Memoir: A Troubled Genre

To clarify what I mean by memoir as a “troubled genre,” I shall first tell a personal story. I will write a memoir about a memoir that I wrote and had published.

Having been inspired by others’ stories, I decided to write my own personal stories, beginning with childhood. What happened to me as a young child? What did I do? Where did I go? Whom did I know? When and where did I learn? Over the course of several years I wrote perhaps 50 or 60 such accounts. Some time later when I showed them to a colleague he said that the stories not only revealed who I was as a child but also offered a picture of rural (and Mennonite) life in the 1940s.

He suggested that I send a selection toChristian Living, a magazine (now defunct) for home and community published by the Mennonite Publishing House. I sent a batch. David Hostetler, the editor, not only accepted them but asked for two things more -- a supply of photos from my childhood and a sidebar of how-to-do-it; that is, how to write memoir. Of course I was delighted. When the big issue of Christian Living arrived (August, 1987) I was more than enthusiastic about memoir and wondered how far I could ride this genre. Some complimentary notes from friends fed this enthusiasm.

Alas, my celebration was short-lived. In days I received my first letter, from Dorothy Siegrist (a supplied name):

... your story caused some sadness and hurt to me and my sister ... you published this story without ever informing us beforehand ...wouldn’t journalistic sensitivity direct you to attempt, at least, to contact me and let me know of your intention to use this incident and my name, especially when the story implies that my sister and I were negative factors in your moral development?

Second, your story, while it may be a“family story” and good reading, is untrue ... When I was “big -- maybe 12 years old,” as you wrote, I no more knew where babies came from than you did....

Mr. Hess, you have written a beautiful little anecdote, but the blurring effect of 40+ years has apparently also caused you to embellish the details of your story...

Here is another letter: Has Mr. Hess lost touch with the feelings of people he writes about?

Then I received a copy of a letter to the editor from an acquaintance whom I esteemed for her artistry and excellent personal taste: Perhaps he had checked with [the two girls] and they saw it as a big joke, and that is all right with me. I only know that their brother was unhappy with the publishing of the story and he hoped his mother would not see it. … Dan has a marvelous memory, and his descriptions are accurate--and entertaining. But it made me feel uneasy with the power of a writer. I wouldn’t want Dan writing about my childhood....

All told, the negative responses cited:

1. Invasion of privacy, by using names without permission.

2. Errors of fact.

3. Faulty memory.

4. Lack of sensitivity to others.

5. Using outdated events to injure in the present time a person who has changed over time.

Now that I have summarized the letters, you may be curious about what I wrote.



(c. 1942)

One sultry summer afternoon, Mama said that Mervin and I could go swimming with Dorothy and Anna Siegrist who were big – maybe 12 years old. It was the kind of permission that produced a happy ruckus until Mama told us to “shoosh.”

I never saw my parents so much as wading in the creek. Mama feared the water; she worried about drowning and, during “dog days,” polio. She knew about many things that could happen.

When Dorothy and Anna arrived, we ran down Colebrook Road, past Henry Stauffer’s farm, over the Reading tracks to the covered bridge. Dorothy was big enough to climb the semicircular joists. At the highest point of the joist, Dorothy on tiptoes could look over the wooden walls at the creek far below. But she wasn’t foolish like the big boys who swung on the rod from one bridge wall to another. Anna, Mervin and I eased down onto standards below the bridge bed, to listen to a car rumbling across and to look for snakes sunning in the mud below. (Years later when I owned a pocket knife, I carved my initials on a rafter: J. D. Hess. The J. was a good one but the D. ended up short and tilted.)

In the meadow, Henry Stauffer’s Guernsey cows were tame, but we walked around them just in case. The meadow was full of cow piles that squished between our toes. The dried ones didn’t, so we stepped over them.

Our swimming hole was at a bend, where the Chicques Creek bumped the railroad bed. At the far side, against the cinders, the water was deep—six feet, they said—where the Cooper boys and Claude Baker jumped in from the trees. On the meadow side, especially toward the covered bridge, the water was shallow and got deep gradually. One could dog paddle against the bottom of the creek.

With our good luck, the puffer billy came from Columbia. We yelled and waved when the engineer tooted the whistle. And another bunch of luck, we didn’t cut our feet from rocks or get suckers on our toes. Or see snakes close to our swimming hole.

But something happened that wasn’t good. Not a drowning or anything like that. But something that changed swimming away from fun. The Siegrist girls got out cigarettes and smoked. And they said, “Oh, shucks, it’s nothing.” That was bad. Then they started talking. They said that babies were born because of what the father did to the mother, explaining in detail what happened. We knew Dorothy and Anna were worldly so we didn’t believe them, but the words made me feel sick. I recalled that after baby Harold was born, lots of company had come to see us, including Aaron Tysons of Mastersonville. When they stood at the door, ready to leave, they said in lowered tones, “And you’ll be visiting us in another two months.”

