Memories in Memoirs: Believe Them or Not?

Think back to when you were four years old and what do you remember?  Can you recall large swaths of time, conversations, clothing, daily events, and all the other minutiae, or are your memories more like mine–snapshots of events, some colored by recollections of other family members?

Here I am on July 11, 1979 (going from age 4 to 5)

I turned four in 1978 and have a handful of memories that aren’t so much mini-movies with dialog and action as a collection of Polaroid pictures in my mind:

  • Sitting on the sofa listening to Stevie Wonder records with my Aunt Nina while the rest of the family was off in other areas of the house celebrating a holiday of some sort
  • Getting my hand stuck in an 8-track player–the player was built into the wet bar in our basement’s rec room
  • Touring a home that my parents would soon buy–I specifically remember a fish tank in the bedroom that would later become mine
  • Getting to select a prize from a treasure box at my dentist’s office after a cavity-free visit–I selected a giant plastic skeleton key and promptly broke it when I got home and tried to use it in our side door
  • Helping my Nanny plant a peanut tree in my backyard and coping with the epic disappointment when peanuts didn’t materialize on the tree overnight (or any time in the next few days)

The reason for my question and subsequent trip down memory lane is to determine if I’m alone with my literary skepticism.  I’m having trouble with a new audio book–a memoir–because the author spent the first two discs detailing her days as a four-year-old child.  Understand that the author wasn’t just sketching out some broad memories; rather, she tells lengthy stories of daily events, getting down every detail with such exactness that I found myself questioning her credibility as a narrator.

In the acknowledgments, the author states that the memoir is true but some names have been changed to protect that guilty and innocent.  After the James Frey debacle a few years ago, more authors are adding notes like these to memoirs, but I don’t think anyone (aside from a person gifted with a savant-like memory) could recall any event from a distance of 40+ years with such clarity.

I’m curious:  Do other memoir fans feel that before a certain age, no author could possibly remember events with such detail?  Am I just being too literal here–should I assume the author has taken a bit of creative license with her memories? And, if you’re so inclined, what is one of your earliest memories?

14 Comments

  • At 2011.11.02 23:46, softdrink said:

    I’ve heard people say they have very vivid childhood memories.

    But not me. I hardly remember anything. For the age of 4, I have a handful of memories from when we lived out in the boonies of Oregon (my parents converted a barn into a home). I remember playing with Matchbox cars in the outhouse (yes, I’m serious), being alone in the trailer while everyone was working on the barn and muttering curse words that I’d overheard, and waking up and seeing my dad without his beard for the first time ever.
    softdrink´s last blog post ..Life in Miniature

    • At 2011.11.03 04:30, vivienne said:

      I agree with you. I can’t remember much beyond seven or eight. I would be really surprised if the author could. I would imagine the stories they are telling have been supplemented by older members of the family.
      vivienne´s last blog post ..My Favourite Witches – Film and Television

      • At 2011.11.03 09:16, bermudaonion (Kathy) said:

        I’ve read some memoirs that have made me skeptical when the author remembers vivid details at such a young age, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have a feeling I might even know what book you’re talking about. Unless it’s too unbelievable, I just decide to accept it.
        bermudaonion (Kathy)´s last blog post ..Review: Fun and Games

        • At 2011.11.03 10:21, Chrisbookarama said:

          I would be skeptical of a memoir that goes into that kind of detail of themselves at four. They would have to be pretty stand out memories.

          We’re the same age and I can’t say for sure what I remember from that year. And the memories I do have I could have been 3,4,5, or 6. Who knows? I also suspect that some of my memories are just things I made up from the stories my parents tell.
          Chrisbookarama´s last blog post ..Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy: Blogher Book Club

          • At 2011.11.03 11:19, Ti said:

            I think it depends o the person. My earliest memories were of me at age 18 months. Those are sketchy but when I hit 2, I remember those details as if they just happened. I was either a very alert kid or I was a bit of a nut because the attention to detail was great back then. I spent hours just sitting, watching and soaking things up.

            As far as accuracy goes, what wavered was my impression of what went on. Yes, such and such happened, but was it really that big? That scary? That kind of stuff depends on your size at the time, what you had been exposed to up until that point, etc. I just went to a friend’s funeral and it was held in the neighborhood I grew up in. I remembered it to a T, but now, the street seemed sooo much smaller, the houses…so much smaller, not at pretty, etc.
            Ti´s last blog post ..Review: The Train of Small Mercies

            • At 2011.11.03 15:34, Dishy said:

              I can recall a few distinct memories from when I was very young, but not day-to-day type specifics. For instance, I remember a time when I was about 2 yrs old, sitting on a picnic blanket and being very scared by a Daddy Longlegs. My father reassured me that daddy longlegs are very gentle and don’t bite. I can recall him picking it up and showing me. That memory is very clear. But it’s a rarity. I remember lots of things and events – even foods I used to make – but not in crystal clear detail.

