Memory and Imagination in Memoir

Patricia Hampl’s memoir A Romantic Education represents an ambitious, difficult but ultimately rewarding meditation on the role of imagination and memory in memoir. Let me be frank. I find most memoirs intolerably dull. The last-decade emphasis on addiction and recovery stories put me to sleep. As a person in recovery, the stories of lost jobs, violence and running in so-called rough neighborhoods have little relevance to me personally and do nothing to advance the memoir as a tool for understanding humanity. Most of these memoirs read like a Jerry Springer episode. Even the so-called good ones do nothing to interrogate the form of memoir.

Hampl, however, has a different agenda.

We trust memory against all evidence: it is selective, subjective, cannily defensive, unreliable as fact. But a single red detail remembered - a hat worn in 1952, the nail polish applied one summer day by an aunt to her toes, separated by balls of cotton, as we watched - has more real blood than the creatures around us on a bus as, for some reason, we think of that day, that hat, those bright feet. That world. This power of memory probably comes from its kinship with the imagination.

The imagination becomes important for her as she fears her familial past is without interest.” There are no significant events of shame in her past. So through the genius of her imagination and her skill as a writer, Hampl has written one of the most compelling memoirs of the last forty years. The city of St. Paul, conversations her parents had about their youth in the 1930s, her relationship with a beloved family member who died before her birth, all blossom in her imagination and in her fine writing.

One thing I appreciate about Hampl’s work is her willingness to interrupt her narrative to discuss the form of memoir itself. She understands that memory becomes unreliable, particularly as we age. How she make peace with this unreliability becomes a hallmark of this book and later ones, as well.

In my own memoir I have struggled to find a form I am comfortable with. The nature of a traditional transsexual narrative is without interest for me. The traditional narrative, with its origins in medical literature and its full flowering in the garish talk shows of the 1990s, stifles the imagination. Writing my memoir in a long-form narrative instills in me fear. The very act of writing my story in this format feels as though my voice is lost, lost to medicine, lost to lurid television viewers, lost to others who believe they know my story better than I.

Hampl’s interrogation of memoir brings me relief and acknowledgement that my distrust of traditional memoir is not misplaced.