I’ve heard it said that memoirs can be exploitative. Someone is exploiting their father’s alcoholism, their mother’s mental illness, their friend’s cancer, their sister’s death.
And I suppose people can see it that way if they so choose. It is their prerogative.
And maybe, in some individuals’ minds the fact that in the past criminals have made financial gain on their stories has promoted this view. People are closely watching Casey Anthony right now to see if she will be able to exploit the death of her daughter for personal gain. It’s true. Some people do exploit the bad fortune of others. The dark side of human behavior continues to disappoint and distress me.
But I don’t see most memoirs as exploitative. Memoirs are a means by which authors can share their own personal journey for whatever reason. Oftentimes, I imagine, they hope that someone else can benefit from the sharing in some way. Here’s what the nay-sayers are missing: most memoir writers are not exploiting someone else, they are exposing their own pain. They are like a hermit crab without a shell, fully exposed to whatever reception their story receives.
I think memoir writers are courageous. I think Jeannette Walls’ story of her dysfunctional family and Ann Best’s story of her unfaithful, homosexual husband, took a lot of personal courage to write.
Since the beginnings of time people have wanted to share their stories. While earning my English degree several years ago, I took a class in which we studied some Holocaust literature. Holocaust stories just make me plain-out feel terrible. Horrendous treatment of people, horrible suffering, and not a thing in the world I can do about it. “What possible good can it do for me to read these stories?” I asked. “What can I do for the author who wrote the story?”
“You can read his story.” Was the answer. People want their story told.
Memoirs are a window into the human condition. Many times they are stories of human courage and resilience growing out of human frailty and suffering.
My own memoir, Dancing in Heaven, is a story of love, compassion, unwavering commitment, and the intrinsic value of human life in it’s most basic form. I know I open myself up to attack from or rejection by individuals who may want to read my story with a different agenda. It’s a risk all writers who speak their truth take.
I’m still going to tell my story. My sister Annie never worked, never got married, never had children. Her footprint on this earth was nearly invisible because, like the famous poem, she was carried the entire way. Annie didn’t have very much to leave behind. But she did have her story. And I’m telling it.