Published by Mariner Books
Publication date: October 21st 1999
I have always believed my mother would live forever. While I have never said goodbye to my father without the thought crossing my mind that I might never see him again, my mother has seemed indestructible, fixed in my consciousness like a gnarled and stately tree that has taken root there. If she is ripped away at this moment in my life, she will take her roots with her and I will be left with less than nothing: a ragged, empty hole.
Recently I read a post over at Cynthia Robertson’s blog about memoirs that read like novels and I immediately thought of Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion, which I finished reading this weekend. It covers her early twenties, when she dropped out of college, started an acting/modeling career and was having an affair with Lenny, a much older married man; basically, a full-on rebellion against her religious upbringing. One that was interrupted by the news that her parents had been in a horrible car accident and were not expected to live. From freewheeling hedonistic ennui Shapiro is plunged into a world of hospital rooms, medical terminology, and the pain that comes from seeing loved ones in pain.
Slow Motion navigates through Shapiro’s journey as she tries to continue with her self-destructive life while dealing with both her parents being in a hospital in critical condition. When her father dies and family dynamics implode around her, only Lenny is able to resolve the issues and to take care of her, even as his lies about his wife, family, and even other girlfriends increase. In the midst of her grief over her father and fear for her mother, Shapiro is also grappling with this conflict and its impact on her self-esteem. At twenty-three she has really never stood on her own, relying on her looks to gain entrée to a world far beyond anything she herself could achieve. When even the rug of Lenny is yanked out from under her feet, she finally begins to claim herself.
Shapiro’s story read so much like a film that I looked up certain well-known people who were key players in the tumultuous times of her early twenties and one thing led to another (as it so often does on the internet). I discovered that a portion of Shapiro’s life at this time was left out of the book even though it was the time in her life being detailed. After re-reading those segments of Slow Motion again I was left a little uncertain and…disappointed but not sure that I ought to be, if that makes sense. I thought memoir and autobiography were largely the same thing. So, I looked up the definition of memoir and it is “a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation” which sounds like an autobiography, yes? Regardless, Shapiro’s decision to omit significant personal relationships in Slow Motion caused a bit of an uproar in the reading world with some going so far as to compare the book to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Shapiro responded with this letter in Salon which I found to be an interesting exercise in avoidance as she does not deal with the specific questions posed about the memoir, just strongly asserts that it was not her job to write the specifics. I’ve given it a lot of thought and do feel that knowing this information might have changed my perception of her subsequent actions and yet, the book was engrossing without them. Needless to say, I’m still confused by what or how much I expect an author to reveal when writing about themselves. It may be that if a very specific time of life is covered then I expect it to be fully covered not selectively.
What do you think? Is a memoir selected parts and pieces of the author’s life as interpreted by them or should it be held to a standard of accuracy within the timeframe described?
Hmm…I think you ask a lot of good questions. With any autobiography or memoir, we have to engage with the work with a bit of hesitation. People always want to present themselves in the best light possible. Then of course, the editors want to make the narrative smooth and consistent, so they cut out anything that doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. Even non-fiction is a bit subjective, it seems.
It makes me wonder about all the other memoirs I’ve read!
Cynthia Robertson says
Thanks for the mention, Catherine.
I read Shapiro’s letter to hr disillusioned reader, (thanks for the link, it was interesting) and I see where she is coming from. “We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts.” It’s impossible to tell it all, or even tell it fairly to everyone, in the process of trying to get to the truth of the tale, and she expresses this beautifully. She’s a nice writer, to judge from her (gently annoyed) response.
Yes, she is, Cynthia! I’ve met her twice at events and she is so forthcoming and genuine. I’m still conflicted probably because I’m not an author so am not sure how much importance I put on every detail being recorded.