The Reflective Narrator in Memoir

Last week, I made a post about the reflective first-person narrator’s attempt to make meaning from a past experience. I talked specifically about the art of fiction. The reflective narrator has always been essential to writers of memoir, and that’s where I’d like to put my focus now.

Writers of memoir simultaneously serve as players in their stories from the past and interrogators and interpreters of those stories. Sometimes a large moment of impact provides the impetus for thought; at other times a small anomalous detail becomes significant.  Take, for instance, Sue William Silverman’s essay, “The Pat Boone Fan Club,” about her adoration of the wholesome singer during the time her father was molesting her. The essay tells the story of how Sue went to a Pat Boone concert as an adult and told him how his image on television, in magazine ads, had led her to believe that if he would only adopt her, she’d be saved from her father and his unwanted and hideous attentions. Then at the end of the essay, after she’s managed an audience with Mr. Boone, she questions whether it’s really true that he saved her. Her conclusion?

Yes, his image. His milky-white image.
That sterile pose. I conjured him into the man I needed him to be: a safe father. By my believing in that constant image, he did save me, without my being adopted, without my even asking.

Notice how Sue is thinking out loud on the page in this brief passage, coming to conclusions as she sifts through the evidence. She has moved from her role as participant in the narrative to that of spectator and interpreter.

Pivotal moments in memoirs aren’t always those of trauma, as they are in Sue’s case. Sometimes it’s the small, closely observed detail that makes all the difference. In Bernard Cooper’s essay, “Burl’s,” his father gives the eight-year-old Bernard a dime to buy a newspaper at the box outside the restaurant from the title. Outside on the sidewalk, Bernard sees two women walking toward him, women with Adam’s apples. One of the women catches a stiletto heel in a sidewalk crack, and the observant eight-year-old narrator notices “a rift in her composure, a window through which I could glimpse the shades of maleness that her dress and wig and makeup obscured.” This first encounter with transvestites for the yet-to-be acknowledged gay Bernard, shakes him:

Any woman might be a man; the fact of it clanged through the chambers of my brain. In broad day, in the midst of traffic, with my parents drinking coffee a few feet away, I felt as if everything I understood, everything I had taken for granted up to that moment—the curve of the earth, the heat of the sun, the reliability of my own eyes—had been squeezed out of me.

At the end of the essay, Cooper shifts fully into the reflective mode of the adult narrator looking back on experience:

It would be years before I heard the word transvestite, so I struggled to find a word for  what I’d seen. He-she came to mind, as lilting as Injijikian [the last name of a girl in his class whom he thinks he loves because she’s pretty but also because he wants to be like her.] Burl’s would have been perfect, like boys and girls spliced together, but I can’t claim to have thought of this back then.

The point is he thinks of it as he looks back. The reflective narrator, whether in memoir or in fiction, is always dramatizing experience for the purpose of examining it and finding out what’s to be known in the here and now. As novelist Rachel Kushner says, “One of the strategies for doing first-person is to make the narrator very knowing, so that the reader is with somebody who has a take on everything they observe.”




  1. Susan J Cole on July 14, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    Thank you so much, Lee. I haven’t had a chance to check in on your blog for awhile and am so glad I did today. Such a great reminder to allow the narrator to think out loud in the now, to discover his/her take on what happened in the past. Being a knowing narrator doesn’t mean having it all wrapped up.

    • Lee Martin on July 15, 2020 at 11:16 am

      Thanks for your comment, Susan.

  2. MAL G KING on August 13, 2023 at 12:00 am

    I’m 90 and writing a memoir about my marriage. Your talk was so relevant I just purchased your book TELLING STORIES. It’s informative and inspirational. Next, I plan to read the one for which you were nominated to win the Pulitzer.

    • Lee Martin on August 15, 2023 at 10:58 am

      I think it’s great that you’re writing that memoir. Bill Roorbach’s “Writing Life Stories” is a wonderful book as is Jane Taylor McDonnell’s “Living to Tell the Tale.”

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