Writing the Memoir: Making Family Legends Fit (or Not)

nasa-1_245Much of what we believe as factual history has come to us in some form of written account, often multiple accounts that make up a body of truth. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, a legend is “a story handed down for generations among a people and popularly believed to have a historical basis, although not verifiable.”

Although legend and history might share common ground, they are two different things and should be dealt with accordingly to ensure the integrity of a work of creative nonfiction (see my post “Keeping the ‘Non’ in Creative Nonfiction“). But should writers leave legends out of their memoirs because they can’t be verified? Are there good reasons to include a legend in a memoir?

It would certainly be easy enough to begin such a tale with something like, “I grew up hearing stories of how Uncle Fred was abducted by aliens….” Deciding how to present the story is probably the easy part. Deciding if you should write it to begin with, might be more difficult.

One way to determine whether to include a family legend in a memoir is to put it to the same test you might use when deciding to include any other memories.

  • What does it contribute to the chapter, the theme, the overall story?
  • Does it really belong or do I just want it to belong (perhaps for entertainment value or sentimental reasons)?

Your decision would also depend on your goals for the memoir – a collection of family stories meant only for the eyes of friends and family, or a memoir for public consumption?

I dealt with many family legends when I set out to write This New Mountain, the memoir of private detective and repo-mama AJ Jackson. Two in particular involved important women in AJ’s family history.

The first legend says AJ’s grandmother, Inza Annie, survived the massacre of the Bigfoot Band of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in the winter of 1890. In that historic (and horrific) event, ninety Sioux warriors died and hundreds of women and children were hunted down and killed by a U.S. Army detachment. There was no way to verify Inza Annie’s story, but in 1902 she filed her marriage with the Five Civilized Tribes (the wedding having taken place in 1895). This legal document gives proof of AJ’s grandmother’s Sioux heritage and connection to the Bigfoot Band. I thought the marriage filing gave enough credence to Inza Annie’s story of surviving the Massacre at Wounded Knee that I included it in the memoir.

The second legend connects AJ’s mother to the space race. The story goes that while AJ’s father worked as a contractor for scientists at Sandia Base (later renamed Kirtland Air Force Base) in Albuquerque, he won the bid on a contract to produce new suits for the monkeys who were going into space. A way had to be found to stop the clever creatures from unzipping the old suits and climbing out of them. AJ’s father handed the project to his wife who adapted a child’s pajama pattern to make a new piece of clothing out of mesh material that fit over the original monkey suits. I couldn’t present the story as truth because there’s no evidence to support it from letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, photos, etc. In my research I did find that a chimpanzee named Ham was brought to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico in 1959 for training (and was the first chimp to make it into space in 1961). AJ was 15 years old in 1959, but her memory of her mother sewing the suits is sketchy. I could have presented the story as a harmless legend, but in the end I decided not to include it for a few reasons: 1) I couldn’t find a natural way to work it in; 2) I had other great examples of her mother’s ingenuity that did work; and 3) This New Mountain is not her mother’s biography, it’s a memoir about AJ’s life as a private investigator. The legend of the monkey suits just didn’t fit in the book.

Memoirists can’t expect to include every story from their pasts into a single memoir (no matter how much they love each one), any more than novelists should try to cram in every bit of character back story. Writers pick and choose the most important bits, whether it’s to make a setting come to life or complete the picture of a beloved, and ingenious, mother.

Does your family have stories – maybe a little on the crazy side – that have been told and retold at every family gathering to the point they’ve become legends?

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