SENIOR POWER: Memoirs, Memories

By Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Thursday January 16, 2014 - 04:08:00 PM

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about memoirs. All these references to memoirs and memoir-writing and writing about one’s own memories. If you Google memoir-writing, you’ll get ‘how to’ do your own thing as well as eager ghost-writers galore! And there are senior center and library classes on memoir-writing. 

Just what is a memoir? It appears that a memoir can be anything you want it to be. Literary, autobiographical, book-length, or not. At the moment, former Secretary of Defense Robert Michael Gates (1943- )’s new book-- Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War -- is news. Controversy sells. 

Off hand, though, I can think of few authors whose books have been both memoirs and memorable. There’s Mary Therese McCarthy (1912-1989)’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, which is autobiographical, as well as her How I Grew and Intellectual Memoirs: New York: 1936-1938 (Harcourt Brace, 1957, 1987 and 1992.) Her best-selling novel, The Group (1963) was a sexual depiction of classmates at Vassar and their lives following college. McCarthy graduated from Vassar when it was a single-sex undergraduate college. (She did not write the screenplay of the 1966 movie.) 

Of his Palimpsest; A Memoir, Gore Vidal (1925-2012) wrote “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history.” A palimpsest is writing material (like a parchment or tablet) used after earlier writing has been erased. Not quite the same, but reminds me of Lillian Hellman’s (1905-1984) “pentimento.” 

And then there are the memoirs which make it to alumni magazines and public library collections. A memoir doesn’t have to be in book form, nor intended for a specific audience, although I suspect that many old persons (those with families) intend their memoirs to be for the benefit of their offspring.  

The memoirs of twenty women and men are compiled in We Are Here Stories: From the Berkeley Public Library Memoir Writing Workshop edited by Frances Lefkowitz and published by Paper in My Shoe Press of Petaluma in 2013. It is in both the Berkeley Public Library circulating and reference collections. Mark Donnelly, a Queens, New York outreach librarian and writer contributed “Memoir writing for older adult groups” to Librarians as Community Partners; An Outreach Handbook (2010). 

Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) wrote “… I verily believe some censuring readers will scornfully say, why hath this Lady writ her own life? Since none cares to know whose daughter she was or whose wife she is, or how she was bred, or what fortunes she had, or how she lived or what humour or disposition she was of. I answer that it is true, that ‘tis to no purpose to the readers, but it is to the authoress, because I write it for my own sake, not theirs.” [The True Relation of my Birth, Breeding, and Life. 1656] She had it right. My The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually; A Memoir isn’t in any library collections.  



Katherine Morris, MD, is a surgical oncologist, cancer researcher and assistant professor of medicine who practiced in Oregon, the first state to a pass a Death with Dignity Law, where she saw firsthand the importance of physician assisted suicide. She now practices medicine in New Mexico and is a plaintiff in Morris v. New Mexico, Compassion & Choices' suit seeking the Court's recognition that physician aid in dying for mentally competent patients with terminal illnesses is in no way an "assisted suicide" as currently prohibited in New Mexico. The case goes to trial in December. Aja Riggs is a New Mexico woman with advanced uterine cancer who is also a plaintiff. Dr. Aroop Mangalik is a practicing oncologist as well as clinical researcher in internal medicine and hematology-oncology, and a professor of medicine. 

Mangalik, Morris and Riggs are asking the court to declare that physicians who provide a prescription for medication to a mentally competent, terminally ill patient, which the patient could consume to bring about a peaceful death, would not be subject to criminal prosecution under existing New Mexico law, which makes a crime of assisting another to “commit suicide.” 

The case asserts that choice of a dying patient for a peaceful death is no kind of “suicide and the physician does not assist such a patient in “committing suicide.” Compassion & Choices and the ACLU of New Mexico represent the plaintiffs.