The Memoir Boom in the United States

An Analysis of two of the most successful American Memoirs and their Movie Pendants

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

11 Pages, Grade: 2,7


List of Contents

1. 1 The Memoir and its Boom 1
1.2 Comparing Movies & Books 2

Main Body
2.1 Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted 3
2.2 Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors 5

3. Conclusion
3.1 Conclusion and Outlook 7

4. Appendix
4.1 Works Cited

1. Introduction

1.1 The Memoir and its Boom

All (auto)biographies1 - and memoirs2 - have one thing in common: they are usually written in the retrospective way, meaning that even if they "read chronologically forward, they are composed essentially backward.” (Louis Menand in Smith and Watson, 6) In life writing the term "memoir” is complex to define, since it has different definitions, depending on various contexts. The term memoir derives from the French word for "memory”, which implies that it could be written in a subjective and impressionistic rather than a factual and strongly evident way. A memoir can neither be fiction, nor a novel, since the memoir genre tries to depict the ultimate truth and the real life of the author, the first-person-narrator or other individuals. Nonetheless nowadays memoirs can also include invented or enhanced materials or novelistic techniques as embellishments, because they are a form of literary art. (Couser,15)

It is often hard to distinguish between memoirs (or factual writing) and fiction, because many works are paradoxically hybrid forms of both of the literary types and additionally fiction often pretends to be factual and to depict the real world. Furthermore the term memoir is often used as a synonym of autobiography, even though it is only a sub­genre of autobiography, because the memoir must not be about the author him- or herself: "whereas biography can be about anyone who has ever existed, memoir can only concern someone known to, and remembered by, the author. [...] It will be, or resemble, reminiscence, consisting of personal recollection.” (Couser, 19) Memoirs in direct comparison to autobiographies generally tend to be more concise, selective and focused. According to G. Thomas Couser (22) what differentiates life writing from the real life is that "life is long [...] multidimensional and complex, sometimes chaotic; and life writing must have form and focus. Life inevitably far exceeds the capacity of writing to contain it.”

Even though the memoir genre, and especially its flourishing in the United States of America and Great Britain, is a patriarchy product it strengthened feminism and allowed women to "speak publicly” (in form of a written and published book, a typical memoir). Often the memoirs of female writers report about traumatic periods in their life, such as abuse or violence. In Great Britain (the United Kingdom) the most popular memoirs are knew or remember the described person personally.

the so-called "Misery Memoirs” (Yagoda, 9), which originally also came from the US and tend to attract a certain kind of habitual readers: According to Ben Yagoda the best-sold topics are childhood traumas, addiction and recovery, abuse, disabilities, diseases and mental health issues such as depression, the borderline syndrome and many more. Those topics and tragic life experiences can be observed the most among the best-selling statistics of memoirs before, during and even after the so-called "memoir boom”(Rak/Yagoda in Rak)3. This fact might be connected to the reader’s interest in the evolution of the writer and the way how the person coped with difficult situations.

As Julie Rak describes it already in the introduction of her book Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market, the term "Memoir Boom” describes the explosion of the published memoirs in the literary market since the early 1990s: tens of thousands of such memoirs written by both, celebrities and unknown people, occurred since then in the United States of America and millions of American readers bought and read them until today. The memoir boom as the sudden increase (or explosion) of memoirs in the global literary market and its steady growth has been welcomed, vilified, and dismissed in the popular press. Rak argues that still one might feel the urge to ask why it developed to be such a big thing and whether all the authors of famous memoirs are only narcissists (who also teach their readers and followers how to be the perfect narcissist), whether there has been a real boom in the production of memoirs in the United States and what the boom was caused by and even many more questions. Also she thinks that to the readership it might be rather questionable whether the public becomes an unthinking mass of individuals or they can only try to understand the world and its problems through personal experiences, such as those, which are described in memoirs. In the end it is only clear that if an author was successful selling his or her first memoir, it is very likely that a second one will appear soon.

1.2 Comparing Movies with Books

After finding out how memoirs often form more than the half of the current best­seller lists and statistics, it is no wonder to see how many lucrative memoirs have come to the cinemas too: often those movies are entitled with the line "based on real events”, which appears on the screen already in the film trailer. The differences between memoirs, which are published in a written form, a book, and their movie pendants, are often enormous, partly because it seems to be almost impossible to "squeeze” a several-hundred-paged book into a movie with the length of average 60 to 120 minutes. Therefore the audience might often miss important details of the whole story, which they have read themselves before. In my analysis I will try to find out the major differences and similarities within two of the most successful American memoirs and their movie pendants and where they might come from.

