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On memoirs, social media and what it means to be human

Social media, unlike memoirs, can problematically create an image of a sanitized, perfect existence that is removed from real lives, Jacqueline Genovese writes.

With the dangers of Facebook use making headlines almost daily, I've been considering another dangerous, more personal problem with social media in general, that of the “curated” existence, with failures, weakness and illness filtered out.

This shallow, sanitized existence stands in stark contrast to the real, messy lives depicted in nonfiction books, and in particular, memoir. These books exist to tell the story of how things are, not how we wish them to be. The popularity of non-fiction and memoir is a testament, I believe, to the human desire to see ourselves in the lives and struggles of others.

Memoirs like Wild and Eat, Pray, Love are not wildly popular because they tell a sanitized, filtered story of the lives of authors Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, but because they tell the whole messy, warts-and-all story of their lives, including drug addiction, romping sex lives, depression and divorce. Their stories appeal to us not because their lives are perfect, but because their lives are not perfect, and neither are ours.

The ultimate “anti-selfie” memoir is the The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life and Death: the magnificent and tragic story of Jean Dominique-Bauby, a French journalist and editor of Elle who suffered a massive stroke, resulting in “locked in” syndrome. Although his physical body did not function, Bauby’s mind was alive and well, resulting in a hideous torture for a man with a brilliant mind. Bauby’s spirit and humor are astonishing as he describes a life where he can only see his children, but not communicate with or touch them.

Bauby’s story reminds us that being human entails much more than a functioning physical body. And that someone who may appear less than human is still indeed, fully human.

Part of the beauty of this story is how others in Bauby’s life try to give him back some of what he has lost. His speech therapist gives him a voice with the improvised alphabet and the painstaking dictation of the book, and his friends who take him to the beach and into the city, give his body a fleeting, welcome feeling of mobility. There is something sacred about this human-to-human connection that could never be replicated with “likes” on Facebook or tweets expressing condolences and best wishes.

It seems, too, that the writing of the book helped Bauby hang onto his humanity. The book gave him a reason to keep going, even if on some days the reason was just revenge on snotty Parisians gossiping like “greedy vultures who have just discovered a disemboweled antelope,” saying that Bauby was now a vegetable. To prove them wrong, Bauby writes, “I would have to rely on myself if I wanted to prove that my IQ was still higher than a turnip’s.”

Bauby died two days after the publication of his book. In a testament to the power of his story, the book was made into a successful, award-winning film of the same name, inspiring many to expand their understanding of what it means to be human.

Memoirs and non-fiction, unlike social media, remind us that at the end of day, we are all human, and that is okay.

Photo by Foundry

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