Of Memoir & Memory

We need better critical tools for discussing the genre

Ever since their spike in popularity in the mid-1990s, memoirs have been the subject of much negative criticism. This dismissive attitude has largely centered on two leading questions asked of memoirs: the degree of an author’s truthfulness and the extent of his or her self-absorption, a complaint normally referred to pejoratively as “narcissism.” In my opinion, both of these critical complaints, often unjustified, have persisted both in the press and the academy mainly because we have not collectively developed a more systematic basis for reading and evaluating memoirs. We learn how to read poetry, fiction, and drama; that is to say, we learn about prosody, free indirect style, stagecraft, and so on. All too often, however, responses to memoir seem to depend on whether the critic or reviewer “likes” the subject’s personality, “relates” to the subject’s experiences, “empathizes” with the subject’s afflictions, or “approves” of the subject’s social, economic, and political views. Surely, we could use a better set of critical criteria.

In a way, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve developed such a limited critical capacity to evaluate memoirs because—to put it briefly—memoirs depend on memory and, despite being the subject of philosophical investigation going back as far as Plato and of plentiful scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century, memory remains an elusive topic. How does it work? Can our fondest memories of childhood and loved ones really be reduced to molecular activity in the neurons of the brain? Will medical science one day be capable of eliminating the traumatizing memories that can paralyze us, and implanting happier memories in their place? Are memories the cause of the biographical continuity that bolsters our belief in a personal identity? And how accurate are memories even among the healthiest of us? Does it make sense to base our present-day attitudes and emotions on recollections of our past experiences?

I propose that when reading and writing memoirs, it would be profitable to learn more about the purposes and functions of memory, whether long- or short-term, explicit or implicit, episodic or semantic. The operations of memory being as essential to memoir as, say, metrics is to poetry, the more we know about memory—from psychological, philosophical, and scientific perspectives—the better we can understand the complex art of memoir. For example, Wordsworth’s magnificent verse memoir, The Prelude, is even more compelling when we see the operations of his memory in terms of his apparent capacity to form eidetic images, a mental ability he describes in action (as in his famous daffodils lyric) but which he seems to take for granted and, therefore, never explains. It nevertheless plays a large role in his composition and provides the physiological basis, perhaps, for his concept of poetry as the product of “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Among the dearest subjects to memoirists are the memories of early childhood. In the past, autobiographies, especially those of literary figures, often began with such memories— fragmentary, mysterious, visually enigmatic. Here is a perfect specimen, one that opens Childhood Years: A Memoir (serialized 1955-1956) by the outstanding Japanese novelist, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, who was born in 1886. He begins by noting that he has “two or three memories that seem to be from the time I was four or five,” but claims he isn’t sure about their sequence.

I recall that one day long ago I was riding in a rickshaw, being jounced about on my mother’s lap; we came to a place in the Yanagihara section of the downtown Kanda district, a red-brick building, still unusual in late nineteenth-century Japan. We got down from the rickshaw and entered the doorway, to find Father seated at a counter with a grille in front. Mother and I bowed and greeted him from the entrance—all this I recall, vaguely to be sure, yet not as something in a dream but as reality. My memories are of the appearance of the red-brick building, the expression on my father’s face, the counter with its grille, the raised threshold of the tatami room beyond, and the fact that the weather was fine.

Tanizaki goes on to say he doesn’t recall what anyone wore and that he has “long puzzled over where Mother and I had been coming from that day.” Yet, he feels that “since my memories of the place in Yanagihara are limited to this fragment of one day (like a single frame from a scene in some film) I suspect they date from my fourth year and may well be my ‘very earliest.’”

Not too long after the young Tanizaki experienced his unforgettable rickshaw journey, a forty-year-old Sigmund Freud was in the process of formulating psychological theories that would transform the way we think about the workings of the mind and the effects that dreams, memories, and the unconscious have on human behavior. As he treated patients, Freud noted he “often had to deal with fragmentary recollections, which were all that remained in the patient’s memory from the earliest years of his childhood.” These childhood memories, his own among them, intrigued Freud by their inexplicable nature. Why, he wondered, when so many significant moments are continually forming our consciousness and personality in our youngest years, do we later recall insignificant, even trivial, details? In his approach to what he termed “infantile amnesia,” Freud called such insignificant memories “indifferent,” and though he didn’t deny that we also carry with us through life some undeniably important memories, he found the frequency of “indifferent” memories to be an enigma of human psychology. Tanizaki’s memory of visiting his father at his workplace is just such an “indifferent” memory, having no dramatic or developmental significance. The details are sketchy, and there’s nothing the author appears to have taken away from the episode—it doesn’t lead to a later epiphany—other than the sheer memory of what seems to be a quite ordinary incident. Why did Tanizaki’s recollected image become ineradicable? What qualified it to occupy a place of autobiographical priority?

