Is It My Story or Yours?

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We are a tribe of natural storytellers, truth-proprietors, dream-weavers. We speak for and over each other as a matter of course; oral historians torn from Talmudic cloth, we recreate family legends as much to claim ownership of them as to throw younger members off-scent when we believe they’re too young to manage the tragedy of history. We laugh easily, argue passionately, are in love with the human fabric and color of personal chronicle; our own family stories and tales morph and mutate with every retelling across the generations like a game of telephone, until the thin, sharp line of fact becomes frayed and hazy, like a figure shrinking in a rear-view mirror.

That’s not the way it happened, a cousin tells me when I recount the story of a particular event from my childhood at which she was not present. That’s not the way it happened, she repeats this phrase that peals like a bell at our gatherings. We pass the gravy, we pour the wine, we correct and lovingly admonish. In my family, the truth is often veiled behind storm clouds of possession: even if your story is yours, the message warns, the truth is not yours to tell.

During the sixteen months that it took for me to write my first memoir—a plaiting together of food, family, and love both filial and romantic—I laid awake every night, knowing that the fulcrum of the story, of my story, was directly tethered to someone else’s: nearly a century ago, my paternal grandmother—the tiny one who used to stand in the kitchen in her gold vinyl slippers making gefilte fish for her Sabbath dinner—left her husband and two young children. My aunt, now in her nineties, believed herself to be successful in concealing from her family the tragic tale of her mother’s leaving, and in part, she was; one of her grown children didn’t know about it until she was in her mid-sixties. One younger cousin had been told that it was actually my grandfather who left; she was thrown off-scent. Another heard different versions of the story from the time she was a teenager. But in deference to my aunt’s unshakable conviction that her mother’s departure was a deep, dark family secret—even though nearly everyone knew about it—it was never discussed openly. At least not in my aunt’s presence.

On the other hand, my father, who died fourteen years ago, spent his life making the story of his mother’s desertion part of the air we breathed in my childhood home. From the time I could understand spoken language, I listened to my father ruminate over his mother’s truncated abandonment—she eventually returned—at the dinner table, in the car, on vacation, as blithely as one might discuss the weather. I was a nervous, dour child, and I became so completely possessed by the possibility that a mother could go out to an afternoon matinee at the local movie theater and simply not come back, that separation anxiety ruled my life far longer and more intensely than it should have, even as an adult. Like my father, whose relentless recounting of the story in the most mundane of ways was an attempt to normalize and somehow codify a grief that could not be held, I looked for comfort and reassurance of safety and security everywhere, ultimately finding it in the nurturing, grounding act of cooking. The truth of my grandmother’s leaving is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes. As someone who has spent many years writing about food, it made me who I am; I search endlessly for sustenance, for safety, and for my tribe, and so my memoirs—both the first one, and now, the second one, Treyf, hinge, in large part, on that story.

“It was very brave of you to call me—“ my aunt said coldly, when I phoned to wish her a happy Jewish New Year, as tradition requires one does with the oldest member of the family. My first memoir had come out six months earlier.

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“…but your story was not yours to tell,” she added, taking nearly an hour to explain how I had singlehandedly destroyed our family by revealing a truth that she had spent almost a century concealing, convinced all the while that she had been successful, even as her brother had fed me the story like pabulum from the time I could understand words.

“I loved you,” she said, finally. And then she hung up.

Breathless, the air kicked out of my lungs, I stared out the window of my study at the thicket of trees in the distance and wept. We have not spoken since.

In writing memoir, who owns your truth? Who owns your story if it involves someone else? Is a secret really a secret if everyone knows about it? The work of memoir is, at best, fraught; the obstinate clench of the past rules the present not only on paper, but in our oral traditions. That’s why oral traditions exist in the first place—so that we can face our past and know who we are, and where we come from, and remember. We tell stories over and over in order to heal our tragedies and share our joys, and assure ourselves of the continuity of our place in the human condition. The truths that we reveal in memoir, unless we’ve spent our lives as hermits, are, by their nature, implicitly connected to the truths of others.

Still, the most difficult decision any memoirist faces is whether or not our own kernel of truth is important enough to the story to honor, and to share; without that kernel of truth, a memoir has no soul.

But with it, we risk everything.


Elissa Altman is the author of two memoirs: Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, Poor Man’s Feast, and the James Beard Award-winning narrative blog of the same name. More from this author →