Kathryn Page Camp
One of the first things I learned in law school is that if ten people witness a crime, they will have ten different versions of what happened. Everyday life works that way, too.
Memoirs tell what happened to the writer through the writer’s eyes. But memoirs are not fiction, so they must also tell the truth about the actual events. How do you balance and reconcile these two concerns?
Take an example from my life.
My family lived in Jordan when I was six. We didn’t own a car, but we hitchhiked and took buses all over the Holy Land. It was mountainous country with narrow shoulders and no guard rails along the roads. So whenever the bus or car I was riding in went up a mountain, I closed my eyes and asked, “Are we on the falling off side?” If the answer was “no”—meaning we were on the side of the road near the mountain, I would open my eyes and look around with interest. If the answer was “yes,” they stayed tightly shut.
My entire family agrees on that much of the story.
On the day before Christmas, we were on a bus headed up a mountain on the way to Bethlehem. It was raining, and the roads were slippery, but we weren’t on the falling off side so I wasn’t worried. Then, without warning, the bus slid across the road. Again, we agree on that much. But from there, our memories differ.
I swear that one wheel slid off the mountain and left the bus hanging over the side. That’s what my terrified six-year-old mind saw as we scrambled out and huddled in the rain. My mother had a different memory—she said the bus slid sideways until it blocked both lanes but it never left the road.
With help from the male passengers and other men from the cars that couldn’t get past, the driver got the bus back on the right side of the road, loaded the passengers who were brave enough to chance it, and continued on to Bethlehem. Make that the passengers who were brave enough to chance it and one terrified six-year-old who had to be bribed by her parents.
Mama and I have different memories about where the bus landed after sliding across the road. Mama was probably frightened, too, but she was older and more rational. And the fact that the men managed to get the bus back on the road with no special equipment and without sending it over the edge strengthens the argument that her memory is probably the correct one.
But my memory was my reality, and that’s part of the truth, too.
So how should I handle this incident if I were writing a memoir about my childhood in Jordan? It is among my strongest memories and one of the most dramatic things that happened while I was there, so I couldn’t leave it out. But should I tell the story as I remember it or as it really happened?
I would treat it the way I have treated it in this blog post. I would start by giving you my reality and then describe why the external facts were probably different than I remembered them.
In my case, the evidence indicates that Mama’s version is the correct one. But sometimes people have dueling memories and the fight ends in a draw. When I am sure that my version is correct, I go with it. But if there is any chance that the other person’s memories are more accurate, I will at least acknowledge them.
A memoir has to be true to the world as the writer saw it at the time. But it isn’t fiction, so it also has to be true to the actual events. Or as true as you can be when people have dueling memories. Sometimes that means qualifying your memories by adding someone else’s.
But your memories are your reality, and that carries its own truth.
The photograph at the top of this post shows the road descending from Wadi al-Mujib in Jordan. My husband took the photo on a family trip in 1998.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.