When they left, I asked Mama how they knew we would visit.

“They’re expecting a baby,” she replied.

“How do they know they’re going to get a baby?”

Mama chuckled, as though it were something even the Tyson’s wouldn’t tell. What was the secret about babies?

Whatever it was, Dorothy and Anna had no business telling us what they did. Weeks before, when their parents weren’t at home, they had made us drink something dark from a small glass – made us, in the sense that if we didn’t, we’d never be able to play with them again. They said we should never ever tell, not even our parents. But we told. With the smoking and the story about babies, Dorothy and Anna spoiled the day.

Finally Mama signaled to go home by hanging a sheet out of a second floor window. We could see it when we climbed the cinders to the railroad tracks. The walk home was hard on our feet. After Colebrook Road was macadamed, the sharp stones were gone, but then we’d get tar on our feet that we had to wash off in a basin of hot water. But I hurried home, running on the grass beside the stones, out ahead of Dorothy and Anna, wanting to get close to Mama, because maybe it felt safer where we lived.


Although I remember the great fun of writing this account, I later was embarrassed and saddened by my error in judgment. So far as I can remember, and that’s not saying a lot, my facts were accurate and not embellished, although I inserted the Mrs. Aaron Tyson moment into this swimming story because it conveyed my ignorance of sex and babies.

What became evident to me in the weeks and months that followed my first-hand experience in writing a memoir was that mine was just one incident in a much larger disquiet about memoirs, a dis-ease strong enough to suggest that memoir is a troubled and troublesome genre.

In 1978, about ten years before my incident, Christina Crawford published a memoir entitled Mommy Dearest. It was made into a film in 1981. In the book Christina alleges that her mother Actress Joan Crawford abused her. Her mother had died the year before and thus could not refute the story. Was Christina Crawford’s revelation true? If true, did she ever find occasion to confront her mother? Was it fair to publish after her mother could not respond? This memoir ushered in an era of tell-all memoirs. For some writers, the juicier the details, the better.

In 2003 James Frey published A Million Little Pieces, the story of himself as a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser. Crucial to the account was his experience in a twelve-step treatment center. Pat Conroy praised the book, calling it “the War and Peace” of addiction. Two years later Oprah picked the book for her book club. It topped The New York Times best-setter list for fifteen straight weeks. Then in January 2006 it was discovered to contain extensive fabrications and was not, as originally represented by the author and publisher, a completely factual memoir.

In 2008 Herman Rosenblat wrote a touching memoirAngel at the Fence,the story of his future wife sneaking him apples and bread at a sub-camp of Buchenwald. Rosenblat's believers included not only his agent and his publisher, but also Oprah, film producers, journalists, family members and strangers who ignored, or did not know about, the warnings from scholars that his story did not make sense. Rosenblat then acknowledged that he met his future wife on a blind date in New York. He issued a statement saying that he was an advocate of love and tolerance who falsified his past to better spread his message. "I wanted to bring happiness to people," said Rosenblat, who now lives in the Miami area. "I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world."

These three memoirs highlighted several problems—accuracy, sensationalism, slander and, of course, motivation—all of which are relevant in current discussions of Rhoda Janzen’s controversial memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Henry Holt, 2009).

Janzen grew up in the Mennonite Brethren community in Fresno, California. She currently is a professor of English and creative writing at Hope College. I learned about the book at an impromptu Sunday morning breakfast on our Catholic street. Andy Eifert told me he had just seen a review about “something Mennonite.” I returned home to retrieve my own New York Times Book Review. The review was a rave. I headed downtown to Borders to buy the book.

Let me say this. Any time a writer can make a reader smile, that’s a base hit. Any time a writer can make a reader laugh aloud, that’s a homer. I personally heard many laughs in my own house from a reader of the book. Shirley Showalter, a former colleague of mine at Goshen College, wrote on “100 Memoirs,” her web site, “When I read Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress late at night, the bed posts shook. I had to choke back gargantuan guffaws in order not to wake my Mennonite husband.”

Jessica Baldanzi, now teaching at Goshen College, wrote that “Janzen’s intense philosophical musings about the purpose and significance of life itself, although carefully interspersed with boxed questions and bulleted lists for a visually breezy format, carry the work ... into the ranks of more lasting and powerful memoirs for readers of either gender." And further on in her review, "Janzen engages in affectionate, though near-constant critique and questioning of her heritage..."

I became curious to read reviews from outside the Mennonite stable of writers, the professional critics of national publications. Their positive references to the Mennonite culture as a source of healing were, for me, gratifying. If you are so inclined, you can find many positive reviews of the book by googling the book’s title.

