized in Mary’s face the emotional anguish of my mother, who became pregnant with me at seventeen.

In memoir, too, perceived credibility of the speaker holds sway. Just as the crucifix in my childhood church required a white Jesus, Sojourner Truth’s dictated testimony of slavery went to press with “Certificates of Character,” provided by such upstanding white men as her former owner, John Dumont.

“This is to certify, that Isabella, this colored woman, lived with me since the year 1810, and that she has always been a good and faithful servant; and the eighteen years that she was with me, I always found her to be perfectly honest,” Dumont wrote for the 1850 text dictated by Truth. “I have always heard her well spoken of by every one that has employed her.”

Harriet Jacobs, whose Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was, in 1861, the first published “slave narrative” actually written by a black woman, knew her burden of proof all too well. She wrote in the preface:

Readers be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts.

Jacobs’s sympathetic editor, Lydia Maria Child, forewent blurbs from male landowners but, in her introduction, told readers that Jacobs lived for seventeen years “with a distinguished family in New York and has so supported herself as to be highly esteemed by them. . . . I believe those who know her will not be disposed to doubt her veracity, though some incidents in her story are more romantic than fiction.” (Child, for the record, had few qualms with representing actual slavery through generalized, fictionalized accounts.)

Child’s introduction went on to address another barrier to credulity: negative assumptions about the storyteller’s capabilities. “It will naturally excite surprise that a woman reared in slavery should be able to write so well,” she wrote. She explained that a mistress had taught Jacobs to read and write in childhood, that Jacobs was now in the mix with smart Northerners, and that “nature endowed her with quick perceptions”—a bold assessment, at the time, to make of a black woman.

Much has been said of the memoirist’s responsibility in wielding accuracy; much less has been said of the reader’s responsibility in wielding belief.

More than a century and a half later, memoirs from underprivileged ranks continue to challenge readers’ credulity. Linda Tirado, whose online account of missing teeth and government peanut butter went viral, received a torrent of support but also a fast backlash of accusations. For some, Tirado’s handful of unearthed advantages—say, grandparents who sent her to an expensive school—rendered her poverty tale a scam. They couldn’t reconcile what Tirado’s subsequent 2014 book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, shows: class isn’t static or definitive. More vexing, for many, than Tirado’s message was the messenger herself; her brilliance challenges the widespread understanding of financial struggle as the result of stupidity and laziness.

Skepticism’s friendly cousin is amazement, and even sympathetic readers sometimes reveal their prejudices through laudatory wonder. “This book is so good I thought about sending it out for a back-up opinion. . . . It’s like finding Beethoven in Hoboken,” Molly Ivins wrote in her review of Mary Karr’s 1995 memoir, The Liars’ Club. “To have a poet’s precision of language and a poet’s instinct into people applied to one of the roughest, ugliest places in America is an astonishing event.” Astonishing, maybe, to readers of the Nation. Mary Karr knows that Groves, Texas, is lousy with poets of the highest order.

Such surprise over a writer’s abilities is a stone’s throw from distrust over her ideas, as acknowledged by a blogger reviewing Jeannette Walls’s 2005 blockbuster memoir, The Glass Castle: “I can’t help but wonder if [Walls] fabricated some elements of her life story in her memoir. . . . Not because in the wake of the James Frey scandal, I am immediately suspicious of all memoirists, or because I think all non-fiction writers automatically take some liberties with the truth, but because her life is so incredibly amazing, I cannot imagine experiencing some of the things she describes and coming out with my sanity, let alone my sense of humor, intact.”

Memoirists from least-heard places are accustomed to suspicion (the Americans among them at least enjoying the protections of the Constitution, which places the burden of proof on the plaintiff in defamation suits). What’s rich is that the most infamous abuse of contemporary memoir readers’ trust—“the James Frey scandal”—came from the upper class, white, male author of A Million Little Pieces. Like Brian Williams’s recent reporting kerfuffle, the controversy gave rise to a million forgiving discussions about the ambiguity of memory and the creative pursuit of emotional truth.

Mary Karr told The Paris Review in 2009, “It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying, ‘You know, there’s a lot of argument about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.’ You know what? There isn’t. If it didn’t happen, it’s fiction. If it did happen, it’s nonfiction.”

Objective hardship hones a keen sense of the difference, and those for whom reality has been the least pleasant are often the most loyal to its preservation.

“I’ve been vigorously encouraged by various editors,” Karr said in the same interview, “to fictionalize. . . . And I remember reading that Vivian Gornick said to her students, ‘Just make it up, and see if it’s true.’ Bullshit.”

The most poignant aspect of Frey’s fabrications was that his internal pain apparently outstripped external causes he could offer for explaining it. A rich white boy from the American suburbs—what did he have to moan about? Plenty, and we know this not by the content of his life but by the agony with which he rendered it. Paradoxically, the revelation of the book’s embellishments created, for the author, a dramatic true story of punishment and shame.

This, perhaps, is the deepest challenge in articulating and considering the stories of our lives: not that they force us to admit our privileges but that they force us to admit our suffering. If we see something, it must be real, and some realities hurt to look at. Therefore, our harshest critics are often those with whom we share the most common ground.

The first person I heard say she didn’t believe Anita Hill was my hard-luck grandma, a longtime employee of the courts system, who had seen enough sexism to put hair on your chest—though she never spoke of it. Frank McCourt’s few but staunch detractors, in the wake of his Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1996 memoir, Angela’s Ashes, were the people of his native Limerick. When, in my own writing, I bear witness to my native class’s woes of circumstance, the only discrediting I fear is from my own family—many of whom handle remarkable circumstances by deeming them unremarkable and by projecting their pain onto history’s most famous martyr. If they believed what Karr’s daddy said, that “Jesus is a trick on poor people,” they might experience a reckoning with grief and injustice so profound that Christ would climb off the cross and start marching in the streets.

In matters of truth, much has been said of the memoirist’s responsibility in wielding accuracy; much less has been said of the reader’s responsibility in wielding belief. Belief is a form of reverence; disbelief, a form of rejection. Both can be destructive when unexamined: blind faith might give power where it’s not due while blind doubt might strip away power where it’s needed most. Whether we stick out our tongues to deny or savor another person’s claims, the revelation is about ourselves.

In one such revelation, I decided as a young adult that Catholicism was no longer for me. Around the same time, the Church changed, too: girls could serve at the altar. One needn’t believe in a church’s tenets to be moved by the efforts of its parishioners; even after I stopped taking Communion, I sometimes went to Mass to marvel at the new altar girls—white-robed and ponytailed, carrying gifts to an altar, where, someday, they might even be priests.

Belief and doubt are inevitably selfish things. But beyond our dubious ability to judge a story is something transcendent: our ability to receive it. Memoirists aren’t making an argument. They’re making an offering.

* Illustration by Elizabeth Amber Rudnick

About the Author

Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh has reported on class disparity for Harper's, Guernica, and the Guardian, and her essays on cultural boundaries have appeared in or are forthcoming from the Believer, Aeon, McSweeney's, and the Morning News.

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