              • At 2011.11.03 16:43, A Southern Cousin said:

                Ahh, memory lane. I vividly remember Pop telling Nanny to hop on her broom and take a ride. . . I remember macaroni salad with perfectly shaped green pepper slices on top at family picnics. . . I remember being thrilled to play badminton with the adults in your backyard on 4th of July . . . I remember my shock at age 10 when I realized that other people ate turkey at Thanksgiving (and not our family favorite of stuffed shells. Gasp!)

                • At 2011.11.03 20:43, Jenners said:

                  First of all, you are an adorable 4-year-old!

                  Second, I think you are totally right. I doubt anyone could recall specific details or events from that age … other than random memories that are probably off a little bit. Like you, I remember snippets of stuff (usually unconnected and of small random moments that stayed with me for some reason.) And 4??? I’m sure I have some memories from then but I’d not know exactly what age I was. Even from college, there are large swaths of time that I seem to have completely forgotten (and not from drinking or anything.) I take all memoirs with a grain of salt. For me to really believe, it must be written by an adult about a pretty specific event that you would remember clearly. Still, when you’re a good writer (like say David Sedaris) you could make up entire events about your childhood and I’d still read it.
                  Jenners´s last blog post ..Writer’s Workshop: A Day In the Life of Romeo

                  • At 2011.11.03 23:11, Gwen said:

                    I barely remember 5 years ago, but my BF can remember everything from about 3 years old on. (and he is in his 60’s !) It freaks me out, how well he can describe everything. Still, he is the first person that I have ever met that remembers things in such detail, so yes, I question it when I read a memoir that it is that specific.
                    Gwen´s last blog post ..The Girl Who Would Speak For The Dead by Paul Elwork

                    • At 2011.11.05 03:05, Bybee said:

                      My own memories are few and patchy.
                      Bybee´s last blog post ..The DNF Files: The Criminal – Jim Thompson

                      • At 2011.11.05 20:13, Colleen said:

                        Now I want to know what memoir this is! I read a lot of memoirs and generally go into them expecting that creative license is taken with memories but that the core of the story is true. I don’t remember much from when I was 4 and I think most of that is patched together with stories I have been told from family so that now it is hard to tell what I remember and what I have just been told.

                        Great topic for a post!

                        • At 2011.11.08 07:39, Virginia said:

                          I envy people who can remember vividly events from childhood, and I’ve read that some people have more of a facility for doing it than others. But I agree that in the case of the memoir you’ve been listening to on audiobook, the level of detail seems a little suspicious. Personally, I know that what could pass for a memory of helping my father dig up our driveway at six (or get in his way, more likely) or the dress I wore to Sunday School, is simply a recollection based on a photo of the event. My current work in progress, which is partly autobiographical but aiming to be much broader – about the impact of studying music as a young girl and my decision to pursue words rather than music as a career – relies more on feeling and emotion than on specific details. Having said that, it’s also true that when you’re deep into drafting your words, the process itself can tend to open up memories that were unconscious to that moment.

                          • At 2011.11.15 22:48, stacybuckeye said:

                            Most of my early memories come from pictures I’ve seen and my parents have told me about. I have maybe a handful of real memories before (I can think of 4 offhand so maybe there are more). I do question memoirs where so much detail is given about something that happened at such a young age. Now you’ve got me thinking!
                            stacybuckeye´s last blog post ..Initial Quiz

                            • At 2011.11.19 12:47, Christy said:

                              Cute picture!

                              Your description of the book makes me think of Melissa Coleman’s This Life is In Your Hands which I couldn’t finish, partially because of credibility, but mostly because it was kind of boring.

                              I’m amazed when people can attach a memory to a specific age. I can maybe get a range of ages for a memory, helped by the fact that our family moved a couple of times when I was young.

                              I have a few very early memories. I remember when our dirt street was paved. Before the pavement had dried, I walked on it in my bare feet. And then I remember my mom scrubbing and scrubbing my feet in the bathtub. I also remember making my parents upset when I wandered over to the neighbor’s house without telling them I was going there. Also, I must have seen a trailer or something of E.T. because I thought I saw him through the window, tottering through the path in our backyard, and it scared me.
                              Christy´s last blog post ..The Help by Kathryn Stockett

                              (Required)
                              (Required, will not be published)

                              CommentLuv badge