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Honesty vs Truth in Memoir

by Laura on February 22nd, 2013

The conflicts between honesty and truth are rampant, even in our daily lives. It’s a distinction I’m confronting more and more, primarily because this is a typical response I get about my memoir, Adopted Reality

I get it, it’s supposed to be a memoir. But seriously, is it actually true?

Here’s my answer: the memoir is more about honesty than truth.

So you’re a liar, then.

Nice, no, that’s not what I said.

Being honest, holding oneself accountable, editing out the self-indulgent equivocating (which means cancelling all pity parties for one) … are all aspects of an honest memoir.

A boring memoir lists vapid facts.

Being honest implies a certain level of ownership, without having to show all sides of a story; all possible explanations. Because including every possible reason for someone’s bad behavior … Well, can I just say it? It makes for a super-boring memoir.

Taking the time to explain everyone’s motives, all personal histories that may justify a person’s bad behavior… it’s simply not intriguing. Writers need to choose a perspective, decide what they will put in and what they will leave out. This is the role of The Decider (thank you George W.), aka, the memoirist.

I asked the insightful Kathy Pooler, a popular blogger and an insightful writer, to chime-in. Kathy is also a retired family nurse practitioner working on a memoir about the power of hope through her faith in God.

Here are her thoughts.

On pity-parties and truth-telling …

Kathy–We can only write from our point-of-view, as we do not know for sure how others who play a role in our memoir really feel and Yes, we need to claim ownership for our own thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

That being said, I will add that the last thing I want is to portray myself as a victim or intentionally disparage anyone else, or even myself. No pity party. No whining. But I do need to add reflection on how events or people impacted on me. Sometimes the facts–as I remember them–speak for themselves.

More important–how did I react to this event or that person and what does that reveal about character? Mary Karr once said that in writing memoir, we need to “capture the essence of the truth as we remember it.” That’s why it takes so long to write a memoir. With a fuzzy memory and a commitment to truth-telling, it takes a lot of processing to produce a memoir that delivers a truthful, believable account.

Does delusion even belong a memoir?

Laura–I agree, and can definitely say my memoir is honest. Is it true? Was I really a spy who inadvertently perpetrated 9/11? Ummm, noooo. At the time of my bipolar delusion, I definitely believed I that I’d met one of the leaders of the Illuminati on a cool, San Diego autumn night.

Should I not have written a memoir because it included delusions, very real delusions?

I would argue, No.

Should those suffering (and recovering) from mental illness not write memoir because their version of events might not be true? Specifically, events which might not be true for the general (sane) population? Again, I would say, No. We must read these stories exactly because they show us another possible solution, a different point-of-view.

KathyI have worked in psychiatric units as a nurse, so I fully understand how real the events were to you from your psychotic break. The intensity and drama pulled me in and gave me a sense of the terror you must have felt. Having been drawn into your experience also made me appreciate and admire how hard you had to work to recover. Therefore, I was able to celebrate in your recovery and gain a fuller understanding of the impact your illness had not only on you but on your family. Like I said in my review, your memoir read like a psychological thriller.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Your delusion was a very real part of your experience.

Since you were on the other side of the episode when you wrote it , you could reflect on what it meant. And you did, weaving in layers about being adopted, finding your birth mother, suffering the trauma of losing Uncle Tom in 9/11. it all makes sense in retrospect. If you had written it without the benefit of time and distance from the experience and without time to reflect on what it all meant and how each event impacted another, you might have a point that it didn’t serve a purpose beyond the drama factor.

*  *  *  *  *

Thanks Kathy for you input!

To read more about Adopted Reality visit the book website here, or head right on over to Amazon. If you’ve already read my memoir, but haven’t posted an honest review, please, please consider doing so–it can really help Amazon customers find my book. Thanks ahead of time!

Tree image from, headshot courtesy of Kathy Pooler.

  1. Dear Laura,

    I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this important conversation about truth and honesty in memoir. Finding our truths through the tangled web of our memories then standing in these truths is one of our greatest challenges and obligations as memoir writers. Thanks for your kind words and links.

    I'll be interested in hearing what others have to say.

