The Cultural and Political Power of the Personal Memoir

For women, and for gays, lesbians, and other minorities, simply telling the truth about the way we live can be subversive


One of my earliest memories involves my mother telling me to go outside and play, at which point I dutifully carried my book into the backyard, sat down on the swing, and continued reading. More than any other genre, I'm infatuated with memoir. There is nothing more satisfying than getting lost in the sloppy, messy details and extraordinary turns of someone else's life. I particularly love memoirs by women, especially women from non-Western countries. My interest borders on evangelical; I think that reading memoir is one of the best ways, maybe one of the only ways, to develop empathy for those we see as the Other.

We all have certain stories in our heads about people who are different from us, especially people who are somehow marginalized: women, queer people, people of color, people with disabilities, poor people. We make assumptions about their interests, their backgrounds, their families. These narratives are culturally influenced and depend on our own predilections, but ultimately, one reading can be just as shallow as any other; pity is just as trivializing as scorn. This is particularly true when it comes to politics. Making broad statements about how oppression works and who is marginalized by what, no matter how well-intentioned, is counterproductive when applied to the lives of individuals.

For evidence, look at Italy's recent debates over banning the veil. While mandating that women wear hijab is unquestionably repressive and misogynistic, it doesn't logically follow that the garment itself is the problem, or that outlawing it will solve anything. Indeed, for those women who choose to wear the veil as a symbol of their religious devotion, forbidding it is just as oppressive as requiring it. In either case, women are being denied the right to make the decision themselves. It's as backwards as if politicians in the U.S. decided that, since some women feel stifled by expectations that they will go into the caring professions, nursing should henceforth be illegal. Every woman, in every country, experiences some kind of misogyny, but no two experience it in exactly the same way. Any attempt to rectify or even discuss oppression is doomed to be clumsy and ham-handed if it doesn't take into account individual differences in experience.

At the moment, I'm working through a pile of memoirs from Iran: Persepolis, Lipstick Jihad, Things I've Been Silent About. This feels especially relevant considering the strange cultural resonance that exists right now between the U.S. and the Middle East, the way in which our fates intertwine. The narratives we believe to be true about that region have been woven into the underlying fabric of our society. Unfortunately, much of what we assume is at least simplistic, if not actively incorrect. One of those things is that women -- all women -- in Islamic cultures are miserable and abused, a homogenous mass of veil-wearing victims. Reading the words of women in that part of the world, being immersed in their particular, idiosyncratic perspectives, allows for a more complicated understanding of their sufferings as well as their triumphs. It helps the reader to appreciate them not as numbers in a newspaper but as whole, dynamic people.

These books have the power to undo just a little bit of the cultural conditioning that has us assuming we know people based on their gender, their ethnicity, where they're from, or how they dress. Texts like these create a space for greater nuance, for women making bold and unconventional choices, finding paths to genuine happiness even through the restrictions in their way. They remind us that no obstacle is insurmountable, that even under the most brutal oppression, people fall in love, build families, create art.

I'm not just talking about writing from overtly sexist societies. Memoir is an inherently transgressive form, and memoir by women especially so. The culture we live in is constantly telling us the stories of our lives as they should be. We're told, by television and movies and celebrity interviews and "lifestyle trend" pieces and our grandmothers, that we are supposed to look a certain way, drive a certain car, marry by a certain age, have a certain number of children, pursue a certain career. It doesn't matter how successful we are; there will always be someone waiting to tell us how we're failing. If we are career women, someone will judge us for not devoting ourselves fully to our children. If we stay at home with the kids, someone will sneer at us for not having a job.

Writing a memoir, writing honestly and deeply about life as we see it, is perhaps the most basic way to counter that toxic, restrictive force. By putting down on paper the words that describe how we move through the world, we act in opposition to the cultural forces that attempt to define our lives for us. We claim the role of expert on our own experience and overrule the chorus of voices coming at us from all sides, telling us who and what we should be. For women, for queers, for minorities of any kind, simply telling the truth about the way we live is powerfully subversive.

Just by existing, books like this are narratives of transgression. Writing them is an act of rebellion, a claiming of authority that has traditionally been denied. They begin from a place of very little cultural currency, of almost no real power, but they have the power to move us, to reach us, to create a little thread of telepathy through which their emotions become ours. What the writers have gone through is absorbed into our understanding of the world, and we are just a bit richer for it.

Images: Random House; L'Assocation; PublicAffairs.