There is a huge difference between a memoir and a biography. It’s not that I don’t care if my recollections are accurate — I do. But a memoir isn’t about facts. It’s about impressions and personal experience. I can understand why biographies appeal to historians and genealogists: their focus is on dates and where a person fits into history. Memoirs just serve a different purpose. Memoirs are about storytelling.
When I write about my personal experiences, I do so honestly and earnestly, but with limitations. These are the things I remember. That’s not quite the same thing as reality. It’s close, but it’s coloured by my perceptions. There are pieces of the puzzle I don’t have. I make certain assumptions about the motivations of the other players in my story, but there is limit to my insight. If you ask my siblings about their recollections, I’m sure they have very different memories. And the simplest explanation that I have for this is that they are not me, and I am not them.
I would also be foolish to deny that my mental illness has fundamentally impacted my perception of events in my life. But it is conversely true that events in my life have impacted and moulded my mental illness. They are tied up in one another and I cannot pry them apart.
But my intent is never malicious. I strive for honesty of emotion. This is my story and these are my feelings. They don’t necessarily have to be fair, but they are real. How I felt back then and how the past has impacted my present — that’s real. Even if I get it wrong. Because even if I strive for it, objective reality is pretty difficult to glean, especially if the other players in your history aren’t forthcoming.
As an example, I give you the (true) story of the pillowcase:
I once described to my mother how, as a child, I would lie awake at night for hours, unable to sleep. My entire body would feel electrified and I would visualize repeating patterns of light behind my closed eyes, turning in spirals over and over. (I’ve had bouts of this during my hypomanic phases of insomnia, so I realize now this was probably a precursor.)
She said, “That reminds me of your father. Right after you were born, I remember I would sometimes wake up to find him staring at the pattern on the pillowcase.”
An innocuous statement.
Fast forward to several years later and my father, in an off-hand comment, said “There were times when I was sleeping around so much that when I woke up, I had to check the pillowcase to remind myself whose bed I was in.”
The first person (my mother) doesn’t have all the information. Her recollection is mostly subjective. The second person (my father) knows the missing information. You could argue that his recollection is objective. But the meat of the story is the third person: me. The child in the middle. The one who now has to carry this guilty knowledge.
That a thing happened to a person is simply history.
What it does to them and how it shapes them — that is storytelling.