International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature: Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir

07/31/2017
by Howard Lipke, PhD
Mary Karr has been a critically and commercially successful author of memoirs. These have included descriptions of her own traumatic experience. Because this column focuses on fiction, we have not previously considered her work here, but believe that our readers would be interested in Karr’s thoughts and informal research on the relationship between memoir and fiction and on what makes the presentation of events believable.

These passages are from Karr’s book, The Art of Memoir, based on her graduate course in memoir writing at Syracuse University:
    “Maybe deceit in memoir irks me so badly because some years back I endorsed one of the biggest literary frauds in recent memory. Fake holocaust survivor Benjamin Wilkomirski’s childhood recollection of Auschwitz, Fragments, carries praise and my name on the British edition circa 1996. But Bruno Dosseker (Wilkomirski’s birth certificate name) not only spent the war comfortably in Switzerland, he wasn’t even Jewish. (p. 81) …“I was in good company. Wilkomirski would go on to win the Prix de Memoire de la Shoah in Paris and a National Jewish Book Award in NYC, where he beat out Elie Wiesel and Alfred Kazan. (p. 82)”
Later Karr’s informal use of a social science methods in addressing literature made inclusion of this work irresistible:
   “In one of my most depressing exercises in public naivete, I’ve handed out to classes two unidentified chapters from two Holocaust memoirs – one Primo Levi’s agonizingly true Survival at Auschwitz, one Wilcomirski’s. The proven fabricator gets the vast majority of votes for veracity every time.

Here are some of the reasons my very smart (some Ivy-educated) grad students give for taking all this in as true.” (p. 82 - 83)

Among these are: (p. 83 - 84)

“The writing has immediacy; its first person present tense makes it seem as if he’s reliving it, more than Levi’s more formally written piece of work”

“Lack of exposition or rhetoric shows lack of thoughtfulness and, therefore, a lack of artificiality or deceit”

“Levi sounds too upper-crust or smart, which makes students see him as posed; they find the informality of Wilkomirski’s writing winning.”
 
Karr, Mary (2015) The Art of Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.
 

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