Composite Characters: A Memoir Controversy

Composite Characters: The Latest Memoir Controversy
A controversy about writing memoirs? Last week, just such an issue emerged when an upcoming book about President Barack Obama that was excerpted in Vanity Fair. Author David Maraniss reveals in the book that President Obama’s memoir, Dreams of My Father, presented a girlfriend who was really a composite of more than one woman. The memoir includes a disclaimer indicating that “compression” was used as a writing technique. In an interview years later, Mr. Obama explained his decision to use the technique by saying, “I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them.”
In a new interview with Vanity Fair, Maraniss dismisses the need to be 100 percent factual in a memoir. He says, “The theme of [Obama’s] memoir is race, and so both the chronology and the characters in his writing were used to advance that theme.”
Is this valid? As you write your memoirs, you’re trying to create a narrative that is compelling and easy to read. So is it okay to describe an event in a dramatic way that makes your point better than any event that actually happened? I can’t quite accept that in a memoir, and a disclaimer isn’t enough, either. At the point of relating the anecdote, you owe it to the reader to explain that you’re talking about what might have happened, or you’re describing a situation that combined elements from various times in your life; you’re not faithfully sharing one true event. Our memories play tricks on us, but a memoir should relate the facts as we best remember them.

A controversy about writing memoirs? Last week, just such an issue emerged when an upcoming book about President Barack Obama was excerpted in Vanity Fair. Author David Maraniss reveals in the book that President Obama’s memoir, Dreams of My Father, presented a girlfriend who was really a composite of more than one woman. The memoir includes a disclaimer indicating that “compression” was used as a writing technique. In an interview years later, Mr. Obama explained his decision to use the technique: “I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them.”

In a new interview with Vanity Fair, Maraniss dismisses the need to be 100 percent factual in a memoir. He says, “The theme of [Obama’s] memoir is race, and so both the chronology and the characters in his writing were used to advance that theme.”

Is this valid? As you write your memoirs, you’re trying to create a narrative that is compelling and easy to read. So is it okay to describe an event in a dramatic way that makes your point better than any event that actually happened? I can’t quite accept that in a memoir, and a disclaimer isn’t enough, either. At the point of relating the anecdote, you owe it to the reader to explain that you’re talking about what might have happened, or you’re describing a situation that combines elements from various times in your life; you’re not faithfully sharing one true event. Our memories play tricks on us, but a memoir should relate the facts as we best remember them.