Autobiography as Vestibule


By Jill Ker Conway

Alfred A. Knopf, 205 pp., $23

The first person singular serves as the most fascinating of all pronouns. In person and in print, it raises a tantalizing question: Who is the real person behind the "I," however bold or meek, self-righteous or self-effacing the "I" might be?

As Jill Ker Conway explains in "When Memory Speaks," even autobiography can fail to answer that question. Describing memoir as "the most popular form of fiction for modern readers," she shows how it involves "censorship for public self-presentation."

Conway, a former president of Smith College, is herself the author of two acclaimed autobiographies, "The Road From Coorain" and "True North." In this brief history of the genre, she examines why readers like to read about other people's lives and why men and women choose to write their life stories.

To illustrate, she draws on autobiographers ranging from St. Augustine to W.E.B. DuBois and Lee Iacocca, from pioneer and slave women to Virginia Woolf and Gloria Steinem. In particular, she focuses on ways in which cultural assumptions about gender shape the telling of a life story. She emphasizes the importance of agency - the capacity to act on one's own behalf rather than being acted upon, to actively shape life experiences.

There are, she explains, "archetypal life scripts" for both sexes. For men, the "overarching pattern for life" involves adapting the story of the epic hero in classical antiquity. "Life is an odyssey, a journey through many trials and tests, which the hero must surmount alone through courage, endurance, cunning, and moral strength." The active voice dominates.

Women, by contrast, fall back on a more romantic view and the passive voice. They portray themselves not as agents but as objects, focusing more on interior life than on action. Yet as Conway notes, "We can be sure that whenever women autobiographers are hiding behind the passive voice and the conditional tense, they are depicting events in which they acted forthrightly upon a preconceived, rational plan."

This is a wide-ranging book, too random and scattered at times. Still, it surveys a variety of intriguing life stories.

As autobiographers weave their chosen threads of experience - some glittering and strong, others plain and ragged - into the tapestry of a life, they may partially explain their own "I" to themselves and others. In the process, they might also help to illuminate their readers' lives. As Conway observes, "That magical opportunity of entering another life is what really sets us thinking about our own."

* Marilyn Gardner is a Monitor staff writer.

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