Showalter cites Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, who calls this memoir “wincingly funny." Showalter adds, "The portrait of her mother Mary is utterly brilliant. Janzen takes huge risks revealing highly personal information that most daughters would die to write and most mothers would die to read—or would commit daughter-cide after reading. But she also convinces us that her mother is so ego-free and so unconcerned about ‘normal’ barriers between public and private life that we, too, can relax and enjoy the kind of earth-mother love that has the power of creation and recreation in it.”

Most of the questioning of Janzen’s memoir came from Mennonite critics. Showalter says, “As much as I laughed while reading the book and as much as I celebrate the word ‘Mennonite’ conjoined with ‘funny’ in other reviews of this book, I cringed while reading more than once. No one laughs harder at a Mennonite joke than a Mennonite— unless it is cruel or inaccurate.I winced less for the treatment of the Mennonite characters in this book, ironically, than I did for those who were grafted into the story either through marriage or friendship." She quotes Annie Dillard: “I don’t believe in a writer’s kicking around people who don’t have access to a printing press. They can’t defend themselves.”

To help you understand Showalter’s disquiet, I will quote a sample of Janzen’s comments about a living person. It is her brother Jonathan, whom she names Aaron, but everyone in Fresno knows who “Aaron” refers to:

-- I can’t speak for rich people, but in my experience higher education does not produce people who think they have all the answers, unless you count my brother Aaron.

-- The gap between Aaron and me was marked by so much more than a divide between left and right brains, between science and the humanities. In fact, I don’t have much in common with either of my brothers. In college they remained content with their opportunities in Mennonite circles ...They both went to Bible studies. They dated sincere gals who hair sprayed their bangs and went on mission trips.

--My brothers never ask me about my life or work, a silence I interpret asdisapproval. Whenever I ask them about ideas or politics or beliefs, theychange the subject.

--With Aaron I knew I would never be close, but there was a moment in myadolescence when I thought that Caleb and I might become friends.

Aaron is only one of numerous persons to be slighted in this memoir that Janzen says was intended to show affection. I have been led to believe, not only by a news article in the December 7, 2009 issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review, but also from personal correspondence, that the book caused anguish in family and community circles in Fresno and beyond. If it was intended as a tribute, it bombed in Fresno. It would appear that Mennonite authors of memoir have the added problem of needing to answer to entire networked communities in their portrayal of individuals through the lens of personal memory.

On the basis of recent discussion of memoir, found in many venues and publications, I will try to summarize the “trouble,” especially as it impacts Mennonites who would write memoir.

1. The memoir is first-person centered, and thus the reader sees life through the eyes of the memoirist, be she healthy or ailing, insightful or dull, nasty or nice. The reader encounters close up the whimsy, the wisdom and the warts of the writer. As one critic noted, the writer of a memoir is both the protagonist and the antagonist. That is, she may be her own worst enemy. What, then, is the reader to do? ANew York Times Book Reviewcolumnist, Raymond Walters Jr., wrote that we should think of the memoirist “as a person to whom you have just been introduced. Size up as best you can the personality of the man or woman who is talking and take it constantly into consideration as you judge ... what he has to say.” (Quoted by Judith Shulevitz in “My True Story,” TheNew York Times Book Review, November 20, 2009)

2. Because the memoir is subjective, it doesn’t claim to be objective. Ann Hostetler, editor of this journal, writes in a comment on Jessica Baldanzi’s memoir, “We all know how each one of us has a different version of the same family story—just ask family members to describe the same event in the past. Even autobiographies that purport to tell the ‘truth’ are always suspect in regards to objectivity. Would it be better that we not write memoirs at all? Is a memoir more about the truth, or about one perspective on experience?”

3. As for the issue of motive, Showalter said Janzen “would go far for a joke (or is it revenge?).” That short sentence is loaded. Depending on motive, the writer of a memoir can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. The memoirist may wish to sell 50,000 copies, to get tenure, to get even, to correct a public impression, to justify his or her life, to inform children of their heritage--and you may add to the list. The writer’s motive makes a difference.

4. Accuracy. By tradition we think of memoir as a factual account of the author’s life. Thus I am of the impression that most readers of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces felt cheated by the revelations of the fiction. They understood the memoir to be non-fiction. I am not persuaded to read J.M.Coetzee’s Summertime, which he and his publisher label “a fictional autobiography.” That’s a mule. Nor am I ready to accept fully an opinion offered very late in Ben Yagoda’s history of the memoir who said, according to Shuylevitz, “Truth is the least aspect of memoir, although truth can’t be dispensed with. The power to persuade is all....” He goes on to suggest that “the wink in [the memoirist’s] eye and the tone in her voice tells us we shouldn’t take anything she says too literally.” I prefer accuracy.

