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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Those who write memoirs know – the truth must be told

Lady Antonia has had her critics. But we tell our stories because we can

Monday 18 January 2010 01:00 GMT

In recent years a large number of best-selling books have been victims' tales of suffering at the hands of adults. A whole new genre – the misery memoir – established itself. Several of these books have been contested by family members and some cases have gone to court. The most high-profile was that of Constance Briscoe, the barrister who claimed to have been viciously abused by her British Jamaican mother. The mother sued her and lost.

Nothing can ever be the same again when you publish your family saga. That doesn't stop people and it never will. The need to tell the world is a compulsion. Lady Antonia Fraser has just published Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter. Evocative and intense, it was deservingly book of the week on Radio 4, read by the author. But I was uncomfortable at times to be hearing the intimacies of a fiery marriage, and wearied of the tiresome parade of celebs. None of that diminished the beauty of the writing and the fascinating love story.

I once sat next to Pinter at a dinner for a worthy charity at Buckingham Palace. Lady Antonia was on the opposite side and you could feel the heat of passion passing between them. She has been able to describe that un-containable attraction in words, a remarkable feat.

A number of critics are disapproving of the timing. So soon, too soon, they tut-tut (Pinter died just over a year ago). Others have more serious misgivings. She is jumping on to the memoir gravy train, is egocentric, "upper-class totty", "self-indulgent". An authentic memoir stirs people, makes them uneasy, partly because there is something "unnatural" about turning a subjective lived experience into pictures and words, ordering life's chaos and selling it as a perfectly formed product.

The most uncensorious find themselves questioning Fraser's seeming indifference to her painfully gentlemanly ex-husband and Pinter's estranged son and first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant who died subsequently of alcoholism. Her own children are not best pleased. That is the price you must be ready to pay. You must be prepared too for the mental and emotional fall-out as you try to excavate your memories.

I just saw The Boys are Back, the film based on Simon Carr's heartbreaking and yet affirming account of the death of his young wife and the years when he was a lone, wild dad of two boys. Although the film had a happy ending, in his memoir one gets the shadows, the anger and aches that become almost part of the flesh.

The best published recollections are those that take risks, edgily hover between control and collapse. Like Hanif Kureishi writing about his father or Lorna Sage's unbearably honest Bad Blood or Claire Bloom's avenging tome about her fraught marriage to Phillip Roth. The fall-out from such accounts whips up more attention that the book.

After I published a rushed book about my life in 1997, six relatives stopped talking to me. Some were not missed. The ladies in mosque gave my mum, Jena, endless grief about her wicked daughter, who had dug up family sagas that should be forever buried. Like disinterred bodies I had made a terrible stench. I promised Jena I would not be so impetuous again. Then she died and I broke the promise, partly because I wanted her unspoken agonies and ecstasies not to go into the grave. My second memoir, The Settler's Cookbook, has seen off more mortified friends and family.

I can't understand why there is always so much over-reaction to descriptions of real people and events. One ghastly relative did have conspicuous hips, and a coarseness that money couldn't refine. And a cousin did abuse and beat his young wife with coat hangers, leaving her black and blue. And my father, though a clever and kind man, was a gambler and wastrel who never understood how much he hurt us.

I did lose myself for a while when I came to Britain on the early 1970s, a time, like now, of social abandon and no restraint. And I did, in the name of love, stupidly put up with spousal serial infidelity in my first marriage. And I did learn to flirt from my delightful mum. Why shouldn't I be able to say and write all that? It is the truth, or at least what I remember to be true, or maybe an edited version to favour me, the heroic memoir writer.

We are all heart and heartless; honest yet sometimes unconsciously deceitful. We tell our stories because we can, because we must. Stuff the rest.

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