Monday, September 6, 2010

"Not Much of the Truth in Any Technical Sense"


Although I am not yet finished with The Liars' Club, I went back to the first chapter last night and reread Mary Karr's explanation of how the original Liars' Club got its name.

What seemed to be an unfortunate nickname from "somebody's pissed-off wife" turned out to be the perfect description for her father's group of friends.

Of all the men in the Liars' Club, Daddy told the best stories. When he started one, the guys invariably fell quiet, studying their laps or their cards or the inner rims of their beer mugs like men in prayer. No matter how many tangents he took or how far the tale flew from its starting point before he reeled it back, he had this gift: he knew how to be believed. He mastered it the way he mastered bluffing in poker . . .

I think that Karr is a real sport for warning us, about fifteen pages into her memoir, that she, too, might merely have the gift of knowing how to be believed . . . that her stories might not tell the truth in any technical sense . . . that the bullshit might get as "high and deep" in her own stories as her father's friends, riveted despite themselves, suspected it got in his.

In an earlier thread, Betty and Emily wondered how much of Karr's memories are "a bit fictional," with Emily teasing Betty about making autobiographical stuff up all the time, too. And I thought about my own autobiographical writing and realised that, heck, I "make up stuff" all the time, too. (No, I don't lie. I make up stuff. That is, I don't tell untruths; I make up stuff about the truth.) And from my experience and from what I know of similar writing by others, it seems to be a natural part of telling the stories from one's own past.

All this reminds me of Madeleine L'Engle's comment that there is a difference between fact and truth. It's a romantic distinction to make when one is reading any of her novels, but it's much more problematic when one is reading her non-fiction. Take her memoir Two-Part Invention, with a title nearly as frank as The Liars' Club: her children have described her account of their family life as "pure fiction" and "good bullshit"--and they didn't mean it in a good way. I was so impressed that I decided never to read any of L'Engle's non-fiction ever again. I didn't want her children, who presumably knew her better than any starry-eyed reader ever could, thinking of me as yet another gullible guppy.

Yet they probably, like Karr's mother and sister, don't really care. It gets high and deep in any memoir, I think. And who better than our family to call us out on what we make up about the truth? But Karr's point seems to be that it's not the technical truth that matters in memoirs.


BettyDuffy said...

I was thinking also about how part of what we remember about the past is shaped by personal perspective.

There is a legendary fight that took place in our family between me and my older brother, over the last portion of some cool-whip salad concoction. Sparing the details of this fight's escalation, I was thinking about how I might remember the fight--having been one of its instigators, and how my sister might remember it as an onlooker. And of course, if asked, my brother would have something completely different to say about it. Each of us would have a different account of the victim and the perpetrator--of whether or not justice was meted out, etc. If all three of us wrote an account of the same fight, there would be three completely different stories.

So what's the truth? I think they all are.

Enbrethiliel said...


I've thought about your comment over the last two days, Betty. I think the fact that everyone remembers the same event differently is part of it; but at the same time, I don't think Karr was going for accuracy as much as artistry.

Just now I read a review of Anne Rice's Violin, which is apparently meant to be as autobiographical as Interview with the Vampire; and I realised that Rice could be the president of her own Liars' Club chapter. Both these novels tell the truth about her life, but not "in any technical sense." And they're not lies, either; they're stuff made up about the truth.

I think that people who write the stories of their lives in a realistic style, using earthy, grounded language, as Karr does, are held up against a higher standard of technical truth. But--and this is an opinion I will probably revise over the next few months--I don't think they should be.

Tracy @Magnolia Cul-de-Sac said...

My dear, dear Baptist friend asked me if I believe the Bible is true, I said, 'of course!' What I think she really meant to ask was if I thought the Bible was fact-which is much more difficult for me to answer...

Kate Wicker @ Momopoly said...

Great point, Tracy.

As an aside, if you haven't already be sure to read Karr's Lit. I just finished it (after having read The Liars' Club in the spring; I still have to read Cherry), and it tells the story of her conversion to Catholicism.

Emily J. said...

I didn't mean to suggest with my teasing of BD that a memoir has to be "technically true." I'm with you, E, on the distinction between fact and truth. And your comments remind me that I should go back and reread L'Engle which I remember reading as a teenager up in my parents' bedroom hanging over the edge of their bed after discovering the book mixed in with the pile of magazines our mother kept stacked against the wall. So the book was as much a statement about our mother as about marriage. I'm not normally a fan of contemporary memoirs - Eat, Pray, Love being a perfect example of all that is wrong with them, with Under the Tuscan Sun running a close race as my second least favorite memoir for many of the same reasons that I don't like Eat, Pray, Love: they preach and preen and pose. It's hard to believe that the person behind the story is very likable. They seem to be saying "Look at me! Look how great my life is!" On the other hand, what I liked about Mary Karr's book was her dedication to telling a good story, even if it required some creative editing and elaborating, -- "Look at the world!" she seems to be saying, instead of trying to teach a lesson about perseverence or to prove anything about her ability to survive, although that could be extrapolated. Maybe it was that she didn't let the mirror rest too long on herself. Maybe it was just my mood at the time I read it.

Gotta make dinner.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm not much of a memoir reader, I'm afraid, Emily. This post grew out of my own discomfort with the fictionalisation of something supposed to be an honest retelling of past events--although of course I don't think honesty and accuracy have to be the same thing. I'd just be more likely to read a wildly fantastic novel with strong autobiographical elements, like one of Anne Rice's books.

It's partly because I know my family would freak out if I ever published my memoirs--not because I'd make them look bad, but because I'd probably render them unrecognisable and they'd want their dignity back. It's much safer to tell the truth about them in stories that never happened.

And going back to L'Engle: she did that a lot, too. Her son Bion became the model for Rob Austin--and according to his sisters, he wasn't very happy about the role his mother wrote for him. I forget who pointed out that "it's not easy to be the golden child." In general, I think it's not easy to be a character in someone's memoir. We might assert our individuality in real life, but once they start writing about us--and writing very well about it--they have us pinned.

Emily J. said...

Good point, Embrethiliel. Karr's mother must be a pretty good sport. I'd think it would be jarring to read about yourself in someone else's writing, even if it were a positive comment.

I just started another memoir - the Julia and Julie book, but I am finding I only like the parts about Julia, so I'm thinking about trading it out at the library for some L'Engle.

BettyDuffy said...

Fortunately, Karr's mother is dead--it's her sister who's got to live with her writing--but I think her sister is painted rather well, if, however, Karr does not delve deeply into her sister's character. This would be one place where I think the truth doesn't get a fair shake in memoir--in deference to living characters who populate a memoir, many characters, aside from the author and those already dead, are shells.

Enbrethiliel said...


For someone who doesn't read memoirs, I seem to know a lot about them . . .

I remember a critic of Jane Fonda's memoir saying that it was cowardly of her to wait until her first husband Roger Vadim had passed away before revealing what was so wrong about their marriage. In the critic's view, that meant Fonda could say anything she wanted--technically true or otherwise--and Vadim would never be able to tell his side of the story. So it wasn't "fair"--even if Fonda had done it to spare Vadim the personal embarrassment.

Perhaps memoirs are "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of writing. No matter what you say, how you say it or when you say it, someone is going to think you're being unfair.