The End of Memoir: Allison Benedikt and Jose Antonio Vargas

Well, no, not really. But Fukuyama got a lot of mileage out of “The End of History,” and we’re still living it. People will keep on writing memoirs, long and short, and they’ve written bad ones before. This latest acme in the genre may not even have been reached yet. Still, there is a point to be made: we have seen twice in one week the reduction of memoir to self-refuting callowness.

The causes célèbres of last week, across the blogosphere and journoverse, were Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt’s “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” at The AWL, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’s “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” for The New York Times Magazine. In chronologizing her disillusionment with Israel, Benedikt provoked heated discussion not only of Israel, but about what it means to be a Jew. Vargas ended up raising the topic not so much of illegal immigration (which had been his hope) as the subject, dear to the professional hearts of those providing so much of the reaction, of his having lied – a journalist having lied – to so many people and professional colleagues in order to maintain the fiction of his identity.

What the two otherwise so different accounts share is their writers’ minimalist approach to memoir, their conception – if they even had one – of what makes a memoir meaningful and worth reading. I used the word chronologize above with purpose, because with small, telling exceptions, that is all the writers do. They both seem to have operated from a form of Cartesian revision: “I experience; therefore I have something to say.” But this is not exactly the a priori truth of I think; therefore I am. In fact, it’s the mediate I think that both have omitted. Like rank amateurs, they have been beguiled by the inner conviction, common to many, that their lives are fascinating (which they are to them), and that all that need be done is to recount the elements of a life, and its progression from this to that, to render it fascinating and, far more, instructive to others. The profound truth of the life would thus as a matter of course be automatically revealed: no deep knowledge, no thinking, no analysis, no understanding brought to bear.

In entertainment-world, ghosted autobiography, this is the “and then I wrote” form.

In the case of both Benedikt and Vargas, it is less the ostensible subjects that interest me (though they do) than the texts that represent those subjects, and how badly they do it. Vargas is the simpler case, so I’ll start with him.

Only occasionally does Vargas depart from the chronology that begins at the beginning…

One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab.

When he does break from chronology, it is mostly to state the obvious, without any deeper consideration of the subject. For instance, being an “undocumented immigrant”

means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am…. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful.

In the one instance that Vargas pauses to offer commentary beyond his own case, on the issue of illegal immigration in general, he tells us,

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read.

This trite formulation is seemingly inoffensive. Yet consider the perspectives embedded in it. “We’re not always who you think we are.” So you, reader, are presumed to be among the clueless Americans, guided in what little thinking you do on the subject, by ignorant stereotype. No doubt, there are many such people, but here, in an ill-considered voice, Vargas tells us that it is everyone reading the article.

“Some pick your strawberries or care for your children,” Vargas goes on, “….And some, it turns out, write news articles.”

What are we to make of this? What are meant to be its implications? That we should care more about illegal immigrants now, learning that some of them are actually educated, talented, and successful? Without this added truth, would we be justified in caring less about the illegal immigrants who aren’t? Is Vargas, knowing that immigration policy favors the educated and skilled, argumentatively throwing the gardeners, maids, and nannies under the bus to help save the day for those more advantageously positioned? Is he feeling an understandable, universal pride in his own accomplishments and experiencing, oddly enough, even unconsciously, an economic and professional-class allegiance that conflicts with his shadowy social status? Has he even considered what exactly those sentences were meant to argue?

That’s it. That’s the extent of Vargas’s meditation on his subject. We’re told explanatorily at the end, presumably by editor Chris Suellentrop that Vargas has

founded Define American, which seeks to change the conversation on immigration reform.

At the Define American site, we’re told,

It’s time to have a real conversation about immigration in our country.

Sometimes people will say “honest” conversation. Usually, though, when those on one side of a political argument reflexively call for a changed or real or honest conversation about a topic – especially those who righteously feel themselves to be opining from a higher moral prospect – what they are actually signaling is that there is a conversation taking place already and they don’t like how it’s going. For them, it cannot be that some people have considered the same truths as they and come to a different conclusion, or that, on this topic, as on others, some people are actually, irremediably resentful, small-minded, xenophobic, or racist. It must be the conversation. We’re not doing it right. It’s not honest. It’s not real. Let’s change it.

The problem with this kind of cant in memoir is that it is the enemy of memoir, as it is the enemy of good writing, and why do any other kind. Good memoir burrows under the surface of the writer’s life and circumstance, it doesn’t skate over it. It reveals a life and a milieu, it doesn’t dress it in platitude.

If there is a more honest conversation to be had about illegal immigration it could have been one that Vargas chose to begin on his own side. He might, for instance, have ceased to employ the euphemistic term “undocumented,” which is intended to obscure a reality and to slant perspectives away from the subject of legality, with is the basis, in the U.S., of the problem and the dispute. That’s not an honest conversation. Vargas might have acknowledged that it is an essential and non-racist and thoroughly defensible goal of any nation to secure its borders and control immigration into it. He might have acknowledged truthfully the role of North-South, have and have-not trans-national economic and culture politics in the debate – how domestic racial politics are often used by immigrant activists as a cover for a political agenda that has only secondary sympathy for nation-bound economic interests.

On the other side, Vargas might have reasonably argued, too, that we need to acknowledge that millions of people, large numbers of whom, like Vargas, have lived in the U.S. for many years, and since childhood, cannot be humanely deported. An honest conversation would acknowledge that much of the blame for the situation rests with a dysfunctional U.S. government; it would ask how many individual lives Americans wish to wreak havoc upon in bitterness over our own national failure. It would recognize that with appropriate compensatory behaviors, the best thing for the U.S. and for Jose Antonio Vargas – and for the woman, maybe, who cleans his apartment and who may have been in the country as long – is for him to stay. It would recognize, too, that anyone of us, born poor and with little opportunity somewhere else, might as readily make the choices Jose Antonio Vargas made. And it would live honestly – to chose a word – in the contradiction that while any of us might be Jose Antonio Vargas, the U.S. can afford to let anyone in the world who wishes it become yet another Jose Antonio Vargas.

It may be that Vargas has done some deeper thinking about the reality he represents. I hope so, and I wish him nothing but the best, here in the U.S., but he hasn’t shared that thinking with us. Reportedly,

the Times magazine guys looked at [Vargas’s piece] and said, we definitely want to run this. This is what journalism is all about, putting a face on issues that are important in society.”

Apparently, the editors, like Vargas, thought the story would tell itself.

They were wrong.


(Tomorrow: The End of Memoir part II: Life Before Thinking)

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