book review

Review: “When Memory Speaks” by Jill Ker Conway

Conway, Jill Ker. When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography 
Alfred A. Knopf, 1998
Hardcover, 205 pages
ISBN 0-679-44593-5

This book opens with the question “Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?” (p. 3). The reason, Conway tell us, is that “We want to know how the world looks from inside another person’s experience, and when that craving is met by a convincing narrative, we find it deeply satisfying” (p. 6).

What makes the reading of autobiography so appealing is the chance it offers to see how this man or that woman whose public self interests us has negotiated the problem of self-awareness . . . while we think we are reading a gripping story, what really grips us is the inner reflection on our own lives the autobiographer sets in motion.

(p. 17)

For the feminist scholar Conway, the answer to why autobiography is so appealing to readers lies in cultural history:

But the answer to the question of why we like to read [autobiography], and why individuals sit down at desk or table and begin to tell their story, lies not in theory but in cultural history. It has to do with where we look when we try to understand our own lives, how we read texts and what largely unexamined cultural assumptions we bring to interpreting them.

(p. 4)

Throughout history, the writers of autobiography have presented their stories within the forms of traditional narratives that were available to them. For men, that narrative form has been the quest, particularly the Odyssean journey. In contrast, Conway argues, women have traditionally presented their life stories in the guise of the romantic heroine because this type was the only way women were allowed to present themselves. “What is important about the Western romantic heroine is that she has no agency, or power to act on her own behalf. Things happen to her—adventures, lovers, reversals of fortune” (p. 14). Jane Addams, for example, presents the idea for and the establishment of Hull House as something that simply happened, whereas a reading of her journals reveals that she had devised a definite scheme for her settlement house long before she ever arrived in Chicago.

More recently, women have attempted to break free of the romantic heroine image. In a chapter entitled “Feminist Plots” Conway writes:

In some women’s stories the powerful I of the narrator is center stage—in others she is almost a voice speaking from another room, so skillfully is she concealed among the props of the drama. Memoirs full of abrupt transitions and shifting narrative styles are sure signs that their authors are struggling to overcome the cultural taboos that define these women as witnesses rather than actors in life’s events. Whenever someone tells her story straight and in an authoritative voice, we know she has developed her own sense of agency and can sustain it despite nagging cultural doubts.

(p. 88)

In a chapter called “Grim Tales” Conway addresses the current popularity of memoirs about child abuse, deprivation, and incest (such as Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, James McBride’s The Color of Water, Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club). But Conway chooses works that illustrate her pattern without regard to the individual work’s literary merit, as is evident in the contrast between McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and McBride’s The Color of Water. McCourt’s memoir succeeds because of the voice that he is able to create and maintain throughout the work. McBride’s memoir, however, is seriously flawed. In The Color of Water McBride tells the story of his discovery that his mother was a Jewish girl who left her family and married a Black man in New York City. McBride tells the story in alternating sections about his mother and about himself. He insists that finding his own life involved finding out about his mother’s life, but the narrative fails because he never fully interweaves the two threads. Yet Conway cites both of these works as illustrative of the pattern she’s determined to demonstrate, with no concern over whether the works are examples of well-written literature.

In fact, Conway’s book suffers from the same flaw as McBride’s. She begins When Memory Speaks with the indication that she’s writing for a general reader who may be interested in learning a bit about the history of autobiography as a literary form and may then wish to read some of the works she mentions. However, in subsequent chapters both her choice of narratives and her method of analysis are very much directed at a scholarly audience. Not until “Grim Tales,” chapter eight of nine, does she return to discussion of what would normally be considered books with popular appeal. Finally, though, she does offer some advice for anyone interested in writing a memoir:

We travel through life guided by an inner life plot—part the creation of family, part the internalization of broader social norms, part the function of our imaginations and our own capacity for insight into ourselves, part from our groping to understand the universe in which the planet we inhabit is a speck. When we speak about our memories, we do so through literary forms that seem to capture universals in human experience—the quest, the romance, the odyssey, the tragic or the comic mode. Yet we are all unique, and so are our stories. We should pay close attention to our stories. Polish their imagery. Find their positive rather than their negative form. Search for the ways we experience life differently from the inherited version and edit the plot accordingly, keeping our eyes on the philosophical implications of the changes we make.

(pp. 176-177)

The current trend in popular tell-all memoirs prompted me to do a little research into the memoir as a literary form. When Memory Speaks was among the first books on the subject that I picked up. (Curiously, Conway’s own title echoes that of a famous autobiographical volume, Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, but Conway never mentions Nabokov in her discussion.) While Conway’s book is an interesting starting point, with a helpful bibliographical note, I think I still have a lot more to learn about this popular form of writing.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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