But what if you want to tell a story - say, the story of your mother's life - where the documentation simply doesn't exist (as is so often the case in people's history)? With her latest memoir, My Mother's Wars, Lillian Faderman's solution is, literally, inventive: why not just make it up?
Describing her ninth book as somewhere between "imaginary memoir" and "speculative biography," Faderman uses the tools of creative nonfiction (or fiction, some would say), such as making up dialogue and staging representative scenes, to make her mother Mary Lifton's story come alive.
That her mother's story comes alive is unquestionable. Faderman commands her material in this riveting page-turner - no small feat with a subject so close to home. Her mother's story begins not with the cliché of her birth, nor her immigration from Latvia to America, but with her being thrown out of relatives' house in New York - age 17, 1914 - and finding herself on her own for the first time. Backstory comes through flashbacks, a great way both to show how the past haunts Mary and to cover up informational holes.
And Mary comes alive as a character, a Lower East Side garment worker struggling to find agency, fun, meaning, and connection. Faderman makes eerily effective use of the present tense to show how Mary feels trapped in the present moment, reminding readers that as we live life, it isn't "history" - it's now, and the future is always an open question.
This tension rises with the Great Depression, and again with the Holocaust, as Mary tries every imaginable solution to rescue her beloved relatives: haunting the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, searching (and nearly marrying) for sponsorship, writing to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Yet, in taking liberties with history, how far is too far? Does the story need '50s pulp novel details such as, "He draws her head to his groin. It gives her less pleasure than it used to to take him into her mouth"? In another invented scene, introduced as such, Moishe calls Mary determined to break up, but instead makes plans to meet up. Do such inventions help the story? Are they necessary?
But if such inferences are to be made, who better to make them? Faderman, an experienced scholar, provides a source list of about 100 different books, articles, and firsthand testimonies. Furthermore, her role as her mother's daughter gives her another, perhaps more important, authority. "It is the memories of my mother's... stories that have provided the emotional truth," she writes. Who better than Faderman to know that "emotional truth" - no less actual for being unquantifiable?
My Mother's Wars is a genre-bending, elegant tribute to hardworking, fun-loving Mary Lifton, the story of a life bent on survival, without the intention of documenting that life or its legacy. And yet that legacy has been preserved.
(This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2013/2014 issue of make/shift magazine.)