“When I was younger I could remember everything, whether it had happened or not.”

Mark Twain

Given the ethical dilemma inherent in writing memoir, we should consult Mr. Merriam and Madame Webster to define the term rather than jump head-first into the dilemma itself. They say memoir is a “narrative composed from personal experience”[1]

Abigail McCarthy put it poetically: “Every memoir reminds us of the faraway and long ago, of loss and change, of persons and places beyond recall.”[2]

Memoir ought not to be confused with biography, which is supposed to be truthful, or autobiography which often is. The New Devil’s Dictionary[3] defines biography (the noun) as “A literary work that nearly always leaves one thinking less of its subject.”

A true ethical dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice must be made between two courses of action, either of which entails transgressing a moral principle.[4] Often the memoirist must choose between telling the truth and telling the story. One is painful, the other glorious.

So, given the disparity between truth and story, must a memoir be absolutely true? Must we avoid pain to attain glory? In her 2014 essay,[5] Elizabeth Marcus talked about her “three eureka moments writing memoir.” To get there, she posed the question, “Is Writing Therapy?” Her answer: “Memoir writing is not a substitute for psychotherapy . . . A true believer, I recognize that my earlier therapy may well have been essential to my later self-discovery. Still, the writing succeeded where the best professional help had failed.” The essay doesn’t address whether one should be truthful in psychotherapy or memoir. But it’s a fine piece of writing.

Martha Nichols wrote about memoirs, family life, stories and illness in her 2014 piece entitled “The Random Facts of Life.”[6] Quoting the memoirist Kirk Vonnegut, she revealed his distrust of his own memory. “As a journalist, I don’t trust my inner narration or anybody else’s, especially when it comes to family stories. Remembering shared family events can be like peering through a kaleidoscope: Twist it, or shift your position, and the bits of colored glass tumble into new patterns. As for truth, who’s twisting the kaleidoscope now? Whenever I read a memoir, I wonder how much is really true. When I write about family, the shifting nature of my own perspective is even more troubling. I’m a writer, and I like constructing stories from pretty bits of glass, but the creative conjuring required can also suck me down an autobiographical black hole.”

Perhaps the most recent, and most publicized memoir is James Comey’s 2018 memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.”[7] He clarifies his unbending adherence to principles. He believes he acted in the best interest of justice and the FBI. By his words and deeds, he reveals his character. It cost him dearly. That could be a better test of memoir than the simplistic truth or therapy dilemma. In his case, the cost was enormous and the memoir priceless.

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/memoir

[2]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abigail_McCarthy

[3] Rhoda Koenig, Lyons Press. Guilford, CT. An imprint of the Globe Pequot Press. 2012. page 11.

[4] https://classroom.synonym.com/what-is-an-ethical-dilemma-12079567.html

[5] http://talkingwriting.com/so-writing-therapy

[6] http://talkingwriting.com/random-facts-life

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Higher-Loyalty-Truth-Lies-Leadership/dp/1250192455