Fourth through seventh grades I lived with my family in Japan—half the time off-base, “on the economy,” the other half on the US Naval base in Yokosuka. My father has always been a Sunday-driver kind of guy, and being in a foreign country the drives we took there were always an adventure. When we first arrived we had a huge Chevy Impala shipped over that he would delight in turning down into some narrow back alley, practically scraping the sides of buildings with its swollen American body, while we all held our breath praying that one of those little three-wheeled trucks didn’t come jostling its way toward us, leaving no escape.
One weekend outing I remember, quite vividly, was spent touring Japanese orphanages, where we were looking for a little girl to adopt. They were all beautiful places, shrine-like in their serenity, with dark mahogany woodwork, and lush foliage in tidy courtyards, and adorable, round-faced girls with shining black hair shyly peering around corners at us. My parents talked to the caretakers while I did my own shy blue-eyed peering back. For some reason, my parents changed their minds and we ended up not adopting, and it was never mentioned again.
A couple of years ago I was recalling this memory at a family gathering, and was greeted by dead silence. It had never happened. I was shocked! Apparently, perhaps feeling my privileged (spoiled) youngest child status threatened from some chance remark, or maybe from something I had read, I had this incredibly detailed dream which over the years had settled into the memory portion of my brain as truth. I even remember telling friends about this potential adoption, wondering what it would have been like to have a new little sister, and how it may have re-shaped my personality. Then I started to doubt all of my past memories; was it reality, a dream posing as reality, or even a passing thought that had snuck over into Truth Territory innocently whistling and scuffing its little sneakered foot in the dirt?
I recently read A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s account of being conscripted as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, and got totally wrapped up in it, because his story is interesting, and I found it encouraging that he came from such a situation of horror and is using his book and experience to enlighten the world. (I still think so, by the way.) In my blissful ignorance to current events, I was telling Hannah how intense this book was, and she very tactfully suggested I do a little research as there had been some controversy about the truthfulness of the story. But of course!
When I read a memoir, I keep my own personal skepticism in mind, for surely it can’t just be me? I couldn’t give you a verbatim recount of the conversation I had at breakfast this morning, how can we expect someone writing about something well after the “fact” be expected to be entirely accurate? I’m not saying that people who knowingly lie about things should get away with it by naming their outright fiction a memoir, because they’re out there. It seems like a given to me that publishers should always include disclaimers, and do better fact-checking, especially when it concerns a specific event. In the meantime, the literary world can continue to have discussion groups, and write insightful books on the topic–I trust they’ll figure it out. (And when they do my personal insider, Hannah, will let me know!) I just feel maybe we should be a little more forgiving of the memoir genre itself. Appreciate it for art’s sake or whatever. And if I ever decide my life was ever interesting enough at any point to write a memoir, they’ll be a huge statement at the front of the book, maybe even part of the title: Maybe 20 percent truth, most likely 80 percent bullshit. As far as I know…