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The Forbidden Message of the Memoir

Are some lives more important than others?

It’s an uncomfortable question to ask. So uncomfortable, in fact, that it’s one of those rare contemporary topics that have succeeded in becoming a universal taboo.

In the more or less egalitarian West, we believe that we are created equal and remain equal in the eyes of God, that class distinctions don’t much matter, and that anyone can achieve anything they want if they just dream big enough and work hard enough.

But even in Third World countries, where the aspirations of the individual are routinely crushed, dictators wield a very loud and phony brand of populism to maintain their grip on power, claiming that everyone is equal in the eyes of the State – equally un-important, to be sure, but equal nonetheless.

And yet every day, whether we live in a free society or a fascistic one, every one of us buckles down under a system that clearly does value some lives, whether deserving or not, much more highly than others: The well-born, the well-connected, the improbably lucky and, most visibly of all, the vacuously pretty.

This is not to say that we aren’t fortunate to live in a free country, or that the fix is in, in every case, from day one:  It is in fact possible in economically free nations to be born in a housing project or hovel and through resilience, creativity, and determination, still achieve greatness. If we have a strong enough sense of self and are willing to work very hard and take risks and shrug off scorn and rejection, we can make something of our lives when others thought that we would be nothing. (The ones who thought we would be nothing are usually in our own social class and, likely as not, in our own families; those in higher classes are not even aware of our existence.)

Most of these self-made people bring innovative new products or services to the world, but there is one very unusual type of person who is, in effect, selling the “nothing” itself, which is to say the very circumstances of poverty and cruelty and criminally neglectful parents that have destroyed so many similar lives before they could even begin.

That person is, of course, the author who publishes a successful memoir. 

And indeed, it is this career “arc”, a staple of popular culture since before Horatio Alger, and a surefire provider of vicarious thrills and reassurance to those that are struggling in their own lives, that has propelled the memoir genre to its present heights of popularity.

Most of the successful memoirs of recent years follow the same path:  The author is born into sordid circumstances, and/or creates those circumstances for himself (usually drugs or drinking are involved), but discovers an unsuspected inner strength that allows him to clamber out of the mud and spittle and blood to achieve something substantial.

And the evidence that he has created something substantial?  The memoir itself, the very book that you hold in your hands. Because the personal memoir is usually written by someone we’d never have heard of unless, self-reflexively, he’d written a personal memoir, the book becomes in part a totemic object for the reader, tangible and readable proof that they, too, can arise from miserable circumstances and achieve success.

But some memoirs are better than others, either because they’re more emotionally honest, or because they have an amazing story to tell, or because the prose sings. Or, we would hope, all of the above.

So what happens in the case of a memoir that isn’t particularly well written or distinctive?  Is it then wholly a totemic object and nothing more?  Is the author successful only because she is a published author, and not because she is anything else? 

And if that is the case, the next question becomes this:  Why, in a world of billions of people, most of whom have had to struggle to get to where they are today, is this author’s story deserving of being memorialized in print while so many countless others are not? 

At this point, we arrive at the dark secret and knotty contradiction at the heart of the memoir genre. The contemporary memoir celebrates the capacity of any human being, no matter how difficult their circumstances or how unimportant their family might have been, to make something of themselves. But at the same time, it reminds the reader that only a select few are deemed important enough to indulge in this public celebration.

Thus, the memoir is the only contemporary art form that directly addresses the question, “are some lives more important than others?” yet manages to answer that question in two directly contradictory forms, depending on whether one is looking at the genre’s explicit message or its implicit, and forbidden, one.

Michael Antman is a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing. He is the author of the novel Cherry Whip (ENC Press, 2004), and recently completed a new novel, Everything Solid Has a Shadow. His website, where most of his writing is collected, is at Michael Antman

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