“Why Memoir?” by Louise DeSalvo

January 29, 2010

Before I left for my holiday, I received an email from my former student and writing friend, Manijeh Nasrabadi.  “Why memoir?” she writes.  “I fell like we memoirists are still lowest on the literary totem pole.  The implication that fiction and poetry are the real literary arts and memoir is something confessional, sensationalist or self-obsessed is still widespread.  The artistic and political significance of memoir is poorly understood by many who don’t get why we don’t just write fiction.”  Manijeh Nasrabadi, who is writing a memoir of her life as an Iranian American/Jewish American woman, writes, too that she has gotten into arguments about this with writers of other genres.

There are, of course, memoirs that are confessional, sensationalist, and self-obsessed.  Just as there are novels and poems that are confessional, sensationalist, and self-obsessed.  Singling out memoir as a genre peculiarly and singly guilty of such excesses seems, to me, absurd.  Would any of us declare that a poet or a novelist shouldn’t write in their genre of choice just because some writers in these genres exploit them in ways that many claim memoirists do?

But there’s more to this challenge to memoir, I think.  Susan Sontag once said that great art makes the viewer/reader/listener uncomfortable.  And I believe that memoir — testimony — makes many people uncomfortable.  If you read, say, a novel about the sexual exploitation of a young man or a young woman, you can tell yourself that it’s fiction, tell yourself it’s a work of art, and elide the fact that this kind of thing does, in fact, happen to people.  Memoir doesn’t let us off the hook, and that’s why I love the genre; memoir says, “This happened; pay attention; this is the experience, the testimony, of a survivor.”  We are still, I think, despite all the “reality shows” on TV (which are so far from reality it’s scary — to me, “reality shows” blunt the experience of lived life, rather than examine it) living in a time when many of us would prefer silence surrounding the difficulties of life to the revelation of them.  (When I was about to go on tour for one of my books, my editor chillingly reminded me, “Remember, Louise, for every few survivors in the audience, given the statistics, there will be a perpetrator.”)

Today — January 29, 2010 — is the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz.  Samuel Pisar, a survivor of incarceration in Auschwitz, writes in today’s The New York Times, about how “those of us still capable of slave labor” were marched from Poland into Germany; how they marched “from camp to camp, day and night”; how they were “strafed by a squadron of Allied fighter planes” mistaking them for Nazi troops; how he ran into the forest, hiding there “hungry and cold, for weeks” until he was discovered by American soldiers who fed and clothes him, and gave him “my first real taste of freedom.”

Memoir is not about recounting facts; rather, it reveals the experience of life.  I have always viewed memoir as a corrective to history.  As does Samuel Pisar.  He says this: “Today the last living survivors of the Holocaust are disappearing one by one.  Soon, history will speak about Auschwitz with the impersonal voice of researchers and novelists at best, and at worst in the malevolent register of revisionists and falsifiers who call the Nazi Final Solution a myth.  This process has already begun.  And it is why those of us who survived have a duty to transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul.”

To transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul. This, then, is the task of memoir.  This is why we must write memoir.  And read memoir.  Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, his Survival at Auschwitz (If This Is a Man) are necessary because they transmit the lived life; they describe the endurance of a single human being.  Reading memoir, I believe, is one significant way for us to cultivate the necessary human quality of empathy.

But empathy isn’t easy.  Witnessing another’s life by reading memoir isn’t easy.  In reading memoir, we can’t say This didn’t happen; we can’t let ourselves as readers off the hook.  Reading memoir requires us to move from narcissism — a preoccupation with our own lives — into respect for the life someone else has lived.

Not everyone can do this.  And, I believe, that, as a culture, we’re increasingly invited not to.  Reading memoir requires reflection; it insists that we take a great deal of time to get to know someone.  In this “instant” this, “instant” that culture of ours, we want quick fixes, quick relationships, quick communication — think of the “tweet.”  Reading memoir takes the kind of reading time that many of us choose not to invest in a book — the kind of reading time that involves, as Louise Rosenblatt said, a transaction with the book we hold in our hands.  We are not simply readers; we are witnesses.  Witnessing someone else’s life carries with it a moral obligation: to respect, to care, to revere.  Witnessing, really witnessing someone else’s life, leads to acts of caring, leads away from acts of victimization.  And this witnessing, says Samuel Pisar, is what might enable us to live together in harmony.