    • Laura permalink

      It's so great to have you here! I truly respect your opinion and insight, and I appreciate you so much–you were one of the first people (outside my family) to support my memoir, and to be able to see it as I intended it. A memoir yes, but also a good read.
      I'm also anticipating the publication of your memoirs. I always enjoy whenever you let us read a glimpse of what you're working on. :)
      Yes! I'm looking forward to hearing from others, too…

  2. Fascinating discussion, Kathy and Laura. As a public relations counselor, I always understood there were multiple points of view on the same set of facts. For each person their point of view held the "truth." You bring up another POV – the view of the mentally ill. Thanks for expanding my thinking!

    • Laura permalink

      Right, right. Yes, I was thinking about that "multiple points of view," aspect as well. Each person "believes" he or she may know the truth. I've stuggled for a long time with how to discuss the fact that I put the delusion in there. It's like, was I wrong to do that? Should it not be a memoir? Should I put it in a fiction category? But really, I think that the story is so compelling because it's my personal account. As fiction, it would would lose its impact.
      Thanks for writing, I really appreciate it!

  3. Laura

    I had an experience I related in my memoir–not a psychotic break, but a moment of breakthrough to a more "real" spiritual reality than everyday consciousness has ever revealed to me. If I'd failed to relate that event, my memoir could never have conveyed truth as I have experienced it.

    Thank you for your courage in sharing your extraordinary experiences.

    Best blessings,

    Pam Richards

    • Laura permalink


      Thanks for writing. Yes, these spiritual moments DO convey a truth that is not necessarily apparent in what we may consider "everyday life." Your experience is likely different than mine: In my case I wouldn't wish my experiences on anyone. However, I do think that sharing the story can give some insight into how frail the human mind can be.

      Looking forward to checking out your memoir,

  4. Hi Ladies, Great discussion. When I began writing my memoir I had to sift through a lot of deception. I had been brainwashed for 7 years by the antagonist I call "Brock." He had convinced me that I was part of a diabolical New World Order scheme. My early drafts reflected a lot of his deceptions about Satanic ritual abuse that I was still unclear as to the veracity of, if that makes sense. It took about 4 years of self-reflection, writing/journaling and weekly counseling sessions with an incredibly patient and gifted licensed psychologist to clear all of the fog and realize my deception. I had a lot of pride to work through as well because I didn't want to be wrong and didn't want to admit that I'd been so supremely duped. Those were some dark days. I'm grateful that God wired me in such a way that my need for truth was bigger and stronger than my pride, I didn't want to lie and I didn't want to write fiction. I didn't want to LIVE fiction. I wanted to discover and then nurture my own reality, not anyone else's.

    Your words are so relevant, ladies however, I will take issue with one statement you made, Kathy. "No pity parties." I disagree with this. I think pity parties are perfectly acceptable and even vital in memoir as long as they are brief bouts and don't drone on and on. It's all about pacing. I'm reminded of one very popular best-selling memoir written a few years ago. It was a well-written story but because of the author's decision to forego any pity parties, the story seemed sterile and difficult to connect with on an emotional level. One of things my (unhealthy) mother used to say to me was, "Stop feeling sorry for yourself." Well, dammit, sometimes we need to feel sorry for ourselves. It's vital to our mental health and genuine humanity. The trick is to feel, lament and move on which is exactly how our memoirs should be approached.

    • Hi Grace, I appreciate your thoughts. You make valid points about addressing our genuine feelings and reactions that I totally agree with. To me, "pity party" means focusing on all the ways someone else hurts us, droning on and on as you say ; being stuck in a victim role. I react negatively to "stop feeling sorry for yourself", too. Feelings are neither right nor wrong. They just are. Yes, confront and express our humanness but some point, we have to show how we move on and find a purpose for our pain- lessons learned.

    • Laura permalink


      As always, you are teasing us with the amazing details of your memoir, which I can't wait to read!

      But yes, I can see your point about pity-parties, it's just sometimes in memoir, it's as if the writer doesn't even realize what she's doing when she's having an extended pity party. There's something to be said for writing out and describing one's grief, but with out the self-knowledge of what it is, for me as a reader, I get frustrated. Or, I feel used, like the writer is trying to justify some bad behavior and not taking responsibility for it. Does this make sense?


  5. Hi Laura…great discussion. I, for one, never felt that you were dishonest in the writing of your memoir. You had to explore your 'reality' of suffering a psychotic break in order for your readers to fully understand the depths of your pain (I think). I thought it was very well done, and as you already know, I loved reading your memoir.

