BLS 320 – Telling Stories
October 5, 2009
Fantasies in Memory
There is an old adage that says there are three sides to every story, what one side says, what the other side says, and what truly happened. It’s not that both sides are purposefully lying, necessarily, but more than likely each remembers events differently. Our memories, especially over time, become shaded by our emotions, so much that the way we remember something that happened to us as a child is likely not exactly how it happened. In writing a memoir, which is by definition an accounting of one’s personal experiences, an author cannot help but to retell his or her life as shaded by how they remember it. In their retelling of their childhoods both Jeanette Walls and bell hooks do just that, each in their own way, and in doing so provide the reader with the chance to consider how their own memories are changed by time.
In the forward to her novel Bone Black author bell hooks describes her writing as “imagistic” (xi). She writes her story as a collection of “dreams, fantasies and experiences” (xiv), and tells us that “the events described are always less significant than the impressions they leave on the mind and heart” (xv). From the beginning we know not to expect everything we read to be the whole truth in regards to the events she describes. It is certain that there is some truth to the stories hooks tells us, whether it’s a tale about how would talk with a green snake she played with (hooks 11) or how as children they thought Miss Erma was saying ‘thank god for hot paprika’ (44), but each brief glimpse into her life is filtered by her memories of the people and events. The way she writes about her world – real and imagined – makes it hard to know exactly what is real and what is imagined.
Through the entire memoir bell hooks describes the world in which she grew up through her own eyes. Often times those descriptions seemed surreal, or she would use an outsider’s point of view as though to distance herself from the events. She talks about her baptism in this way, a spectator of such a momentous occasion. “When she gave herself to god she was not afraid” (hooks 70). In looking at that particular event as if it were not her own memory she makes it into something greater than her. She also writes about her move to a room of her own in this way, where she lives “in exile” (hooks 111) in her brother’s room downstairs, and about how as a young girl she first discovered self-pleasure: “when she finds pleasure touching her body, she knows that they will think it is wrong” (hooks 113). In fact, hooks writes several chapters entirely in third person, all focused around her developing sexuality. These events being written in third person seem to describe some very important events in her life, events that she wants to explain without the clouding of emotions tied to those events.
Hooks makes extensive use of imagery as well. “Lies are like bombs … they explode into the air shattering everything in sight” (79) she writes at the beginning of an anecdote where one of her sisters is caught lying. She and the other black children are likened to “cattle, to be herded, prodded pushed .. [they] are slaughtered .. [they] can hear the sound of paddles reverberating .. as black boys are struck by the white principles” (hooks 155). In relaying her memories with such vibrant images, she is reinforcing the impact of the stories. Hooks uses this as well as writing in third person as a way to show the importance of certain memories within her memoir, and reminds the reader that sometimes it’s not the details of the memory but the reactions one has to them that is most important.
Walls’ description of the unbelievable way she was raised is less dramatic than hooks’ own colorful anecdotes, but is no less effective at providing the reader with a glimpse into her memories of her childhood. Her retellings of her unorthodox upbringing begin quite dramatically as she describes how at the age of three, she was hospitalized with very serious burns she received while cooking hot dogs for herself (Walls 9-11). It seems unlikely that someone can remember something from such a young age – I have been told I was reading at that age, but I can’t remember it – but Walls describes her “earliest memory” (9) with shocking clarity.
Jeanette Walls describes things that most adults would not notice with so much detail it’s as though she were looking at photographs of the events. Snapshots of scenes, like when she was attacked by older girls and then her brother Brian helped her defend herself (Walls 45) , when she fell out of the family car and had to wait, bloody and scared they weren’t coming back for her (Walls 30), on the side of the road, or when she rode with her siblings in the back of a U-haul truck (Walls 49), or had to protect herself from a boy who wanted to take advantage of her (Walls 88), when she and her brother chased and cornered a rat (156), or the description of her being whipped with a belt after talking back to her mother (220) are all without emotion. Unlike hooks, whose memories seem filled with ties to her feelings at the times of the anecdotes the describes, Walls offers a more objective view of her past, another way of expression memories that keeps her emotions separate, unreadable. It’s as though Walls is trying to tell us that it’s the events themselves and not her feelings at the time of them that are important.
Both Jeanette Walls and bell hooks poured a lot of themselves into their memoirs, both using different techniques to express the importance of the memories they described. From hooks, we are presented with memories as fantasies and dreams, a reminder that our memories are always subjective, and depend greatly on the emotions involved in the memories. Through Walls we get a different picture entirely. Her retelling of her past is almost emotionless, the entirety of her memoir told as though she were describing someone else’s life. Both women however provide the reader with a detailed description of their lives as young children, both of them offering the reader the opportunity to consider their own memories, and whether they view them like Walls, unemotional and distanced, or like hooks, tied to her emotions and to the images more than the events.
hooks, bell. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1996. Print.
“memoir.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 06 Oct. 2009. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/memoir>.
Walls, Jeanette. The Glass Castle. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.