Memoirs and the Episodic Memory

Memory is complex.  Just like there are many different sub-genres of nonfiction, there are also many different types of memory.  We make an association between memory and fact.  We often expect that when we ask a person to recall a situation they are giving us an accurate account of what happened.  If their story does not match up with what we can prove to be factual, we deem them a liar and thus forth tend to discredit most of everything they say.

But consider the fact that there are many different types of memory.  Specifically, there is a very relevant difference between episodic memory and semantic memory that we must consider when discussing the genre and truth behind Lauren Slater’s memoir, Lying.

EPISODIC MEMORY: “the memory of autobiographical events that can be explicitly stated. Individuals tend to see themselves as actors in these events, and the emotional charge and the entire context surrounding an event is usually part of the memory, not just the bare facts of the event itself.”

SEMANTIC MEMORY: “structured record of facts, meanings, concepts and knowledge about the external world that we have acquired. It refers to general factual knowledge, shared with others and independent of personal experience.”

I think that  by titling her memoir Lying, Slater is questioning the meaning of the word.  I think she is questioning why we tend to deem some types of memory more credible than others.  If Slater chose to write her memoir according to her episodic memory, why does that make it untrue?


Isn’t a memory, very simply, just something we remember?  That’s why we consider memoirs a part of nonfiction.  I like to believe that Slater as a writer has enough integrity that she would not simply make up a story with no truth behind it and then ask to be called a creative nonfiction writer.  This is why she stresses the importance of emotional truth.  Much of our memory is affected by our feelings and thoughts.  The emotions we have, in many situations, can greatly impact our recollection of the particular instance.

If, in moment we experience very strong feelings, we are much more likely to remember that particular moment.  At the same time, if in a moment we experience very strong feelings, it is often safe to assume that our opinions and emotions will likely affect the way we remember the particular instance.  If piece is a memoir, then, it’s pretty likely that the writer intends to depict a memory.  Since emotion plays such an important role in the way we remember things, why wouldn’t a writer do their best to duplicate their feelings in a memoir?  How could you write a memoir using anything but your episodic memory? In Lying, Slater shouts this to us.  She says it herself: “There is only one kind of memoir I can see to write..”

One thought on “Memoirs and the Episodic Memory

  1. William Antonelli

    The thing that this reminds me of more than anything is Serial–in fact, I would argue that the concept of individual memory is the entire point that Serial was trying to make. The first episode starts out with a demonstration of how quickly memory degrades over time, and even when it remains whole, it alters between people. Although we seem to trust memory for most all aspects of life, in reality, memory is as fickle as a pathological liar with access to photoshop.

    In this way, Slater is very correct when she writes that all memoirs are, in some ways, made up–memory is imperfect. It is virtually impossible to create an entirely factual account of one’s life.


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