5. The memory problem belongs in a category of trouble that is different from intentional freedom with facts. First of all, loss of memory does not court the malice issue. In the foreword to my recent book of memoirs,Surely Goodness and Mercy: Seventy Stories,iI wrote, “In order to write these stories I had to call on my friend, Memory. That friend is something of a magician. He gives gray events rich colors. He sometimes exaggerates things like puffed up balloons. Sometimes he understates, making a molehill out of a mountain. He even has a way of playing hide and seek. If my siblings wrote their stories, they’d include events that Memory hid from me.” I tell workshoppers that there are good aides to memory as well as appropriate ways to assess what memory offers up.

6. Inflicting pain. As I reread the correspondence generated by my earlier stories, I hurt all over again. Although I, the writer, was laughing as I wrote, I inflicted pain on readers. At this later time in my writing career, I think that intentionally inflicting pain on a reader is a moral issue. The memoir is not the venue of resolving interpersonal problems. Speaking from the perspective of Mennonite tradition, the resolution of relational conflict requires direct confrontation, sometimes with a third party present.When one uses a memoir to right so-called wrongs, it’s like so many letters to the editor, which J. Lester Brubaker, in a letter to the editor of The Mennonite likens to the lobbing of missiles at the other side. Cynthia Hockman wonders how people sacrificed on the altar of memoir recover. Elsie K. Neufeld’s comment does not satisfy me: “Those who are unhappy with how they were presented have the option to write their own memoir to set the record straight.” (Hockman, Neufeld and others commented on Baldanzi’s review the September 15, 2009 issue of this journal.)

7. The compulsion, or expectation, to tell all. This issue is perhaps the most difficult for me to parse. It arises from the fad of telling all, hanging out all of the dirty laundry, shocking people with revelations. This is difficult for me, I suppose, because of my journalistic training. Journalists support the Freedom of Information Act. Journalists want open city council meetings. Journalists want names named. And yet I understand the personal and social hygiene involved in distinguishing the public and the private. Some things you talk about in public, some things you don’t. Some pictures you show to others, some you don’t even take. Some private stories are not for me to tell. They belong to someone else. I admit that I’m not perceptive in detecting the fine line, which, of course, is drawn at different places by different people.

8. Audiences. My good friend Ervin Beck remarked about Rhoda Janzen: “Mainly, we need to see that she did not write the book for Herald Press and a Mennonite audience, but for the mass American reading audience, via Holt ... Her speaking voice is not a conventionally Mennonite one, nor one she would use if she were writing for a Mennonite audience. But it is an appealing one for both the mass and the sophisticated reader, bold, brassy, slangy, sometimes vulgar. . . . No doubt to reach a non-Mennonite audience, especially in popular literature, one needs to be unconventionally Mennonite and speak to the audience where that audience is at.” My problem with Beck’s thesis is that our various systems and channels of communication do not confine themselves to restricted audiences. Spill-over is inevitable. Fresno has read this book that may have been intended for New York.

9. The nature of the genre. To Judith Shulevitz’s question, “Given the monstrosities that memoir-writing has produced, must we admit that the genre is unseemly?” my answer is “Yes.” While Mennonite writers cannot fix the trouble with memoir as a genre, or even make it more “seemly," we can cultivate discernment in how we use our tools and make our art. I want to believe that it ispossible for Mennonite-related memoir writers, in the midst of the aggressions of memoirists as well as the attacks by readers, to find, from within our Anabaptist Mennonite heritage and from intensive discussion among our artists, aesthetic and ethical principles for our further work in this genre.

(An earlier version of this article was presented as a lecture at Mennonite Arts Weekend, Cincinnati, Ohio, February, 2010.)

[1] Editor’s note: J.Daniel Hess authored a memoir,Surely Goodness and Mercy: Seventy Stories,a collection of autobiographical vignettes, which was privately published in a limited edition for family and close friends in 2007.

About the Author

J. Daniel Hess

J. Daniel Hess is now retired from a career of college teaching (Goshen College), consulting (organizational communication) and writing. Among his books are From the Other’s Point of View (Herald Press, 1980), An Invitation to Criticism (Pinchpenny Press, 1984), and Studying Abroad, Learning Abroad (Intercultural Press, 1997). In 2007 he published Surely Goodness and Mercy, a memoir consisting of 70 personal vignettes, one for each year of his life. Recently he has consulted informally with several people as they write memoirs. Dan is a member of “Bagels and Bards,” a small but active writers’ group in Indianapolis, featured in the January 15, 2011 issue of CMW Journal. His blog appears at jdanielhess.com/blog.