WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS by Jill Ker Conway

WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS

Reflections on Autobiography
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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this erudite essay, former Smith College president and Australian expatriate autobiographer Conway (The Road from Coorain, 1989; True North, 1995) makes a smart but less than convincing case for the construction of identity through the writing of life stories. Conway is interested in why Westerners in particular are so enamored of autobiography and memoir. She argues that the gender wars, imperialism, and all manner of hegemonic brainwashing have not only shaped our views of ourselves, but determined how we express them. In describing the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank McCourt, and Frederick Douglass, among others, Conway traces how males set the standard for identity by the way they chose to represent themselves and women. The male archetype developed in two basic forms, Franklin’s “capitalist hero,” or economic man, and Rousseau’s “secular hero,” or introspective moral genius. The female, by contrast, was a romantic heroine, a creature of dangerous sexual powers and meager intellect—at least as male writers portrayed her. Because their stories were written by men, females were a mere projection, until they began to write their own diaries and make what Conway calls “conscious acts of rebellion” wherein they could create themselves as they really were. In Conway’s theory, this same method of projection then imposed and disseminated the idea of the “other” on non- Westerners. This too, according to Conway, has begun to correct itself, as more original voices emerge through the liberating trends of postmodernism. Unfortunately, Conway takes us one step too far from experience to make her claims satisfying. This book is, as she says, invoking Lacan, a book about us looking at ourselves while looking at ourselves in the mirror. Worse, she imposes her convictions about gender wars and imperialism on the evidence rather than deriving them from it, presupposing her points rather than proving them.

Pub Date: March 20th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-44593-5
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1998




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