Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 10 of 24 books in 28 days: incidents in the life of a slave girl: written by herself

Filed in Books, Memoir, Writing :: February 21, 2010


In a comment to my post on Running with Scissors, Sam Beal opened the can of worms that waits near any conversation about memoir by asking: "So did it seem like 'fiction' the 2nd time around?" 

The answer is I'm afraid so, but I don't know whether Burroughs' book is fiction.  Why does it seem like fiction?  It can't be only because the material is over the top of some definition of normal life–we don't often want to read memoirs about normal life.  It is over-the-top-ness that makes many memoirs fascinating.  So why does it seem like fiction?  I think it's intangible, a question of voice, a feeling, based on details included and omitted.

So when I reread Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (first published in 1861), I was aware that, in my edition anyway, nearly one third of the book's pages were devoted to backup of all kinds: copies and transcripts of letters to and from Jacobs; photographs; footnotes upon footnotes; maps and diagrams.

Jacobs writes that at 14 years old, "The war of my life had begun; and though one of God's most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered.  Alas, for me!"  Her life was a war, and her writing was also caught in a web of memoir/fiction conflicts. 

If she told the truth about her life as a slave (seven years of which she spent hidden in an attic to avoid being raped by her owner and to keep him from harming her children as a means of extracting
vengeance on her), other people would be in danger, so she needed to change names and locations.

If she changed things too much, she would be accused of lying.  People who sympathized with the slaveholders would defend Dr. Flint, and might claim that she, a slave, could not have written this compelling narrative.  She also risked the scorn of her readers, and their inability to empathize with her, because of her consensual relationship with another white man who fathered her children. 

She used the conventions of popular nineteenth-century "seduction" novel, addressing her readers repeatedly, and, given the "scandalous" nature of her story, asking for their understanding and recognizing one side of the risk she takes by writing.  She writes,

And now, reader, I come to a period in my unhappy life, which I would gladly forget if I could.  The remembrance fills me with sorrow and shame.  It pains me to tell you of it, but I have promised to tell you the truth, and I will do it honestly, let it cost me what it may.

The last sentences of the book, she writes of her mixed feelings about her life and her book:

The dream of my life is not yet realized.  I do not sit with my children in a home of my own.  . . .  It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage.  I would gladly forget them if I could.  Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea.

The sentimental remembrance of her grandmother, though in keeping with the conventions of the fictional style she emulates, seems incongruous as memoir.  I don't doubt for a minute the truth of Jacobs' story, but this line underlines the tension for me. 

So what makes a memoir "seem" like fiction to you?

Filed in Books, Memoir, Writing