Is the memoir trust worthy?

I  recently met with members of the history department at the University of Washington, professors who are interested in the Cold War. One, Professor Elena Campbell, born and raised in Russia’s closed military city where their nuclear submarines were manufactured, has memories of the Space Bridge contact between KING 5 TV and Glastelradio in 1985. She watched with the fascination of a young girl and worried that her city was the primary target of our NIKE missiles. Dr. Campbell is interested in oral history as one major source for her research and writing.

Our conversation turned to how much the historian can rely on oral history or written memoir for assembling the factual content of written history. These professors teach their students to beware of assuming a memoirist has the historic “truth” in their pages.

Professor Eric Johnson followed up on our conversation by sending me two articles that analyzed the problem of taking memoir as history. The first, and you can read it by clicking on this link. hudgins_autobiographers_lies-1, is a scrutiny by Andrew Hudgins of his own memoir, The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood. His article, printed in The American Scholar in 1996, is titled An Autobiographer’s Lies.

I commend it to you as you contemplate memoir. The byline of my blog comes from Ernest Hemmingway who said about his last work, the memoir of his early years in Paris The Moveable Feast, “all memoir is fiction”.  My Life as Fiction. The truth as best I can remember, yes. But…..

Enjoy, Betsy

Citizen Diplomat

Not everything belongs in a good story, even when the scene was an important one in the dramatic arc. Perhaps that is one service a blog offers a writer, giving her a place to share what will not be in the final version.
Not every title is the final and best one. I began Evil Empire as an exercise in Fiction Writing I at the UW under Scott Driscoll. The assignment was to describe someone getting a surprising bit of news. I chose to fabricate a moment in the trip Don, my first husband, and I took with thirty others to the Soviet Union in 1983. We went as tourists, but our objective was to deliver 3000 letters signed by 30,000 Seattlites to people in our sister city, Tashkent.

In the middle of our Tashkent visit, a large peace rally was staged. Don gets some very bad news just as he is about to deliver our message to the good people assembled to hear us.
That scene is in the middle of the first part of the story.
It turns out that the story Evil Empire had a subplot I needed a couple friendly readers to catch and explain to me. The story is really about the protagonist’s unconscious desire to step out from behind the dynamic leadership of her husband and take her own path. I have renamed the piece, Citizen Diplomat.
Here is the scene that ends up on the cutting room floor.
We checked into a Soviet-style modern hotel outside of central Moscow. Don and I joined an optional bus tour of the city, a Soviet version of the Gray Line tour. I wanted to keep moving while there was daylight, but the slate sky and leafless trees, concrete block buildings and empty streets could not keep me from dozing off. I jarred awake at the mention of the College of the Atlantic by a couple of young students. Their English accents called to mind our goddaughter, Elizabeth Ransome, who was a student in that little-known boarding school in Maine. It had been years since we had seen her, talked with her or written. Elizabeth, the young man informed us, was in Moscow but not on this tour. He gave us the name of their hostel and said she’d be there the next evening. What a coincidence. We told him who we were and to warn her that we would find her the following evening if at all possible. There were no cell phones or other methods of communication in 1983. The official plan for our evening was a performance of the Moscow Opera. How could we excuse ourselves from this event to find Elizabeth?

 
Back at the hotel, most of us caught up on much-needed sleep before a quick supper and bus trip to the Bolshoi Theater. What magnificence. The enormous gold and crystal chandelier sent shimmering light over the elegantly dressed crowd. Sable coats, long black gloves, fur hats and leather boots mingled with tuxedos and evening dress. The music of Russian conversation, strident to my ears, rose and fell. Opera goers spoke in tight groupings in the vast, high-ceilinged hall. The vaulted ceiling with its mosaic patterns, the arched windows with drawn red velvet curtains transported me to the time of Czar Alexander. The revolution and iron-fisted communist regime faded.

 At the intermission, Don and I took all our belongings and left through the great columned entrance to the nearest subway station. The few people on the street hurried along taking no notice of the Americans in their midst. Descending into the underground station was like visiting the catacombs. There was no sound coming from below. To our astonishment, we found the platform thronged with well-dressed people standing in complete silence. Was conversing in public a risk? Or were Russians taciturn and naturally private. We found their silence sinister.
Following the directions Vladimir had given us, we discovered our goddaughter and enjoyed a late night visit with her. After saying goodbye, Don and I stood outside Elizabeth’s hostel waiting for a taxi to take us to our hotel. We marveled at the synchronicity of finding her in Moscow. It got us thinking about the Refuseniks whose families were desperate for exit visas and freedom, the freedom we took for granted. Glancing around in the empty street beneath a cold starless sky, Don remarked that we could talk about them but only there, a solitary place. He wished we could get rid of the letters we carried for them while in Moscow, but he didn’t dare. If those film mailers ended up in the wrong hands and were traced back to our group, we would have risked everything. Marlow would have to keep them hidden and remain above suspicion until our last day in Leningrad. Hard as it was for me to keep a secret, I figured if so many people could keep silence on a crowded subway platform, so could I.
Thanks for reading.
I’d love to hear your stories of diplomacy or chilling experiences when visiting, living or working under totalitarian regimes.
May I live long enough to tell all my stories for then I will die contented.  Betsy