Review: When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography by Jill Ker Conway Print E-mail

when_memory_speaks(San Diego Union-Tribune March 22, 1998)

A Mostly Male Form

Jill Ker Conway, feminist historian of memoir, knows the form firsthand. Her best-selling The Road From Coorain (1989) captured her indomitable family and hard-knocks girlhood in the Australian outback as well as her self-sufficiency when that family was plagued by loss.

True North (1994) showed her immigrating to the United States to study history at Harvard and later to teach at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in women's issues. Now, with When Memory Speaks, Conway charts the slow, at times ossified, growth of memoir over the last 200 years.

She contends that patriarchy has fixed the genre: Only men are allowed the "agency" of self-awareness when presenting the story of their lives. Agency arises from the belief that life "is an odyssey, a journey through many trials and tests, which the hero must surmount alone through courage, endurance, cunning and moral strength."

Among the archetypal male epics Conway inspects are those by Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass and Henry Ford, each of whom claims to have manufactured his own destiny. Living it "my way" is muted in female memoir: The woman's autobiographical script opposes agency because the heroine must portray herself unselfishly, which also means, romantically.

Forced to complement men, she "has no . . . power to act on her own behalf.

Things happen to her—adventures, lovers, reversals of fortune."

As a life-writer, she conceals her desires and devotes herself most often to others. The classic self-censoring woman's autobiography comes from lesser-known 19th-century authors like Harriet Martineau, Jane Addams and Margaret Sanger.

These women, Conway learns from their biographers, lived lives of forceful individuality—but their memoirs resemble Jane Austen-like romantic fiction, written to ply Victorian propriety (selfless and sexless) rather than to claim authority. It's true that past male and female life-writers have slavishly emphasized what they believed were their separate and immutable biological dispositions.

Yet Conway argues such pinks and blues are misguided because the presentation of self is far more culturally determined than gender-based. This concept, her most provocative, is convincing only when she applies it to the current trend in memoir writing.

Today, thanks to feminism, male and female authors freely mix agency and passivity, ego and romance, in portraits of traumatic experience with family.

To illustrate, Conway guides us through Mary Karr's The Liar's Club to show the writer as epic heroine, taking control of her destiny.

She plumbs Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin' to gauge a young author who is profoundly influenced by his self-sacrificing mother, giving her, and not himself, credit for his journalistic success. The agency of family seems ripe for exploration but, alas, Conway ends too soon.

Maybe in her next study.

For now, her insights on the new agency of women who have, at last, begun to tell their stories selfishly are worth savoring. "Western culture has elevated the romantic heroine to pre-eminent place in its governing myths," she writes, "and, at least until very recently, has regarded women as less morally developed than men, or less able to exercise abstract moral reasoning.

But it's hard for someone who doesn't acknowledge agency, even to herself, to reason very cogently about the morality of her actions.

Once we've acquiesced in concealing our agency from ourselves and others, we've lost our moral moorings."