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Biography 24.4 (2001) 917-922

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Leigh Gilmore. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony.Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001. 148 pp. ISBN 0-8014-3799-7, $39.95 cloth; ISBN 0-8014-8674-2, $16.95.

The title of Leigh Gilmore's new book is slightly misleading. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony contains much more than a critique of the genre's limitations; this compelling study seeks to enlarge our awareness of the ways in which texts not properly defined as autobiography nonetheless engage the most fundamental questions underlying the self-representational impulse. Gilmore focuses on autobiographical stories of trauma and violence not to read (as many recently have) the current popularity of memoir through the lens of identity politics or talk-show-style confession, but--more provocatively--to explore the strategies writers employ when the constraints of both narrative form and jurisprudence would serve to hinder rather than elicit the telling of a traumatic past.

Gilmore's argument hinges on the notion that representing a traumatized identity is in some sense a nearly impossible act, given the evidentiary demands that govern both autobiography and the law, and in view of the tension between the representative individual of autobiography and the private, psychical domain marked by the burden of trauma. How, she asks, do writers "lay claim to . . . a nonrepresentative self?" (21). How does the survivor of trauma represent that which eludes language--that which is, perhaps, unimaginable to others? How does a writer establish connection with readers when the very act of identification threatens to render those readers victims or voyeurs? And how do marginalized writers record trauma, when by virtue of gender, race, or sexuality they have no legitimate status with which to voice the crime, or when violence is shielded and even endorsed by Western patriarchal culture?

Such questions bring into view what Gilmore describes as the generative "limits" of autobiography. Comprised of chapters on Dorothy Allison, Mikal Gilmore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jeanette Winterson, The Limits of Autobiography details "against-the-grain engagements at the limit of autobiography" (13), which, the author contends, produce not only new textual forms but also new ways of representing and conceiving selfhood. Through theoretically nuanced, lucid, and insightful readings, Gilmore demonstrates the ability of narrative to transform trauma, to speak to a certain truth about the [End Page 917] relationship between trauma and identity that goes beyond the exigencies of accuracy and objectivity that pertain to a juridical context. To defy the "documentary" expectations that attend the confessing of violence (expectations that may serve more to silence than to protect the victim), Allison, Gilmore, Kincaid, and Winterson turn to the liberatory possibilities of the imagination--not, Leigh Gilmore argues, to minimize or avoid autobiographical representation, but rather to discover a form of self-disclosure untroubled by expectations of "reality" or the need to maintain a "sovereign self" (148). Challenging, as Gilmore puts it, "the assumption that honesty lies in personal revelation"(24), these writers deploy such tactics as fictionalizing or mythologizing themselves, serialization, biography, and the eschewal of names to open a space in which alternative tales can be told.

The Limits of Autobiographybegins by describing current sociological and psychological definitions of trauma, as well as the controversies surrounding trauma and memory (accusations of False Memory Syndrome, for example, which Gilmore debunks with admirable clarity). Gilmore suggests that the problem of defining traumatic experience is bound up with issues of power and of control over narrative: who gets to tell the story, whose story is being told, whose memories are more accurate, and so forth. The introduction includes fascinating discussions of Foucault's role in the publication of I, Pierre Rivière (a collection of documents concerning a nineteenth-century case of multiple homicide); and of Althusser's The Future Lasts Forever, a "memoir of the impact of childhood trauma" (38) that stands in for the testimony Althusser never officially gave after he murdered, apparently in a psychotic state, his wife Hélène. These brief readings raise certain key points that inform the rest of Gilmore's study...