Truth in Memoir: Omission vs. Commission

UnknownFor memoir writers, one of the most interesting things about the 2013 Oscar awards is the amount of ink spilled on the subject of truth in films that cover historical events or figures.  We’ve seen a host of opinions, for example, about the accuracy of the interrogation scenes in Zero Dark Thirty.  

There seems to be no conclusive evidence pro or con.

It is not my intent to weigh in on the accuracy of the debate.  But the debate has highlighted another aspect of truth in story telling—the intentional omission of an important piece of information.

Could the writers and producers have told the story of Osama bin Laden’s capture without including those very disturbing interrogation scenes? Perhaps, although it would have been a very different story.

But should those scenes have been left out, as suggested by Senator Diane Feinstein, so as to avoid going “back to those dark times?”

I think not. Whatever your view of interrogation as an intelligence tool, torture did take place in the effort to find bin Laden.  To intentionally leave these interrogations out of the story constitutes a form of revisionism or white-washing of our history.

There is a lesson here for memoir writers, who often struggle with revealing emotionally difficult details.  I remember clearly, as I wrote Sailing Down the Moonbeam, having my writing partners tell me that no one was forcing me to tell the story of my three-year sailing journey.  On the other hand, they said repeatedly, if I was going to tell the story, I had to be honest about it. I couldn’t leave out the embarrassing or painful parts.

Every author has the right to choose what story he or she wants to tell. But having chosen the story, the author has an obligation to tell the whole truth of the story, not just the incidents and events that put the author in the best light.

Is this something that you’ve struggled with in writing your memoir?



  1. Hi Mary,
    This is such a powerful issue. In writing my memoir, I chose certain themes and told what I felt was relevant. (No one needs to know what the author ate for breakfast.) But I agree, for those parts we do tell, we should be honest, even when the episode doesn’t cast us in the best light. We all make mistakes. Hopefully, the memoir will show how we grew through the various experiences we now share.
    [My memoir isn’t published yet. I’m in the “actively seeking an agent stage.”]

    • Thanks Lori. I’m glad you agree it’s a big issue. I think we learn more from our mistakes than our successes, but if we can’t find a way to talk about them, we probably haven’t learned the lesson that was there!

  2. Oh yes. I struggled. There were incidents that were R or even X rated and I had to debate about whether they were relevant to the story or would just be gratuitous violence. And evaluating is the key. The interrogation scenes of Zero Dark 30 probably weren’t pleasant, (I haven’t seen the film) but important to the arc of the story. But even still there are ways to write a scene without too much unpleasantness and still get the point across. I suppose there will always be critics. We just do the best we can and stay true to ourselves.

    • Hi Grace. Yes, there certainly are different ways to portray any event … but I’m thinking (again, probably) about the emotional truth rather than just the graphic details. In the film, for example, they could have left out any one of the gruesome examples without much harm, but had they left them all out, it would have changed the story. The emotional truth is that the interrogations were terrible for the people who suffered through them, and perhaps for those who inflicted them.

  3. Yes! It is hard especially with time because I know I need to get into the grit but sometimes it is so hard to explain from myself not wanting to remember it.

    • Sofia … sometimes those memories are very painful, but at least from my experience, it is such a relief to say them out loud … if only because you often find that others have had similar painful experiences. There is (some) comfort in not being alone.

  4. Senator Fienstein’s take on ZeroDarkThirty’s inclusion of the torture scenes sadly smacks of revisionism. Think of WW2 Germany with no mention of the Holocaust. Think of Huckleberry Finn without the “N” word. For example, I know that in the spirit of “everybody just getting along” society has evolved to not even want to hear mention of what was an established, national institution, namely slavery, until 1865. The culture that used slaves was seriously flawed, and in fact, quite evil, but we need to remember. Without memory of where we’ve been, our culture has no idea where we’re heading. Memoir that selectively eliminates the ugly parts does a disservice to those who need to learn from it. We’re a terribly flawed species. We have a great deal to be sorry for, but part of learning to forgive ourselves and move forward is to never lose sight of the terrible things we have done, even when they were for the “right” reasons. ZDT goes far to make sure that in our satisfaction that justice was served, we don’t ever forget how it was accomplished.

    • Richard … a beautifully articulated response on the subject of revisionism. But I also appreciate your comfort about doing a disservice to those who can learn from the past, whether it be our national history or our own individual stories. Thank you, thank you!

