Before I plunge into deep waters to make the case for the legitimacy of memoir-writing, I must make one caveat: I am considering here fine literary memoirs. There are memoirs that merit the accusations of narcissism, solipsism, and all the rest. It is true that some scribblers do gain through exposé. There are celebrities who sell their memoirs on the basis of their good looks and politicians who sell millions by way of notoriety. The worst memoir can be self-aggrandizing, self-centered, and illicit–there are good memoirs and bad ones, like there are good and bad novels–but many memoirs are elegant literary jewels.
Nabokov’s Speak Memory, for instance, written before he became famous, is the memoir of a boy growing up in great privilege in Russia—obsessed with butterflies. Through his associative reports on his passion the reader becomes willing to follow anywhere the track of this brilliant mind.
By reading another book, Sattareh Farman-Farmaian’s Daughter of Persia, written by the woman who started the first school of social work in Iran, we experience what it is to grow up in the harem of a benevolent, Muslim patriarch, and thereby gain comprehension of what it means to live in an entirely different social structure that offers, at its best, a deep security unknown in the west.
Kay Redfield Jamison’s The Unquiet Mind, another beautifully-composed memoir, offers a lens into the devastating cruelties and seductive exhilarations of bi-polar illness, a high-profile book that has transformed our understanding of madness.
All three of these memoirs are transformative; they turn turmoil to treasure. By using a magnifying glass to look within, the authors illuminate ways of living and thinking about life in its varied facets and grandeur. These books are the kinds of memoir I aspire to. Through beautiful language and precise description of individual experience, they stretch us on many different levels.
Nevertheless, every memoirist, even the one with the most refined sensibility and motive hurls at herself, or is hurled the accusations: “Narcissism! Naval-gazing! Self-aggrandizement!”