In an 1899 essay, Freud termed these “indifferent” memories of early childhood “screen memories.” Though they most likely did occur, they come to us possibly distorted and manipulated; their psychological purpose is to displace, or “screen,” other, more disagreeable, memories. Freud suggests, too, that the unpleasant memories probably originate from a later, more recent date, and then the mind, as a defense mechanism, projects them back into our past, using, of course, the raw materials of our actual sensory recollections. Thus, the isolated, fragmentary childhood memory is actually standing in for a later memory, which (Freud would argue) the subject has suppressed. His description of this mechanism is complex and controversial (he compares the operations of screen memories to the amalgamations that characterize works of fiction), yet his essay intellectually and emotionally grapples with one of the key elements of autobiographical writing—our earliest memories. Freud would have required further autobiographical data in order to interpret the significance of Tanizaki’s recollected fragment, but the rickshaw memory certainly fits the criteria of a screen memory, and it clearly poses the possibility of hidden tensions within a family romance.

The more we know about memory—from psychological, philosophical, and scientific perspectives—the better we can understand the complex art of memoir.

How far back do our earliest memories go? The novelist Harold Brodkey once told me, with great sincerity, that he remembered being born. I recall laughing (we were, after all, at a bar, drinking), but perhaps he had investigated primal therapy and “relived” his birth. I forget his description and explanation, but he does open his autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul, with an imagined recollection of his protagonist’s birth. As far as I know, there is no psychological evidence that people can recall their birth, but I’m certain that some writers can persuade themselves they can. Freud didn’t trust the authenticity of any memory—even his own—before the age of three. Many people I know—including myself—can convincingly trace their life experiences back to, perhaps, four or five. When Freud asserts that we don’t begin to see our lives as “a connected chain of events” until the age of six or seven, perhaps not even until ten, he is, I believe, simply underlining the unreliability of childhood memories.

So, too, does the pioneering child psychologist Jean Piaget, who offers an illuminating anecdote of an inauthentic memory from his second year: up until the age of fifteen, he vividly “remembered” his nanny fighting off a would-be kidnapper, who was trying to take him from his pram. Years later, the nanny shamefully confessed she had made up the attack, and returned to his parents the watch they had given her in appreciation of her bravery. Piaget concludes he must have “heard, as a child, the account of this story, which my parents believed, and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory.” I suspect many readers are suspicious of memoirs that recount childhood memories before the age of four and that they imagine such memories are more “artistic” than authentic. Or, like Piaget’s, the result of family stories. But, as we’ve seen, they could also be real memories standing in for a repressed memory from adolescence or young adulthood.

Freud also points out another way our childhood memories may be inauthentic: “In the majority of significant and in other respects unimpeachable childhood scenes, the subject sees himself in the recollection as a child, with the knowledge that this child is himself; he sees this child, however, as an observer from outside the scene would see him.” He then adds that it is “evident that such a picture cannot be an exact repetition of the impression that was originally received. For the subject was then in the middle of the situation and was attending not to himself but to the external world.” As Freud puts it, this alteration of point of view “may be taken as evidence that the original impression has been worked over.” These observations—commonly experienced yet rarely articulated—seem fundamental to our understanding of the way memories, and not just those from early childhood, work. How often when we retrieve a memory, especially one that is visually detailed and emotionally rich, do we see ourselves at the center of it, the “star” of our internal cinema? When I consider my own childhood memories, I can’t recall a single one in which I’m not seeing myself from an observer’s standpoint. The recollection, then, does not accurately reflect what happened: I was not seeing myself when, at the age of five, I mischievously jumped off a seesaw and badly hurt a playmate, who struck her head against a sharp stone when she fell, yet whenever I recall this incident, I see a scene in which I’m being forced by a circle of distressed parents to look at her badly bruised head to see what I had foolishly done. In moving from actual incident to recollected incident, the point of view has shifted from an actor’s perspective to a director’s, and the whole remembered event resembles a reenactment. Freud doesn’t make an attempt to explain this mental phenomenon, but it does suggest to me that memory, the driving force of memoir, may be inherently self-centered.

I should add that these remarks are not intended to promote a Freudian reading of memoir. I don’t believe we can—or should—“psychoanalyze” a written text such as Tanizaki’s fragmentary recollection. But we might become better readers (and writers) of memoir if we learn more about the operations of memory from such writers, thinkers, and scientists (to name just a few) as Freud, Proust, William James, Henri Bergson, the Harvard psychologist Daniel L. Schacter, the Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, and the British philosopher Mary Warnock, now in her nineties, whose splendid book Memory (1987) covers a great deal of literary ground and regards memory as an integral part of human imagination. The more we know about memory—and the science is developing rapidly—the better equipped we will be to appreciate memoir as a major genre of imaginative literature.

About the Author

Robert Atwan

Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of “The Best American Essays.” He also publishes America Now: Short Readings from Recent Periodicals.

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