IN 1929, an American publisher offered Sigmund Freud a five-thousand-dollar advance to write his life story. He had already published An Autobiographical Study, outlining his professional career. But as for a tell-all memoir, Freud’s response was outright dismissal.
A psychologically complete and honest confession of life ... would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless, after all, is their mendacity.
Whatever one thinks of the more far-fetched applications of his theories, most people would concede that Freud knew something about the inner life. Yet, in the near-century since Freud levelled his charges against autobiography, our appetite for the genre has only grown, spilling far beyond the boundaries of the book, into the everyday flows of the virtual world. The unreliable narrator is no longer the preserve of fiction. Accusations of narcissism and opportunism may dog its footsteps, as Daniel Mendelsohn argued some years ago in the New Yorker, but the confessional memoir feels like the genre of our times.