How many of us choose to do this?

There is so much more to be said about the writing of memoir, about the reading of memoir — and I’ve lately been reading many memoirs of survivors of WWI and WWII, among others and would like to comment upon those, as well as upon the writing of memoirs by so-called “ordinary” people, but I will stop for now.  For I would like to stay, today, with Samuel Pisar and his warning about the necessity of testimony, and I shall close with his words.

“And it is why those of us who survived have a duty to transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul, to tell our children that the fanaticism and violence that nearly destroyed our universe have the power to enflame theirs too….[O]n this dark anniversary, [we need to remember] how often we remain divided and confused, how in the face of horror we hesitate, vacillate, like sleepwakers at the edge of the abyss.  Of course, they remind us, too, that we have managed to stave off the irrevocable: that our chances for living in harmony are, thankfully, still intact.”


17 Responses to ““Why Memoir?” by Louise DeSalvo”

  1. Margaux Fragoso Says:

    After reading this post, I find myself speculating particularly on the backlash surrounding memoirs that deal with sexual abuse. Often the memoirists who choose to defy the silence abusers impose are met with incredible hostility. By taking this hostile stance, society immediately aligns itself with the abuser. For if you ask yourself: Who gains the most by the silence surrounding this issue? the answer is always the abuser. Abusers operate undercover and they don’t want the tricks of their trade exposed. So if someone is waging a complaint against memoir for revealing the unspeakable, I would wage a counter-complaint that by repressing these issues we’re essentially providing a sheepskin boutique for all the wolves out there.

    This post also reminded me of Denise Duhamel’s insightful comments in Margie Volume 2 Chautauquas (this is online for those interested):

    “We’re used to read[ing] war stories about heroic men, but think of the backlash of women who choose to write about incest, infidelity, and so on. They are usually met with literary scorn since people in general and men specifically feel so uncomfortable around those topics. [It’s the] same with people of color. In Ploughshares, [Cornelius Eady] writes in his introduction how often black poets are asked not to write “political” poems in traditional workshops–well, their very lives are political.”

    • Theodora Venizelos Says:

      Hello Margaux,
      I wanted to connect the comment by Susan Sontag to my experience while reading your memoir “Tiger, Tiger.” If great art is what makes us uncomfortable, than I believe that your memoir fits into that category. I was very uncomfortable while reading certain parts of the memoir, and when I finished your memoir, I felt tears forming in my eyes. I felt great empathy for your experience and what you went through, and could relate in many ways. Reading your book has been crucial in reassuring me that no matter how difficult or grim the past may seem, it needn’t define who we are or who we become. It can only do that if we give it that power. My hope is that I can convey certain traumas in my past in a memoir that is at least half as good as yours. On a sidenote, I believe you are coming to visit our memoir class at NJCU in March. I wrote this to you in case I don’t get to relay this to you in person, and quite frankly, I am rather challenged in social situations. Nevertheless, memoirs dealing with abuse are important for they take the power away from the abuser and give it back to the victim. Keeping silent about wrongs done to us ensures the dominance of those who send harm our way. Thank you for writing a powerful and inspiring memoir.

  2. xxnettie09xx Says:

    I agree when you say “Memoir is not about recounting facts; rather it reveals the experience of life”, since when writing a memoir it takes the reader to a particular part of the writers life. Memoir is about writing about event that have happened in the writers life, that sets the memory, and puts the reader in that moment of the writers personal history.
    The story of Pisar will teach people about how he had to live in that time. It helps readers to develop a sense of empathy, while reading about another person’s life.I find that if readers, read a memoir critically, they will gain a better understanding about the writer.

  3. Marianne Davis Says:

    Why Memoir?? I asked myself that question many times in the last months. I am in Giunta’s Memoir class. A friend told me it was an experience I will never forget, she was right. So many memories are coming to me. I cannot imagine what would have happened if I did not take this class. Memories, although some not as good as others, make us the person we are. It is a wonderful experience to share with others something so personal. I for one, love to read the “memoir”. I feel as if I am sharing someones experience. I feel as if I know that person, we become friends.

