The Art of Memoir

Question: How do you maintain objectivity?


Augusten Burroughs: I think what you do is you- or at least what I do is I’m able to go back. When I’m writing I’m on- always on a laptop. I am kind of looking-- Well, I’m not really looking anywhere. My eyes are not focused but I’m sort of staring at the little bar between the keys and the screen so that little aluminum strip. I am back there and I am writing kind of as fast as I can to keep up with the action. It’s almost like watching a movie so I don’t ever pause and think oh, should I maybe add a blizzard to this day? Would that make it better?

Here’s an example of memoir, what I feel, because we- there’s a lot of discussion in the media about memoir and fake memoir and all of that. Let’s say that you are in a car and you’re driving down the highway and you are on your way to a party so you’re going fast and all of a sudden on the side of the road you see a terrible car accident. The whole front end of the car is mashed up. It’s devastating. It’s so bad you look away and you look to the person next to you in the passenger seat and you say, “My God, did you see that, those people?”

And you’re shaken by it. And you arrive at the party and they open the door. “Welcome. What’s the matter?” they say.

“Is something wrong?”

And you say, “Well, I just- we were driving here on our way and we saw this horrible, horrible car accident and all I can think about are the children. The parents-- What if they had children and now the parents are dead?”

And just all these awful thoughts you would have. It would kind of shake you for the rest of the night to see a profound car accident like that. Now let’s say that you are the person inside that car. Okay? And let’s say that car happens to be a Mercedes S class or a Volvo, one of the safest cars, so the air bags have deflated and you look down at your arms and your legs and you look at the person next to you and they’re looking and you’re- there’s not a scratch and you look down and you see the heel of your high-heeled shoe is not even broken.

Nothing has in fact protruded into the passenger compartment and you realize- you see there that the radio is still on and working and the dashboard is beautiful and it looks like nothing has happened, but the front end of the car is all crunched up. So you get out of the car and you kind of stretch and you bend over. Nothing hurts. You’re fine. So you get on your cell phone and you call and you say, “Hey, guess what. We just had a horrible car accident. Yeah. The car is totaled. No. We’re fine.” Now let’s say that both parties involved decide to write a memoir.

The people who were on their way to the party and witnessed the car accident, they write a memoir called Car Accident. The parties involved in the car accident, they write a memoir called Car Accident. They’re going to be two very different accounts of the same thing so which then is the fake memoir, which then is the correct perspective?

And the answer really was given to us by Albert Einstein who said, “There is no preferred point of view in the universe,” and in a way that’s an appropriate answer for us because both of those memoirs are a correct version of the story. The passengers in the car who witnessed the car accident reported what they witnessed, what they saw, how it made them feel, what they imagined what must have happened to those people in the car. The people in the car accident wrote what happened to them in the car and how it made them feel. Now when it becomes a fake memoir is when either party says, “Remember that car accident?

It would have been really cool if there had been a bus filled with school children and maybe that’s what the car hit” so they add a bus of dead school children in and then they add weeping mothers standing over the bodies of these school children. That is when a line has been crossed. A memoir for me, and I think for all memorists who take it seriously and care, is one’s retelling of one’s memories and experiences and how those memories and experiences made them and made them feel and what they did to them in their lives. Memoir is important.

It would be easy for me to go out there and say A Wolf at the Table, a novel, and just publish it as a novel and never have to answer sort of fake memoir questions, but I would never do that. I would never sort of be bullied in to doing that or to writing a novel because I believe in memoir. Memoir is important because as a reader when you read a memoir and you come across a sentence or a paragraph or it’s- or it can be the full story in the memoir that stuns you because it expresses so perfectly what you yourself have felt or experienced but never told another living person or never admitted to yourself or maybe never even realized that yes, this is me too, that is a profound transformative experience between reader and author and that’s valuable. And I guess in the MFA programs they teach that writing memoir shouldn’t be therapeutic, you shouldn’t use memoir as therapy, but that’s I believe illogical.

No art should be therapeutic. In other words, if that’s the case Picasso should be the same person he was at the beginning of his career as he was at the end. So the author should grow and should be transformed through the process of writing the memoir and so should the reader through identification. It’s-- The power of memoir is the power to connect. It’s blogging. It’s You Tube. It’s similar. It’s we want to connect with other people. We don’t want to feel like we’re the only one. We want to know we’re not alone in the universe in every way.


Question: Is memoir the middle gound between fiction and nonfiction?


Augusten Burroughs: Memoir is a word that can encompass many different styles. There can be experimental memoirs where someone may play with, intentionally play with, reality and facts.

Memoir, because it is memory based and memory is never perfect, because memoir is one person’s account and does not take in to account all parties involved, memoir is not like say a biography of a President where a hundred people have been researched, every document ever written about that person has been researched, and there is a level of sort of reportage that is removed, less interpretative, less emotional and more objective, more factual.

Memoir is an art. So yeah, I think it’s- it is somewhere probably in that area.


Question: What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects?


Augusten Burroughs: I change names and I change identifying characteristics. Whenever you write a memoir about a family people may get angry and they may want to lash out.

The only reason it’s worth it is to get to the truth, to be able to tell my true story, what happened to me. My responsibility was to the story. My responsibility was to the facts of the story. My responsibility was to myself. I needed to get this experience out of me.


Recorded on: April 30, 2008.


Augusten Burroughs agrees with Einstein: "There is no preferred point of view in the universe"

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
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