Several years ago a scientist I knew in the Kansas City area was on a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of atrazine in drinking water. Atrazine is found in some pesticides and a lot was running off from farms in outlying areas, then making its way into the water supply. Soon enough an article appeared in a local newspaper saying studies had shown no increased risk of cancer from atrazine exposure. The article was technically correct, my friend said, but also dishonest. The dangers from the the chemical, he explained, included disturbing neurological symptoms, and possible heart and liver damage among other things. By discussing only tumors and stopping there, the article was lying by omission, the implication being that there was no danger at all.
I saw something similar on the other side of the environmental divide later on. A different friend vowed off buying “regular” baby shampoos after reading a label on a bottle from the health food aisle in the grocery store saying “contains no numbing agents.” Again, factually correct I’m sure. But also treading on the hairy edge of promoting the false rumor that a well-know brand of baby shampoo does contain numbing agents, though this claim has been thoroughly debunked.
I’ve mulled over both of these incidents several times in the past year or so as I’ve read much discussion about how true memoir has to be in order to be distinguished from fiction. No writer is ever going to get in every fact with complete accuracy, nor do they need to. I think of translating life into memoir as similar to translating a novel to a movie. Some things are going to get cut, some things are going to be changed, and yet you can still end up with a production that is very true to the original. Or not. I give you To Kill a Mockingbird vs. Practical Magic for those who have read and seen both books and movies.
I believe I was an accountant in a previous life: I like accuracy. Even in my fiction, I strive to get facts right. If I have character watch the Apollo 11 moon landing on television, I want to know what day of the week it happened, so I won’t have my person come home from public school on a Sunday and flip on the TV. I’ve made only a few attempts at writing short memoir pieces, but I find it more difficult than I anticipated to resist giving in to a bit of self-serving dishonesty by hiding it with facts. I suppose it’s human nature. I want people to sympathize with me more than with the other characters in my story.
Here’s a memory I haven’t committed to writing before now. I was nine years old, throwing a basketball back and forth with one of my cousins. I flubbed a catch and jammed the ring finger on my right hand. It looked horrible – purple, swollen, the epitome of a body part rendered dysfunctional by injury. Hurt pretty bad, too. But did my mother take pity on me *at all* by releasing me from my dishwashing duties that night? No, she did not, even though she had let my brother off for a similar injury some weeks previous. She wouldn’t even glance at my finger, only saying “The hot, soapy water will be good for it.” And I tell you, I could barely hold those plates, never mind the agony of turning the water faucet handle.
I could compose all of this information into a memoir. I could describe how the hot water in reality increased the swelling. I could describe my feelings of hurt over the blatant favoritism I thought was shown to my brother over me, of the indifference I saw my mother display toward my well-being. I could possibly even dig up some old diary had I been keeping and let my readers know the exact date of the occurrence of what I saw as one of the terrible injustices of my life. I could wrack my own memory and interview family members to try to come up with an accurate description of the dishes I would have been washing. My mom still owns some of them; I could go as far as taking photos. I could relate all of these true factual facts and leave the impression that my mom treated me with great callousness. Which wouldn’t be honest at all.
Or I could write a different version. I could say it happened when I was eight instead of nine and I could describe the kitchen with the cabinets along the wrong wall and I could say that our plates had pictures of mushrooms when it was really flowers, but then include the larger truth about the context in which this incident occurred. I’m talking about my malingering tendencies during said time period. I had been going through a phase of feigning illness and/or injury in order to shirk my responsibilities. I’m sure my mom was sick of it. There was a good reason for her to ignore my complaints. Looking back I now feel I got what I deserved. My second version would be less factual and more true.