Why Memoirs Are So Important

Twelve Years a SlaveEvery time I read a memoir I am reminded of their power to connect us to something beyond ourselves. A memoir invites us to step into a life and an experience that are not ours. Even if we have experienced something similar, we are able to relate, but that particular experience is not ours to claim. And because we cannot claim that experience as our own, it exposes us to a different and possibly broader perspective. It’s that broader perspective and different experience that is so important for us.

I recently read three very compelling memoirs that were a far cry from anything in my little, limited life. Each story had pieces that resonated with me; threads that I understood because of something in my own experience. But more powerful were those things that opened my eyes and exposed me to reality for someone else. When we are open to someone else’s reality, even if we don’t understand it and may never experience it for ourselves, we become connected. And when we become connected, we care.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup has recently been made into a feature film, but the Northup’s memoir of being born free in New York and then captured and sold into slavery, was published in 1853. Out of the 101 slave narratives written between 176o and 1865, Solomon Northup’s was the only one that told by someone who was free, captured and sold into slavery, before escaping back to the North.

Slavery is a scourge in U.S. history that is really hard for any of us to fathom. Not only have we not dealt with the horrific atrocities of slavery, we haven’t confronted the despicable remnants from the institution of slavery. Northup’s book poignantly tells the dehumanizing effects of slavery on everyone. We may say slavery was wrong and deny holding attitudes of superiority over any group of people, but our true attitudes will be exposed in how we treat others, especially strangers, immigrants and people from other religions and cultures.

Amanda Lindhout was a twenty-something avid world-traveller trying her hand at freelance journalism when she and her partner were kidnapped and held for 460 days in Somalia. Her account of finding her passion for travel and her brutal experience in captivity is masterfully portrayed in her recent memoir, A House in the Sky co-authored by Sara Corbett.

What is impressive about this memoir is the ability of Ms. Lindhout to transcend her horrific experiences of being repeatedly gang raped, starved, beaten, and kept isolated from her companion to seeing how lack of education and constant war and poverty have led her captors to who they are. She is then able to understand them, and while not excusing their behavior, at least forgive them. She has gone on to found Global Enrichment Foundation addressing women’s empowerment, education, and famine relief in Somalia.

Next time you are looking for something thoughtful to read, why not pick up a memoir. Of course, you’ll learn something about the person whose story you’re reading. But more importantly, if you’re open to the possibility, you just may learn something new about yourself!

One of these days, we’ll have to tackle the Bible as memoir.

Half the Sky


I read the book Half the Sky a couple of years ago. Surprisingly, our rural library has the book, although I think I’m the only one who has ever checked it out. It’s written by New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, a former New York Times journalist. PBS, of Big Bird fame, recently aired a documentary based on the book. The movie and book are powerful, eye opening glimpses of the need and hope for empowerment of girls and women worldwide.

Human trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence, lack of access to education and health care, and maternal mortality are moral issues confronting us in the 21st century. Cultural, religious, and societal traditions oppressing women and girls are still prevalent worldwide, including in the United States. However, when women and girls are empowered economically and educationally, women seize the opportunity to change the outcomes for themselves and their families.

My long-suffering husband and I streamed Half the Sky this weekend. My husband is like most people. He’ll watch and then not give it much more thought because “it’s happening in other parts of the world and not here.” However, when he considers his three young granddaughters, he knows that education and opportunities are just as important for them as they are for girls and women everywhere else.

We must guard against becoming complacent, deceiving ourselves into thinking we don’t need to consider these moral imperatives facing women and girls worldwide. Instead of dismissing the issues of sex trafficking, gender-based violence, lack of access to education and health care as developing world problems, we need to examine where those issues are in our own culture … because they are here too. We just have more sophisticated ways of hiding it.