    Pisar, his memories, his experience must be shared. It happened, it is reality. Being unconfortable is not always a bad thing. It makes us think.

  4. Theodora Venizelos Says:

    I really enjoyed this blog, and wanted to comment on a few things you mentioned. I agree wholeheartedly with you when you say that we live in an “instant fix” culture. Everytime I think of Facebook, I recall the story “The Machine Stops,” by E.M. Forster. In the story, the character Vashti, “knew” many people through a shallow form of communication, rather than a face to face interaction. At the end of the story, when she is faced with the possiblity of coming in close contact to people, she is repulsed.

    I think the popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites is due to people wanting to showcase and broadcast that they have a certain number of “friends,” but in all actuality they may have never met any of these people. Basically, my point is that the number of ways we can communicate with others has increased, but unfortunately the quality and meaning of these interactions has lessened. It is sad, but true.

    Memoir then, is a great way to sit down and actually take the time to care and get to “truly know” another person. A former teacher of mine has suggested a way of reading to me that I have found to be very helpful in making connections between various ideas and concepts, and basically this method of reading requires one to read 1 biography or memoir, 1 nonfiction, and 1 fiction simultaneously. I have found that reading memoirs is not only an enjoyable experience, but it is tremendously helpful in realizing that although oftentimes the way we suffer may differ, as human beings we “all” suffer. Memoirs are important as a genre and can truly help develop the capacity to empathize with others, and in a largely narcissistic culture, this ability is needed more than ever if we as a species hope to thrive.

  5. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    Wonderful and haunting – What we have endured in body and soul.
    I am not entirely sure why my writing has turned to memoir. It is certainly more inspired in style and voice thanks to an amazing instructor.
    Writing ones life is a frightening, and profound experience; both painful and healing. Mr. Pisar quote adds yet one more layer to the importance of memoir. His words move me for many reasons.
    Your blog helps confirm why I do what I do.

  6. Aly B. Says:

    This is one of the first pieces I have ever read on what exactly a memoir is and how exactly they are to be understood, interpreted, and perceived. And I must say it is quite interesting.
    As I read this article, it truly opened up my mind not only to the simple answer of the posed question of “why memo

  7. Aly B. Says:

    This is one of the first pieces I have ever read on what exactly a memoir is and how exactly they are to be understood, interpreted, and perceived. And I must say it is quite interesting.
    As I read this specific blog entry, it truly opened up my mind not only to the simple answer of the posed question of “why memoir?” but it also had several other ideas and thoughts race through my mind. To me, there are several key areas of the blog that contain the best writing and coincidentally as I was reading these particular areas I was enlightened and had what I found to be great thoughts and ultimately a great learning experience.
    First, specifically the second paragraph where DeSalvo addresses how memoirs can be “confessional, sensationalist, and self-obsessed.” Another area of the blog which I really enjoyed was the sixth paragraph of the article that DeSalvo begins with “To transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul.” In this paragraph he talks about what an individual needs to fulfill in writing a memoir. I found this vey informative because it clearly states what you need to do but what it doesn’t state as clearly is how to do it. I find this area of the blog very interesting because it leaves the door open for the mind of the reader in terms of what to do, in terms of how one comes up with how they will fulfill the criteria in their own unique style, something DeSalvo addressed earlier in this same blog. As I reAd this blog entry I had thoughts about life. I thought about the end results, where certain people currently stand in life, and how they got there. In other words, how their lives came to be. I thought and I thought deep. I even thought about my own life. I thought about things like why am I where I am in life? Why did my family settle in this particular area of the world, more so New Jersey? And what made them stay here for so many years? I Also thought about this for others. Another spin that passed through my mind while I was in deep thought was,”do people just do things just to do things, like are they afraid of change?” I didn’t come to a complete conclusion, but after putting in some thought I partially concluded that that definitely was a strong factor as to why they do things. It’s a fact that it’s just easier to keep things the way they are. I think alotta individulas see change as being complicated or just simply too much.
    In all, I really liked this blog entry and was truly enlightened by it. It was quite interesting, had my mind thinking,flowed extremely well, and served as a great introduction to memoirs for me. In the end, it was constructed very well and flowed even better.

