When Memory Speaks:
Reflections on Autobiography

by Jill Ker Conway


Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. ISBN 0679766456.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/08/2001

Nonfiction: Creative Life

Jill Ker Conway, author of The Road from Coorain and True North, is one of our most widely-read and admired memoirists. Her books are praised for their graceful explorations of our most urgent questions of personal meaning: Where do I come from? What is my story? How has my past experience shaped me?

In When Memory Speaks, Conway turns her attention from her own life to the stories of other lives, looking at the modern memoir and the way it reflects our culture and ourselves. She isn't writing exclusively about women, but this is a help, for she uses the narrative patterns of men's stories about their lives to show how women's memoirs evolved, comparing and contrasting the forms. Using examples from the autobiographies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, David Livingston, Conway shows that men's stories typically involve the self-made hero who creates his life in conflict with social or natural forces. In men's memoirs, she says, the male hero reveals himself as acting upon the world in order to give it the shape and meaning he chooses.

Conway argues that until very recently, women's memoirs have shown quite a different pattern. They reveal the autobiographer as a "romantic heroine" who is acted upon, who seems to believe that she lacks control over her destiny and tends to censure her shaping role in her own story in order to satisfy her readers' expectations. Conway shows, for instance, that Jane Addams developed the Hull House project after several active and energetic years of careful study of European social reform—and yet she writes about her idea in the passive voice, as if she were its agent, rather than its creator. In this way, Conway says, "Addams is able to conceal her own role in making the events of her life happen and to conform herself to the romantic image of the female...shaped by circumstances beyond her control" (p. 49). And, Conway points out, even such assertive feminists as Germain Greer (in Daddy, We Hardly Knew You) and Gloria Steinem (Revolution From Within) reveal in their memoirs the difficulty of redefining ourselves as heroes of our own stories.

Conway's book is valuable for its deep and thoughtful discussion of the history of women's stories, compared to and contrasted with the autobiographical stories of men. But it is also valuable for what it has to say about the memoir itself, as a way to help us understand ourselves and our past experiences. If we recall the past as a chaos of random bits of good and bad luck that shaped us willy-nilly, we are likely to be victims of a similar future. If we see the past as the product of our choices and actions, we are better able to shape our futures:

We travel through life guided by an inner life plot—part the creation of family, part the internalization of broader social norms, part the function of our imaginations and our own capacity for insight into ourselves, part from our groping to understand the universe in which the planet we inhabit is a speck. When we speak about our memories, we do so through literary forms that seem to capture universals in human experience—the quest, the romance, the odyssey, the tragic or the comic mode. Yet we are all unique, and so are our stories. We should pay close attention to our stories. Polish their imagery. Find their positive rather than their negative form. Search for the ways we experience life differently from the inherited version and edit the plot accordingly...
As women memoirists, committed to understanding our stories and getting them straight, we need Conway's book. I hope you will read it, not just once but several times. It will help you to see which pattern your own story fits into: that of the woman who actively shapes her plot and chooses her response to the world, or that of the woman who waits to see what sort of plots life is going to dish out to her.

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