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  • Interlocking Personalities in Memoir
  • Rebecca McClanahan (bio)

In thinking about multiple personalities in memoir, I call forth a visual image: a Russian nesting doll, one of those toy figures that is really a series of figures, each locked inside another. Imagine there are three of these figures—though depending on the shape and complexity of the memoir, there might be many more. The first figure, the largest one that holds the others, is the Author. The second, locked inside the Author, is the Guide. The third, locked inside the Guide, is the Other.

The Author is the flesh-and-blood person sitting at her desk writing a memoir. She has a particular personality, which sometimes, but not always, comes through in the writing. Also, the Author's personality, voice, and perceptions change throughout her life; this is an important factor to keep in mind, especially if the memoir is written over an extended period of time, as mine was: 13 years.

The voice that is locked inside the Author is the Guide. The Guide talks for the Author but she is not the Author. She is the voice on the page, the organizing eye, and her personality may vary from work to work, and even within the same work. In memoir, as in fiction and poetry, the range of Guide personalities is wide. Consider a few of these personality choices, using traditional point-of-view terminology. [End Page 129]

One choice of point of view for the Guide is the first-person singular, the "I" voice. This is the one most often used in memoir. The "I" can be the main character, the center of the narrative's action. But the "I" may also be a peripheral character—the outsider, observer, researcher, or informant, as much an "eye" as an "I." The first-person singular can be a reliable narrator, or in varying degrees, an unreliable narrator.

The Guide's voice could also be in the first-person plural. This is not the mere rhetorical "we" (as in "We will now move on to our discussion of penguins") but rather what I call the Tribal We, the Guide speaking as the member of a group larger than herself. I use this tribal voice often in The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, especially in the childhood sections. As one of six children in a military family, I often felt that I was one-sixth of a larger animal—some 12-legged creature moving through the world. It seemed natural, then, to sometimes speak as "we" rather than as "I."

Yet another point-of-view choice for the Guide is the second-person "you." This is an idiosyncratic voice that is hard to sustain but can land a powerful punch. It is rarely used as the primary Guide in a full-length memoir but is used often in shorter works or as a cutaway segment in a longer, first-person memoir. Second-person narration is not the same as addressing the reader as "you"; it actually places the "you" within the events of the story. In this way, the "you" substitutes for the "I." This second-person Guide has a distancing yet intimate quality, sometimes even more intimate than the first-person "I."

Like the second-person Guide, third-person is rarely used as the guiding voice of a full-length memoir. But it is often used as a temporary move out of a longer first-person narrative. This move—which requires that the Author view herself as a third person, a "she" or a named character—can create a sense of distance, not only spatial and temporal but also emotional. Thus, the third-person Guide is often used to counter the emotion in highly charged scenes or to suggest psychological dissociation.

Moving beyond the Guide voice is the third figure, the one locked inside the Guide, called the Other. The Other is any element that is part of the memoir's core subject. It might be a place, an idea, a time period, or an event. But most often, the Other is a human character, usually a younger version of the Author. Depending on how many time periods are represented in...


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pp. 129-131
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