Biography 24.1 (2001) 128-139
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Limit-Cases: Trauma, Self-Representation, and the Jurisdictions of Identity
One writes in order to become other than what one is.
-- Michel Foucault
Somewhere around 1996, in the midst of a much-remarked-upon economic boom, another pocket of extraordinary vitality emerged in the United States. As the Dow soared high in a climate of speculation, memoir boomed. Signs of growth abounded: book reviewers ritualistically cited memoir's ubiquity, more publishers expanded their lists to include memoir, more first books were marketed as memoir, and even academics, voted the group in high school least likely to cross over, tried their hands at personal criticism, as well as memoir proper. Even a crude analysis using the Worldcat database shows the number of new English language volumes categorized as "autobiography or memoir" roughly tripled from the 1940s to the 1990s. The growth pattern over that period was approximately linear, rising from fewer than 1500 in the 1940s to more than 3000 in the 1970s, to over 4000 between 1990 and 1996. 1 Unlike the economic boom with which it coincided, the memoir boom's primary themes were not wealth, prosperity, and the accumulation of capital by those already well-positioned by previous success, generational advantage, or education. Had the memoir boom more closely resembled the economic boom, it would, in fact, have looked a lot like memoir has traditionally looked. But this memoir boom did not prominently feature elder statesmen reporting on how their public lives neatly paralleled historical events. Instead, memoir in the '90s was dominated by the comparatively young whose private lives were emblematic of unofficial histories. While the economic boom has been characterized by unparalleled optimism, the memoir boom's defining subject has been trauma. [End Page 128]
Although the developing answers to the questions "Why memoir? Why now?" differ, the cultural awareness that something significant was happening around and through memoir crystallized in relation to the recognition of trauma's centrality to it. I am interested in the coincidence of trauma and self-representation and what it reveals about the cultural and psychic work of autobiography, its internally fractured histories, and especially, its limits. My account of trauma's centrality to contemporary self-representation, however, redirects attention from the most prominent contemporary memoirs to texts about trauma that test the limits of autobiography.
Telling the story of one's life suggests a conversion of trauma's morbid contents into speech, and thereby, the prospect of working through trauma's hold on the subject. Yet, autobiography's impediments to such working through consist of its almost legalistic definition of truth-telling, its anxiety about invention, and its preference for the literal and verifiable, even in the presence of some ambivalence about those criteria. Conventions about truth-telling, salutary as they are, can be inimical to the ways in which some writers bring trauma stories into language. The portals are too narrow, and the demands too restrictive. Moreover, the judgments such accounts invite may be too similar to forms in which trauma was experienced. When the contest is waged over who can tell the truth, the risk of being accused of lying (or malingering, or inflating, or whining) threatens the writer into continued silence. In this scenario, the autobiographical project may swerve from the form of autobiography even as it embraces the project of self-representation. These departures offer an opportunity to calibrate our attention to the range of demands made by autobiography and the silencing or shaming effects they impose.
The recent example of Rigoberta Menchú, author, activist for the rights of the Quiché people in Guatemala, and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is instructive here. At the end of 1998, the New York Times broke the story that Menchú's celebrated autobiography was filled with inaccuracies and downright misrepresentations. In his book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, American anthropologist David Stoll concluded after a decade of research that I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala "cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be" because Menchú...