Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory
by Maureen Murdock

Seal Press, 2003. ISBN 1580050832.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 03/03/2004

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Creative Life

In the process of writing about our lives, says psychotherapist and author Maureen Murdock, we have to leave things out. Writing memoir is ultimately about making choices. Selecting aspects from her own life, Murdock reflects on them to better understand herself, to connect with the reader, and to demonstrate how we can do the same.

Her new book about the selective nature of memory has a dual format. The first half, "To the Best of My Recollection," contains stories from her childhood and focuses especially on her relationship with her mother. As a psychotherapist, Murdock wanted to understand how her mother's memory loss led to the healing of their strained relationship. Writing about it, she found the process itself was transformational. Her stories illustrate the elusive and subjective nature of memory. Some of the same incidents were 'remembered' differently by the author and her father. "The job of writing memoir," she says," is to find one's truth, not to determine the accuracy of what happened." The memoirist "both recounts an event and muses upon it," but since remembered events are not happening in the present, "we have to use our imagination to reclaim them. ...we can never separate the remembered event from our imagination."

The book is sprinkled liberally with quotations from other memoirs to illustrate the different approaches to this writing genre. Examples included are Isabel Allende's musings on the death of her daughter in Paula, May Sarton's journals, which opened up the genre to millions of women, and Anne Lamott's spiritual memoir, Traveling Mercies.

Murdock writes of the healing power of memoir as it helps us understand the meaning of life and death, the universal myths that underlie our lives, and the unique nature of contemporary women's memoirs. "The deepest memoir is filled with metaphor," she writes, citing examples like food, a woman's body, and the different roles we assume. I especially liked her explanations of the archetypes and myths that run through our lives and inform our stories. This reminded me of her excellent book, The Heroine's Journey, which goes deeper into myths as they relate to women's lives. Murdock tells us that both memoir and myth are a search for meaning. Myth, she says, "explore(s) such themes as heroism, betrayal, the search for the mother or the father, love and the cycles of death and rebirth. Memoirs explore the very same themes in the stories of everyday lives. Memoirists are our contemporary mythmakers."

Some of the author's memories in this book corresponded to my own -- the distant mother who loses her memory, the feminist divorcee of the 1970s who "wouldn't be caught dead" asking for alimony, and the Catholic girlhood lush with sacred rituals. Her concept of the "root memory," which she defines as "an early smell, taste, sound, vision or texture ...that mysteriously signals who we will become," is a wonderful way to look at the familiar and significant things we remember and how they relate to themes in our lives and writing.

The second half of the book, "On Writing Memoir," is a concise course which should be especially appealing to the first-time writer. It explains the essential elements of memoir: a selected aspect of a life, universal theme, intimacy, relational style, emotional truth, self-reflection, humor and the narrator's voice. Most chapters end with a writing suggestion. There is a glossary of terms and an extensive bibliography of published memoirs, many of which are quoted throughout the book.

As we attempt to know ourselves better through writing, we may give other people insight into their own lives. Whether you write to discover hidden truths, to understand your relationships, to heal an old wound, to find community or to record your personal history, this book will help you process both your writing and your life.

Maureen Murdock is a psychotherapist, creative writing teacher and the author of Father's Daughters: Transforming the Father-Daughter Relationship; Spinning Inward: Using Guided Imagery with Children for Learning, Creativity and Relaxation; and The Heroine's Journey: Women's Quest for Wholeness. She is also the editor of Monday Morning Memoirs: Women in the Second Half of Life. She lives in Oakland, CA.

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Check out our interview with the author of Unreliable Truth.

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