  8. Joeline Sanders Says:

    This is a powerful explanation of what memoir can mean as a reader and as a writer!! Both experiences are equally important in understanding memoir. This entry helped me understand the importance of memoir writing. There’s that sharing of an experience that can’t be written off as a fictional account with made-up characters. Each reader is forced to personalize the experience unable to think of it as a historical account or mere fiction. “Memoir doesn’t let us off the hook!” This has helped me understand what it is I sometimes feel or experience when I am reading the memoirs of others. I recently read Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger and it was amazing and inspirational but it was also emotionally taxing. I found myself putting the book aside when it became too much… it was emotionally taxing because it was real. Had it been presented as a fiction I know it would have been equally engrossing but I might have found a way to detach myself from the character. Memoir refuses to let its reader do this and I realize how important this is. Her book helped me find the courage to revisit and reflect on my own experiences of sexual abuse. In bearing witness to her experience I found the voice I needed to begin telling of my own. To transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul…. This is my new goal… I am keeping this in mind as I read memoir or attempt to write my own.

    • Theodora Venizelos Says:

      Hello Joeline,
      I enjoyed reading your response, and I believe we are taking the same memoir class. This is out of the blue, but Emilio wanted to know if you are on time. Anyway, back to the topic at hand, which is memoir reading. I also finished “Tiger, Tiger,” about 2 weeks ago, and the experience was indescrible. While I was reading it, I kept thinking I was not alone in having a messed up life. If it was a novel, I would probably be engrossed, but I doubt the effect would have been as powerful. I go to the North Bergen/Union City area often, and can’t believe someone was going through this trauma in that area. My admission of surprise regarding this happening nearby makes me think of something Anne Rice wrote in “Interview with the Vampire,” that it is a form of egoism that we can’t believe something extraordinary can happen in a close proximity to us. I won’t digress any further, but I think writing our memoir is important because our story can also inspire someone who reads it. When I finished “Tiger,Tiger,” I felt like crying but also felt hope, for the message is that no matter how awful the past may be, we can still survive and thrive in life. I wish you luck with writing your memoir.

  9. marc pollifrone Says:

    The closing quote in this entry brings to mind the memoir “A Stolen Life,” by Jaycee Dugard. I remember reading “A Stolen Life,” wondering, “why the hell am I reading this?” And “Holy crap! This is awfully depressing!” But, it also uplifts its readers in Dugard’s resilience as a person. Her re-assimilation into a “normal” life, not being held captive anymore. It is inspiring to see that someone treated with such darkness and violence has the ability to rise up after such heinous acts, and although many readers can really never relate on the level of actuality, maybe they could relate by just being inspired by a humans ability to recover.

  10. Tamara Gonzalez Says:

    Wow. What a powerful explanation of the duties of memoir writers. As a newbie to the world of memoir I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the definition of what a memoir is versus what an autobiography is but I am amazed at the amount of emotion that goes into the writing of memoir. Being thrown into this world of memoir writing I was feeling a bit overwhelmed because I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to write. This quote from your blog spoke volumes to me: “To transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul..” It is truly an amazing feat for someone who has endured such emotional/ physical pain to pour those feelings out onto paper for the whole world to read all while having to deal with the criticism of being “narcisistic”. It is the truth behind the memoir that almost scares me because, although you may want to think it is not real and although you may want to not believe it , you know it is real. Many people in this world have lived through such tragedy and pain that to read it on paper and have it affect you is like living through words of someone else’s pain. Exceptional post!

  11. “There are, of course, memoirs that are confessional, sensationalist, and self-obsessed. Just as there are novels and poems that are confessional, sensationalist, and self-obsessed. Singling out memoir as a genre peculiarly and singly guilty of such excesses seems, to me, absurd.”

