In this second category of serial memoir, the theme of repudiation or correction is often more overt than it is Shapiro’s case. As Joan Wickersham pointed out in Harvard Review last year, Emily Fox Gordon and Karen Armstrong are notable examples. In her 2010 personal essay collection, “Book of Days,” Gordon writes of her 2000 therapy memoir, “Mockingbird Years,” “The narrative of my memoir was a lie,” referring not to factual accuracy but to context and scale: “I presented what was only one of a multitude of possible autobiographical stories as if it were the story of my life.”
Similarly, Armstrong has explained the existence of her third memoir, “The Spiral Staircase” — partly a rewrite of her second memoir, “Beginning the World,” describing the ex-nun’s trials with depression and temporal lobe epilepsy — by saying that the second memoir “did not tell the whole story!” The publisher of “Beginning the World” didn’t want Armstrong to be perceived as an intellectual, so the book has no discussion of theology or the purpose of prayer; but in between the publication of this book and “The Spiral Staircase,” Armstrong wrote her international best-seller “A History of God” and became a celebrated religious historian.
The impulse to repudiate or correct also fuels what might be termed the call-and-response memoir. After literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote two memoirs that neglected to mention that he was African-American, his daughter Bliss Broyard corrected the score in 2007 with her own memoir about her family’s secret; two years after Sean Wilsey cast his gimlet eye on his socialite mother in “Oh the Glory of It All,” she fired back with “Oh the Hell of It All.”
In the end, serial memoirists, regardless of what categories we file them under or what motives we ascribe to them, serve as a litmus test of a reader’s humanity. If memoir is, according to serial memoirist Mark Twain’s friend and adviser, William Dean Howells, “the most democratic province of the republic of letters,” then it makes a certain kind of sense that critics and cognoscenti often sniff at writers who repeatedly offer up literature’s answer to fried dough. Consider the editor faced with whittling down the notes that H.L. Mencken appended to the three memoirs he published during his lifetime, from 1200 pages to 200.
But aren’t serial memoirists expressing something deeply human? In 1971, psychologists Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett conducted an experiment in which they asked subjects to rate a series of individuals — their fathers, their friends, Walter Cronkite and themselves — in terms of traits like aggression and generosity. If the subjects wished, they could choose “depends on situation” as a rating. To a large degree, the subjects chose “depends on situation” only for themselves, while positing more definite character traits for the other three categories of people. While we tend to think of other people as having fixed personalities and traits, we view ourselves as inherently flexible. A cottage industry is born.