  5. Well, first thing to note is that Zero Dark Thirty is fiction. Historical fiction is the truth turned into a commercial product designed to appeal to a mass audience. Often that means add sex and/or violence and twist the truth until it’s a thin thread. Often there’s an agenda. It’s called artistic license to change the story. Think James Frey’s memoir. Zero Dark Thirty is a war movie, hence violence is expected. Torture was used on certain persons in the war against Al Quaida and IMO should have been shown in the movie, but the facts around the use of this type of torture were not included. The audience, therefore, does not have the whole picture and smart people will go do their own research if curious.

    As for our memoirs, if something, good or bad, is important to the story or to character development, then it should (needs to) be included. If these moments or events are graphic, the author has a choice to temper it a bit for the intended audience. I personally don’t appreciate sudden explicit violence or sex thrown into an otherwise G, PG or even R-rated book as it’s not necessary. I have had nightmares from reading unexpected, sudden graphic violence and been put off by reading unexpected sexual accounts I felt were TMI (too much information) for the story. I agree with Grace – there’s a line we need to understand before we cross it. Does something need to be in the story, and how exactly do we word it so it fits in with the rest of the story.

    • Thanks Linda … I suspect that Feinstein’s complaint was unrelated to whether ZDT was pure fiction or historical fiction or a documentary. The scary thing is the notion that we tell the good parts of the story, but leave out the bad. The issue, as I noted above, is not the violence or sordidness of specific details, but the denial of the emotional truth of the event … or the case of ZDT, a 10 year long sequence of events. The same is true for a memoir … if the chain of events includes some embarrassing details or painful mistakes, the memoir is false if they are consciously omitted!

  6. Paige Adams Strickland says

    Hi Mary, Good point here. I think, if it is a part of the gist / pertinent to the theme(s) of your story, truth needs to be told. if it isn’t it may not be necessary. I just cut a little detail out of the background info of one of my “characters” in my memoir. It was unnecessary info and could be embarrassing to the person I reference. I have changed her name, but still…I didn’t want to deal with it, and she would see herself anyway if she reads my work. We cannot sugar-coat everything and avoid the negative or else we wouldn’t have a decent conflict for our stories. P.

    • Paige … missed your comment in my travels, but your point is very taken. There is one place in Sailing Down the Moonbeam — a single sentence only — where I made an honest, and I thought humorous, observation which I later realized was unnecessarily hurtful. And it wasn’t necessary to the story. It was an important lesson!

  7. Great point that it’s not just what we do say but what we don’t say that determines how honest we are being. It seems to me it comes down to one simple question. Does the reader need this information in order to understand what really happened? If not, then it’s optional. If they do need it, then it’s hard to justify leaving it out. With that said, however, we are always leaving out critical information because we all have filters through which we see the world. That’s unconscious, though. Once it becomes a conscious choice to leave out necessary information, that’s dishonest.

    • A nice distinction, Sue. The challenge, to me, is often that your version of what the reader “needs” is influenced by what story you think you want to tell. It’s only the reader who can determine if you are indeed a credible witness. Several of the more powerful moments in Sailing Down the Moonbeam appear as they do only because members of my writing group said that what I first wrote didn’t ring true.

  8. Mary,
    I agree with you. Richard really hit home with his comment. We absolutely must be truthful with history, especially when pertaining to our conduct with other people and nations. Such events are painful to read and even more painful to watch, but if we don’t examine our humanity for what it is, we’ll continue to make the same mistakes and incite the same conflicts with other nations and cultures.
    However, I think the issue is more difficult when we’re writing our own memoirs. I find it difficult to step outside myself in the attempt to be truthful — and fair. I do think some stories can be told quite effectively, even if certain events or people are omitted, provided the omission isn’t crucial to theme or characterization. It’s a hard line … where to stop and where to cross.
    I have yet to read Sailing Down the Moonbeam, but it’s on my Kindle. I look forward to reading it.

    • Deb … belatedly, thanks for your observations … Bit I still worry about that common boundary between history and personal stories … the point when each contain a grain of truth about ourselves that is uncomfortable to acknowledge. It is a hard line to fine and follow honestly.

  9. I struggled with the right and wrongs of what to reveal in
    my memoir. It came down to truth for me, if I was telling a true
    story I had to tell the whole truth, no matter what.
    I’m so glad I went with the truth instead of being evasive.

    • Doreen … I have yet to read your book (it’s on my Kindle), but I gather that there many hard moments in the writing of it. I am wondering what happened that made you “glad I went with the truth.” Was it a personal view or a response to the book itself?