2. Main Body

2.1 Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted

In the beginning of her most successful book, Girl Interrupted, the author is introduced shortly to the readership: Susanna Kaysen was born in 1948 and lives today in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She wrote three novels and two memoirs; one of them being Girl, Interrupted. The memoir was first published in 1993, almost thirty years after the described events took place. Ultimately, one of the most traumatic passages in her life is written in the retrospective view. It recollects Susanna Kaysen's memories about her almost two year stay at the psychiatric hospital McLean (which is located in Belmont, Massachusetts), when she was just a eighteen-year-old girl. Kaysen managed to obtain her 350 page file from the hospital with the help of a lawyer. The book was named after the Johannes Vermeer's (Dutch artist) painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music, which today hangs in an art museum, the Frick Collection in New York City.

In the book several of Susanna's original medical records are presented, in form of printed copies out of her 350-paged medical file from McLean, serving as a kind of evidence for the readership. The first of those presented records diagnoses Susanna Kaysen, who was the teenage patient that time, with several grave mental symptoms and diseases, such as "psycho-neurotic depressive reaction, personality pattern disturbance (mixed type), and undifferentiated schizophrenia” and finally the "Borderline Personality” as end diagnosis (Kaysen, 4). The first mental health record appears already in the beginning, after the acknowledgments and already before the text of the story even starts. She then starts the book with the question most people asked in her closer environment: what happened to her and how could it come so far, that she was sent to a mental health institution. Kaysen concludes from this human curiosity, that many people in her closer sphere might be afraid that something similar might happen to themselves and that they just want to assure that it will not.

After this short introduction the first main differences in comparison to the movie become visible: in the second chapter the reader learns how a doctor (psychiatrist) sends Kaysen to McLean hospital, after sending a taxi, which he personally called, to pick her up. Later the teenage girl patient will claim that the doctor only talked to her for twenty minutes, while the medical reports verify that he took the decision after a three hours talk. (Kaysen also provokes the reader then: "Do you believe him or me?”) In the movie instead the audience might be confused at first, because it sees how Kaysen's stomach is pumped out in the hospital, after a failed suicide attempt, with fifty aspirin pills. Still lying in the hospital bed, which is brought to the treatment room in a great hurry, Susanna suddenly desperately complains towards the nurses, how all the bones in her hand would be missing, meanwhile in the book it appears very differently: Susanna here relaxes in the television room with her new friends from the hospital and then suddenly and seemingly without any reason pushes her own hand, telling everybody it would be boneless. The film continues then with a flashback4, explaining how Kaysen had a session with a psychiatrist before she was sent to the hospital. Also it is mentioned that her parents had send her to the doctor, and ultimately to the mental health hospital, because she was suffering from depression. She then finally ends up in the female psychiatric ward of the McLean hospital, which in the movie is renamed into Claymoore. In the book Susanna feels as if she was torn into a "parallel universe” (Kaysen, 5), because the life inside the famous mental health institution differs so much from the life in the outer world.

In the hospital Susanne Kaysen soon befriends herself with other patients, such as Lisa, Georgina and Daisy. She even prefers her new female friends when her current boyfriend, Toby, tries to convince her to escape by car. In the book, one of the "chief” nurses, Valerie, is described as having a similar outward appearance as Lisa; being tall, very skinny and white to yellow-colored in her tone of skin. In the movie Valerie is a determining, plump African-American nurse, which is a contrasting character to the memoir version. In her article "Borderline Girlhoods: Mental Illness, Adolescence, and Femininity in Girl, Interrupted” Elizabeth Marshall claims that an African-American character emphasizes more strongly the role of the protagonist, Susanna Kaysen: Kaysen represents a privileged white-middle-class teenage girl with rich parents, who drove herself crazy and did not go to college after her graduation, unlike all of her former classmates.


1 Biographies are factual books, which try to depict the whole life of any people, who ever existed. The author is not identical with the first-person-narrator, whereas in autobiographies (the syllable auto- is Greek for self/own) the author also represents the first-person-narrator.

2 Memoirs are factual books, which try to depict a period of time (for example the youth) in the life of any person who has ever existed. In contrast to biographies memoirs can only be written by authors, who know,

3 The so-called „memoir boom" is a phenomenon, which first occurred in the 1990s and still lives on until today. It describes the explosion of published memoirs in the United States since then. (Rak, Introduction)

4 According to Merriam Webster (academic online dictionary) flashbacks serve in movies as popular techniques to make the audience understand the current situation. In narrative or even psychology a flashback, or an involuntary recurrent memory, is a phenomenon in which a person has a sudden and powerful re-experiencing of a past event in mind. It is relived strongly, so that the individual might miss the feeling for the passing of real time. In memoirs flashbacks are also popular narrative techniques.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Memoir Boom in the United States
An Analysis of two of the most successful American Memoirs and their Movie Pendants
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (IEAS)
„The Memoir Boom – Literary, Cultural and Social Perspectives”
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Memoir Boom, USA, Memoirs, Girl Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen, Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs, Amercian Memoirs
Quote paper
Rashida Thielhorn (Author), 2019, The Memoir Boom in the United States, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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