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A popular autobiographer analyzes the form.

By Gina Luria Walker

MAY 18, 1998: 

WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS: REFLECTIONS ON AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Jill Ker Conway. Alfred A. Knopf, 205 pages, $23.

The power and popularity of The Road from Coorain (1989), Jill Ker Conway's best-selling autobiography, derived from the authenticity of the narrative voice and the level of the writer's self-awareness. Conway told readers in vivid, piercing prose how she pursued her intellectual passions from the grasslands of Australia to America, where she eventually became president of Smith College. The legion of Coorain's admirers may find some of this lyrical precision lacking in Conway's new book, When Memory Speaks, in which she departs from her own story to reflect on the autobiographies of others.

The impetus for Conway's inquiry is her observation that "virtually the only prose narratives which are accorded the suspension of disbelief today are the autobiographers' attempts to narrate the history of a real life," or biographies. To explain this appeal, Conway proposes to lead the reader through the history of the form, taking as her audience "that comfortable fiction 'the general reader' " who may be searching for a book to read.

The apparent neutrality of this approach is deceptive. Conway comments on many writers -- some familiar, some not -- focusing on texts that reveal "archetypal life scripts for men and for women which show remarkable persistence over time." But barely concealed beneath the stately critique is an argument for the importance of human "agency" in contesting just such prefabrications. Beginning with the Confessions of Saint Augustine and Rousseau, she describes the masculine trajectory of life as an odyssey in which the hero's "achievement comes though his own agency," a key gauge to Conway of the success or failure of an individual's self-analysis -- and life.

For women, however, cultural assumptions about gender produced the "Western romantic heroine," who, according to Conway, has no power to act on her own behalf. The "romantic plot," Conway believes, became "the ur narrative for women in both popular and learned culture in Europe and North America, because it fit with the major economic and demographic forces shaping modern bourgeois society." A tradition in women's writing emerged that conceals agency and focuses almost exclusively on inner life as opposed to action. Unlike some critics, however, Conway denies "the existence of a separate female genre of autobiography." In other words, she reads women's autobiographical writing as a debilitated variation on men's.

Conway moves briskly through the works of an intriguing group of women, pointing to the paradox that "whenever women autobiographers are hiding behind the passive voice and the conditional tense, they are depicting events in which they acted forthrightly upon a preconceived, rational plan." Like other instructive insights, this assertion hangs unexplained. And the "Cook's Tour" approach flags when the narrator arrives at overly abrupt conclusions. For example, Conway contends that to people who had witnessed modern war, knowledge of its terrible price "was the same for women and for men, a form of equality no one had planned upon or expected to achieve." How, then, to explain the hard-won feminism of Vera Brittain, who emerged from her experiences as a World War I nurse's aide convinced that women must lead the cause for peace?

Later chapters survey the self-representations of public women in the 19th century, when the "bourgeois cult of privacy" made the publication of one's life story so rebellious as to demand sublimation of the self, and of feminists in our own times. Conway astutely perceives that even Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem struggle with the problem of "voice"; that "product of inner agency . . . doesn't automatically follow ideological rebellion," she concludes. Conway touches, too, on the "embattled cultural territory" of gay, lesbian, and transsexual autobiographies, and on contemporary memoirs by younger writers that focus on "urgent questions of identity and relationships to parents."

As the word reflections suggests, the book is not meant to be either scholarly or definitive. Nonetheless, the telegraphic approach undercuts its authority. When Conway disparages earlier women for shrouding their agency, she seems to forget the social and psychological peril of doing otherwise. From Homer on, woman's kleos (glory) was to be storyless -- only subversive women like Helen of Troy risked creating reputations that could be used against them.

In the concluding chapter, Conway at last gives voice to her own deepest understandings: that psychological pitfalls lurk in every received life script, and that cultivating "the power of speaking for oneself . . . is a prerequisite for maturity." The master writer shows rather than tells the enchantments of memory, reaffirming her youthful plans to construct "a life story different from the one that went with rural Australia." Yet she ultimately returns to those roots, noting that Australian military archives have revealed new medical information about her long-dead father: he suffered from a heart condition that she now shares. This "connection in the genes," she writes in the voice the reader has been waiting for, "is a new way of looking at a chain of being of which he and I are intimate parts." Moreover, the revelation tells her that his early death was most likely not a suicide, as her family had sometimes suspected -- "a piece of knowledge which changes the emotional and moral climate of my childhood, a personal evidence of how much history matters." Amid the choir of voices, Conway's is most compelling when it speaks for itself.


Gina Luria Walker is chair of the department of social sciences at the New School for Social Research in New York City.


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