by SAFY HALLAN FARAH
Even with the advent of polygraphs and cameras, and the potential for live streaming, there is no sure-fire way to fact check firsthand data — we’re humans, not telepaths. While many species can communicate, and even vocalize, only human languages are driven by complex rules like grammar and syntax; only humans can lie. Only humans can consciously start a fire, and only humans can shout “FIRE!” in the theater.
I have this friend — let’s call her Gen. A couple years ago, Gen’s father, a deeply conservative man, told her that she could not wear a calf-length skirt to her high school graduation. To make a long story short, she made a long skirt short by snipping about three inches off of it, telling her father to project his archaic ideas elsewhere, preferably somewhere there is zero solar radiation, like the echo chamber in his head. Gen actually wanted to set her skirt on fire, but her desire to admonish tradition without resorting to arson overruled any lingering pyromania. Outside of kitchens, chemistry labs and bonfires, acceptable places in which the average person can start a fire are uncommon. But the imagery of flickering oxidation is still ever-present in Gen’s mind.
Gen didn’t burn her skirt, just as Second Wave feminists didn’t burn their bras. No one did any burning because there is enough transcending power in the abstract alone. Many years from now, when Gen — who is a writer — modifies her truth, legend will have it that she not only set her skirt on fire, but she watched it smolder as she puffed on a Virginia Slim.
The mere act of starting a fire is easy. So easy, in fact, it was the first thing the early hominids did when they became slightly less stupid. Our biological and cultural changes, grand and slight, have been documented in art since the first caveperson told the first lie to a gullible, slightly less evolved caveperson who believed the lie, and later wrote it down for posterity on the wall of their shared cave loft, perpetuating our global affinity for storytelling, lying, and myth-making. Yes, our ancestors inspired the joke “The word ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary.” And that’s because the word ‘gullible’ is everywhere; ‘gullible’ is our collective consciousness.
Thus, being a memoirist must be tinged with a sense of irony; baring one’s soul because it’s all one knows but also because one barely knows, or something. Grasping for straws of validity, meaning, memoirists produce art presumably intended for an audience; art which exemplifies their perfunctory narcissism rather than subdues it.
The potential for self-aggrandizement and victimhood is limitless, and sure, being immortalized as a saint would be nice, but it’s all fiction to me. If I can’t believe a sentence as simple, and straight-forward as “I had a cat named Geraldine,” I probably can’t believe a whole chapter devoted to highlighting the significance of said cat named Geraldine’s death — unless it were funny. But death is not funny.
Memoirs I can take seriously are of the jocular variant. These memoirs are usually comprised of standalone essays, or short stories. It takes a lot of effort to make people laugh, but it requires virtually zero effort to make someone cry. Memoirists like Elizabeth Kim, James Frey, and Elizabeth Wurtzel have made me cry like a baby only to find out it was all crapbags of lies. I can only name two memoirists that have made me laugh at their troubles — David Sedaris, and Dave Eggers. But even both Daves are bullshit artists because to be human, to be more than a clever dolphin or a talking bird, is to be an arbiter of bullshit.
Memoir is the best medium that showcases society’s height of gullibility. Memoirs exist as inaccurate narratives to better illustrate reality. Memoirs are not tomes of truth, but rather titular, skewed, first-hand accounts. And that’s okay! Prozac Nation, a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel about life as a twenty-something on the anti-depressant Prozac, is not where the truth about Prozac lies. Just ask 1 in 10 American women. Go ahead, ask me. I can try to paint a semi-comic picture, and you can interpret what that picture means for yourself, and show that picture to someone else. Then, and only then can it be construed as evidence, or based on a true story.
Safy Hallan Farah is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Minneapolis. She tumbls here.
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