Another caveat to this matter of truth and memoir: All the secrets and the necessary face-keeping of my family (the requirement to protect and to hide), all this murk in which I lived as a CIA kid, no doubt, doubly predisposed me to a quest for truth. You can only live with secrets and disguises for so long. The truth will out. “Out damned spot,” Lady Macbeth said, to no avail. And as her creator directed, the true duty of poets “is to speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” “Writing is an act of transgression,” writer Jamaica Kinkaid has noted. This memoir I wrote was my stab at truth. It was like stabbing for a body hidden behind a curtain.
In this consideration of memoir writing and truth, I return now to the seven year-old child and the forty nine year-old trying to attach her to the page. Another verity surfaces in the pond. Not only are the seven year-old and the forty nine year-old not the same, but it is impossible for the forty nine year-old not to overshadow the little girl in the embroidered, white-cotton Chinese pajamas, with her head on the pillow, listening to her father’s voice. As I have already noted: I have been unable, as a writer, to give you the actual seven year-old, or the twelve year-old skating after a Dutch boy on a pond in The Hague, and exactly what she said back then. I have only been able to give you the ripples of emotion that stayed in her body as it grew: how she listened, holding her breath in the dark, for cues in her father’s voice, how she drew the covers over her head to go back to sleep—and to make something out of those flashes of feeling. The girl on the page could only possibly be the girl as seen through the gauze of adult perception. This carried the risk of the girl seeming smarter and more insightful than she was at the time. These book kids are always wise beyond their years…
At the same time, as the writer, I tried, with all my urgent heart, to put words to the dumb, foundering, young feelings I had back then. And I say, to seem a little wiser than I was (or even a lot wiser: I have seen some of the mortifying letters I wrote back then!), is a compromise worth making. Wouldn’t you rather hear the adult rendition over the bashful, inert stammers of the tongue-tied seven year-old or the slangy clichés of the bluff-sassy twelve year-old? Back then, I was simply in the hands of it all, just living it, not thinking about it and how it made a story.
Having signed a pact to tell the emotional truth in my memoir, I headed into what was, essentially, a cobbling job. In writing the memoir, all I had to work with were remnants of the truth. Scraps of odd-shaped, ripped leather in a dusty bin at the back of the shop. Each section written by the memoirist begins with a memory fragment: one of Nabokov’s “bright blocks of perception.” But it is all a swirl: the rustling of a hidden Chinese dissident, a snake in a Taiwanese garden, a revolver at the embassy in The Hague, bags of tangerine-mikan on a Japanese train to a hospital—these were the fragments with which I made my memoir. If I’d stuck to actual, absolutely clear sensory memories, the book might have been a mere thirty-five pages long.
Memoir writing, for me, is the same as the cobbler’s art: a stitching together of what one has been told, what one knows, and imagination. With shreds of fabric, leather, and string, one fashions a pair of boots to walk in.
As I’ve noted earlier, there are various perplexing problems to this matter of ferreting out the truth as a writer of memoir. There is the fundamental problem, for instance, that you-the-writer, are not the same as you-the-person who, at seven, heard her father whispering in Mandarin to a Chinese man in the dark. You-the-writer are the woman who, at forty-nine, rises wearily in the night to find that girl with the perked ears. As a writer, I couldn’t supply you with that seven year-old, like a fish on a plate. I had to settle for—and, indeed, was more interested in—something else. The truth I was interested in was primarily emotional. What did that girl in the hush of the room feel—fear? curiosity? the shiver of intrigue?—and what image from that time would make the reader feel it too? Feelings, and also atmosphere, the smell of history, and what that seven year-old’s experience meant about life to her forty nine year-old counterpart. This, rather than a real-time movie, was the true story I was after.
…So, with all this, the judge at the truth-and-memoir court asked, as if it was I, on trial:
Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
No. I can’t say that–if you’re talking about literal, factual truth. That’s not possible for any human being. I’d like to, but I can’t swear to that. I am not a movie camera.
This judge of my imagination then continued. He rose taller from his hips, and strained forward on the dais, and huffed out in a deep voice:
Well then, do you, at least, solemnly swear to try to tell the emotional truth?
Yes. That, I can swear to. I cannot be faithful to the letter of the law, but I can to its spirit. I stand by my emotional story. This is real. This happened.