    Everyone always looks for the scapegoat, the other, the pitiful; I dislike that memoir has sort of become this waved-off genre of writing.

    Ever since I started looking at memoir as a genre, I have been fascinated by it. The intricate nature of memories and story-telling calls to me. I have found lately that I am more apt to write memoir than I am to write fiction, which is nerve-wracking, seeing as I want to write fiction for young adults and children.

    But memoir is a form of zen in my eyes, and I’m sure in many others’ eyes. It’s really a way in which we communicate using the writer within, and relate to others when we read their works. It is incredibly beautiful, not to marvel at other’s experiences as they recall them, but to remember that we are part of a world of people with vast experiences, of writers who can take something awful and turn it into art.

  12. Peter Orozco Says:

    I was in a Modern Poetry class the other day, and we stumbled upon the topic of Memoir. My professor told me that the recent fascination in Memoir comes from our increasingly fast paced life. Because of “this ‘instant’… culture of ours, we want quick fixes, quick relationships, quick communication,” so there comes this need to hold on to the past. I thought that was an interesting take on the genre of Memoir, but I also thought that their was more to it than a refusal to let go of the past. But when I read this statement, “To transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul,” Memoir became more than what my Modern Poetry professor proclaimed. It is not just about the past, but a sharing of past emotions and events that others might have never experienced, an empathic journey into the life someone else has lived. Thank you for the post and clearing my mind a bit more.

  13. Melissa Sutaris Says:

    Dear Louise,

    You defined the task of memoir as, “To transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul.” I love this! This is exactly what writing memoir allows us to do. Memories of our experience which shape our lives are essential in any person’s life. We are all connected, and we all go through certain experiences in order to change and grow. Allowing others into our world of memory is the beautiful part about memoir.

    I agree, also, that we are not just readers, we are witnesses. Memoir makes things real, tangible. As memoirists, we allow our reader to consume all things created and remembered in our minds, to the extent in which we wish to share with them. Reliving our memories with us and comparing the story to your own life is the job of a witness. The job of feeling what the writer felt at that moment, being able to be recounting these memories with us. That is the beautiful thing about memoir. Instead of allowing others into our fantasy world, as in fiction, we are allowing others into the crevices of our memories and experiences of every day life, which can sparkle and shine like any other story ever told.

  14. Veronica Says:

    I personally never realized the relationship between memoir books and myself. I love that you put it here so clearly, that when we read memoir, it creates a relationship between the author and ourselves, they have had the courage to write about their experiences and we as readers are honoring them, it also opens up to lives filled with experiences that we as readers may not have even fathomed before. It provides us to stretch our empathy and compassion to those who have had hardships and perhaps change our perspective on life.

  15. Sean McCauley Says:

    I have to say that I am in awe by the memoir concept, and feel taken aback that I never truly appreciated the genre. I am by no means a good writer, but what little I have done allows me to convey something of myself. Recently, very recently, beginning my introduction to memoir I have become scared. Scared to dive into myself, and revisit a past that was long forgotten, buried deep into the recess of my memory.

    “memoir is something confessional, sensationalist or self-obsessed is still widespread. The artistic and political significance of memoir is poorly understood by many who don’t get why we don’t just write fiction.”

    This quote referred to myself, who believed that memoir was a self absorbed person going on about their life and how meaningful it was. I see now I was so wrong. The depth of humanistic feelings and thoughts far penetrates any fictional story. Yes, some fictions can convey that message but you are right, we can always say “This is not real.” The fact of the matter is it is real, and some feel uncomfortable to read it, but others, such as myself, are able to take a breath, thankful that they are not the only ones that feel, react, think, or do things that a certain way.

    The memoir is the window into our secret self. We all have a secret self, a self that we keep hidden away in the dark, it is a self that we deal with on a daily basis, but place to the side due to the societal norms we have agreed to.

    To refer back to Samuel Pisar. I am a history teacher, and never realized how much a necessity memoirs are to history. With research projects becoming growing these writings are informative on so many levels.

    I know there will be errors in this post. I have a huge problem with past and present and can not for the life of me pick it out, also punctuations. I apologize.

    Thank you,


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