The Modern Memoir: Popular Confession and How it Sells 'A Million Little Pieces'

By Edward A. Carr
2014, Vol. 6 No. 11 | pg. 3/4 |

Another reason that a writer would employ confession is that, as Berggren notes, “[w]ith the action of assimilation [through confession], the person again achieves mastery over himself and is once more in a condition to control personal experiences, tendencies and inclinations which previously, having withdrawn from his conscious personality and his will, pursued an independent course damaging to his mental health” (Berggren, 1975). In describing the psychiatry behind one of the benefits of confession, assimilation, in which “dissociated elements in the psyche reassociate,” Berggren illustrates one of the reasons that confession through memoir can be so powerful; in being able to express sins the writer can regain control of their lives (Berggren, 1975).

One of the powers of memoir is the ability to gain control from “tendencies and inclinations,” such as addiction, through the confession of those transgressions (Berggren, 1975). The confession of sin does not only unburden people it puts their mind at ease. A confession allows the confessor to “reassociate” and regain control of their lives. By confessing, the writer essentially is eliminating the negative aspect that left the writer pursuing a path that was not good for him. Confession is, basically, good for the mental health of the writer.

Almost the entirety of A Million Little Pieces is a mock confessional. One of the most confessional points in the book is a scene that, apparently, Frey actually never took part in. Frey recounts a friend from when he was young who was killed by a train accident. Frey twists the story and involves himself in the events. Frey claims that he pretended to be the girl’s date so she could go on a date with someone else (Frey, 2003).

Frey says that after his friend is killed, he is “blamed by her Parents and by their friends and by everyone else in that fucking hellhole. If she had not lied and I hadn't helped her, it would not have happened” (Frey, 2003). Frey reveals an incredible moment of isolation and pain to the reader. He even confesses to blaming himself for the accident. Frey says that if he had not lied to the girl’s parents she would have lived.

This is an intense moment to share with the reader. Frey is admitting to being associated with the death of this girl. This is exactly the sort of “painful or disturbing memory” that Berggren is talking about. In putting this memory in the book, Frey is relieving the burden of that memory. He then uses this memory to appeal to the out casts and welcome readers into the fold as Gilmour suggests confessionals do. Frey says that he is blamed for the death while the actual date, a football hero, is given sympathy (Frey, 2003). Frey is basically identifying with the ostracized, his confession is rooted in the fact that he is an outcast and in that confession he is drawing the outcasts.

The football hero walks and Frey is the one blamed for the incident simply because he is on the outside. Frey is basically “evangelizing,” as Gilmour puts it, to the outcasts and welcoming them to join his readership. Finally in including this story in the context of his recovery from drug addiction, the reader gets the sense that the confession of this story, the thought of this girl, somehow, is a step along the way to Frey’s recovery. In confessing this, Frey would be better able to handle himself and regain control over his life as, Berggren points out.

Frey once again uses the formula of memoir, in this case the confessional, to make his fiction more like a memoir and make his “memoir” more sellable. Frey hits every aspect of confession in his confessions. He uses it as a form and exploits its benefits, once again revealing to the reader what the benefits of confession are. Once again the problem is that Frey’s role in this is fictitious.

Frey essentially added himself into the real-life death of a girl in his hometown. The Smoking Gun, addresses this confession by speaking with the real mother of the actual girl who died in the train accident. The Smoking Gun reports that the mother said, “’[e]verything that I believe he wrote, even about my daughter...was not an actual, the way the accident happened or anything, […] I never heard his name in connection with it’” (A Million Little Lies, 2006). The mother of this girl, who Frey claims to have helped kill, has no recollection of his name being associated with the accident.

The Smoking Gun continues, “[the mother] said that she did not think Frey's name ever came up in connection with [the girl's] death and, ‘I don't believe that he was ever actually questioned in regard to the accident because he had nothing to do with it’” (A Million Little Lies, 2006). The mother says that Frey had nothing to do with this girl’s death. Where does this leave Frey’s confession? Basically this shows that Frey used the confession as a tool. Once again we see Frey using one of the qualities of memoir, an important quality, to make his story important and make his fiction more believable.

Once again, we see, through Frey’s exploitation, just how important confession is to memoir. By employing this aspect of memoir in such an important and emotional way, Frey is pointing out the purpose of confession in memoir and how important that purpose is to the success of memoir. This is not the last aspect of memoir that Frey will exploit.

The effect of emotional attachment and personal motivation that comes from reading memoir can be a powerful part of its allure to the modern audience and the writer. People can take a lot away from memoir, including powerful inspirations. In her essay, “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison tells the reader about the inspiration she drew from memoirs of former slaves:

“For me—a writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century, not much more than a hundred years after Emancipation, a writer who is black and a woman—the exercise [of writing] is very different. My job is to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate’” (Morrison, 1987).

Toni Morrison explains how she used slave narratives to further understand fictional characters that she created. After having read slave narratives, Morrison felt it was her duty to explore the events that had not been included in the narratives. She describes this as her “job.” She feels after reading these narratives that she has a task set before her by them, they have given her this assignment.

Morrison sees these narratives as the catalyst for her writing, as the inspiration that drove her to create the characters. The memoirs of these former slaves put Morrison in a position to unveil the truth of what happened, a truth that the former slaves could not necessarily include in their memoirs. To Morrison, the memoirs she read had direct effects on her and her writing.

Peter Gilmour also notes the instructive power of the oral tradition of memoir. Gilmour says, “[oral stories of experience in tribal traditions] were not told to aggrandize the individual. Rather, they were told to strengthen the group. So strong was the recognition of the power that life stories contained that there were frequently taboos against tribal members telling these sacred life stories to outsiders”(Gilmour, 1997). Gilmour uses the example of tribal oral traditions and relates it to memoir.

Gilmour uses this tribal tradition of sharing life stories to show that memoir, in an older oral form, was a vital way of giving advice and bettering the society. By acknowledging the lack of self-aggrandizement on the part of the story teller, Gilmour reveals that these stories were told to influence the tribe for the better. Even in these situations the motivational power of memoir is an important tool. This tool is so powerful to the tribe that they do not want to share it with potential rivals.

The strength of the tribe is inspired by the tradition of telling life experiences. The tribe learns from the stories and takes something important away from them. What Gilmour is suggesting is that the society of these tribes was built around these stories. These tribes used the oral relation of life events to better themselves. Gilmour even describes them as “sacred” showing that these stories had some strong sentiments attached to them.

In his book, Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life Writing¸ James Olney looks at the powerful emotions that humans associate with memory in general. Olney says,

“Another consensus among scientists who study memory—but not only among them, for it was well known to Augustine and Rousseau and has been obvious to lay people of their time and ours—is that memory always involves the deepest of emotional engagement” (Olney, 1998).

By acknowledging both Augustine and Rousseau, James Olney relates this important statement about emotion and memory to writers of memoir. Olney makes it obvious that the connection of memory and emotion is a well-known subject and that even these early writers of memoir were aware of this correlation.

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