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks, Sylvia!

      You're great–that's exactly what I wanted to describe. By writing the details of the delusion, as the mental breakdown was happening, I felt I could get to more "truth." Because, in the midst of the delusion, there was so much confusion. Like, my mind knew something was not right, but was already too far-gone, too sick to be able to sanely deduce that I was going insane. … As if that were possible!


  6. Laura and Kathy, a much needed discussion on the fine line we find drawn for us as we write our stories. Some of my draft currently contains some basis for my mother's behavior toward her children, only because it ties to the end of my story. It has been painful to remember the abuses, and even harder not to complain or whine. Yet that wouldn't be fair to Mama; she actually did her best. I appreciated your opinions and reactions to this very important discussion.

    • Hi Sherrey,

      You bring up an important point related to presenting an abuser in a multidimensional way. There's a reason why people act the way they do and being able to see beyond behavior, even the horrific kind as you endured as a child is a part of the healing journey. Also in showing us the abuse you suffered as a child, we appreciate your ability to see beyond what she did to forgive her. How painful to face and it's not "whining or feeling sorry for yourself." It's your reality. A very brave story. Thanks for sharing.

    • Laura permalink

      Yes, I've been thinking a lot about your particular topic–the painful childhood abuses at the hands of your mom. But, I think you can tell those stories in a straight-forward way. From what I've read of your work-in-progress, I didn't find it to be a pity party, more like: this happened, it's part of the story.

  7. Interesting to read about the mental illness side of "truth" in memoir.

    I have to say my story structure editor, encouraged me to "over-dramatize" certain parts and I worried about that, but she assured me that all memoir writers follow a structure if they want their book to be of interest to readers. There are certain "formulas" that need to be followed in all stories, whether memoirs or novels.

    • Laura permalink

      I can see what you're saying about "over-dramatize," it's like–people want to read how you felt, and all of the gory details. I think you did a great job describing the story and creating "drama" in your memoir. It's true, mental illness is a different aspect of the issue of truth in memoir. I mean, I could have told it from a sane person's point-of-view, but that wouldn't have been so interesting, in my opinion :)

  8. Paula Wright permalink


    I hope you do not mind me getting in touch. I work for an American property and travel show and I came across your blog whilst looking for people to participate in our popular documentary show and really enjoyed reading about your adventures!

    We are currently looking for families and individuals to appear on our show who have recently relocated to new and exciting parts of the world and have an interesting story to tell – and it seems to me you would fit the bill.

    I would love have the opportunity to tell you more about the show and how it would work and hear more about your adventurous move. To give you an overview – we tell the story of people who have moved to new countries with a particular focus on their property search and the story of why they chose their current location. We do offer a payment of $1500 (or a flight home – although I think most of the people who have been on the show take part for the experience more than the money!) for every episode and filming takes 3-4 days.

    If you would be interested in finding out more I would be delighted to arrange a mutually convenient time to speak over the phone. You can contact me on +1 212 231 7715 or +1 917 2745401. Alternatively you can email me a good number to reach you on and the best time to call and I would be happy to call you at your leisure. My direct email address is

    Thank you and I hope to hear from you soon.

    All the best

    Paula Wright

    Segment Producer

    ‘House Hunters International’

    Leopard Films USA

    Tel: +1 212 231 7715

    Cell: +1 917 274 5401

  9. Laura,

    I'm reading your book now, and I had no problem believing the experiences were true for you. It seemed an honest portrayal of your experiences. I may have had no problem because my brother suffered a break from reality when he was 16 years old. I was 12 at the time. He never recovered, and his delusions were a common discussion with himself and others. He took his prescribed medication, and he self-medicated as well. He was, at times, lucid and delusional at others. Sadly, he passed away when he was 30 from a heart attack due to his drug abuse.

    I hardly remember when my brother was "normal". His mental illness became a part of him to me. His behavior and delusions lost their ability to shock or embarrass me quickly. If I had friends over and they noticed, I just shrugged it off and told them to ignore him. It was everyday life for me, and no big deal. He was never a danger to anyone but himself.

    So, you were spot on, in my opinion, when you wrote, "We must read these stories exactly because they show us another possible solution, a different point-of-view."

    Just because one persons experiences seem far fetched to you, doesn't mean they are untrue for them.

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