A few months ago, I showed the book jacket of my forthcoming memoir to a friend. This was a woman about my age, maybe a bit younger, a person and writer I admire but only know slightly. “You were pretty,” she said, with an air of perplexity. What did this mean, exactly, I wondered? That she found it hard to believe that the woman sitting across from her at a café table had ever looked good? If that was really me, my face had undergone a long decline. She must think I look awful, I decided. “Oh well,” I said, “it was a long time ago,” joining her disbelief in a gesture of wounded politesse.
Maybe putting one’s ingénue face on a memoir cover is a dangerous activity, dangerous to one’s vanity, it seems. But who would want to look at my face now, as I look back over my twenty-something life? Certainly not me. Better to run the risk of retrospective narcissism.
There are three photographs of me from my early days in Paris in the book: the cover, that was a street photo of me walking along the quais of the Seine; my passport picture; and another street photo, of me walking on the Boulevard St-Michel with my roommate. To me the pictures are there in order to document my narrative: yes, I lived there, and to me the girl I looked like then is important to the story. I was an American girl—in some ways generic—but I was also that American girl. A French major, a nice Jewish girl from New York, a girl who wanted above all to be happy, although she did not seem to have much of a talent for happiness, but was ready for any adventure.
The photographs document a moment, a moment past that certainly was, but if I only had had my snapshot album, I would not have been able to write the memoir. True, the images dated the change of boyfriend, the change of hairdo and hemline, but something crucial was lacking—but, as it turned out, miraculously available to me, something written: a cache of letters that I had sent home from my first day in Paris to my last. In the beginning, the weekly report was my parents’ particular pound of flesh—write a letter or we won’t send you any money (I was always broke). But after a while, the letter production became a habit. It was easier for me to write than to have them send me telegrams asking what was wrong. It was another era, when parents were unwilling to let girls be free and on their own.
Many, many years later, after my parents died, when I emptied the apartment I found the letters in my mother’s underwear drawer. They were bundled in chronological order, and occasionally, my father had included drafts of his letters (mainly of threats and condemnation). The letters were a gold mine of information—and misinformation. I could still remember what I had lied about. But even the letters were not enough. Yes, they gave me names and dates, but was I really in love with my husband to be, little dreaming I was about to marry a con man? “I’m really, really in love,” I wrote.
It’s hard to measure feelings fifty years later, not to mention recapture them.
And yet that is truly the challenge of memoir: to sort and sift through photographs and whatever documents remain, and try somehow to get back there in memory. It’s not only memory, of course. There’s the task of finding the story line that makes sense of each point of remembrance and holds them together in a coherent pattern, a narrative that feels like the truth. Have I found that?
I’m not sure, but I know that I never stopped asking: Was that me?
I wonder whether other memoirists have this sense of strangeness in writing about a self that both is and isn't past. Do photographs and letters, not to mention the memories of others, make the challenge of "resuscitation" harder or easier? What are other ways to find the bridge between past and present, of filling the inevitable gap between tenses?