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Ordinary people
Memoirs used to be the territory of the famous, the intrepid, or the afflicted. Today, everyone’s getting into the act.


America’s reading public has long been living in the shadow of the towering tell-all. In the past few years alone, we’ve had the Barthelme brothers losing their shirts in the casinos of Mississippi; Susanna Kaysen losing her mind at McLean Hospital; Jon Krakauer popping blood vessels on the slopes of Mount Everest; Elizabeth Wurtzel popping antidepressants all over the place; Kathryn Harrison slipping the tongue to her dad; Joyce Maynard slipping the tongue to J.D. Salinger; Adele Mailer being slapped around by Norman Mailer; and George Stephanopoulos taking potshots at Bill Clinton. The list of titles alone would be enough to fill a book.

Whether sordid, maudlin, or action-packed, these memoirs have one thing in common: they sell. Indeed, much money has been made in the pursuit of literary self-discovery over the last few years. Angela’s Ashes (Scribner), Frank McCourt’s 1996 account of growing up dirt-poor in Ireland, catapulted its previously unheard-of author into the realm of super-celebrity: the book sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a major motion picture. Not all memoirs, however, are born equal. Take last year’s There’s a Book in Here Somewhere: Insignificant Events of My Life, which was published to considerably less fanfare than, say, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

With a press run of 3000 copies, it’s safe to assume that There’s a Book in Here Somewhere won’t be hitting the bestseller lists any time soon. It’s also a fair bet that Steve Bernstein, who wrote it, won’t be one of Oprah’s featured authors in the immediate future. Not that he’s particularly bothered by this fact. For one thing, Steve Bernstein, 40, is not an author. A business manager at Citigroup, Bernstein would be the first to admit that he’s far more adept at composing memos than memoirs. And, although he spent a year and a half writing about what it’s like to be Steve Bernstein, he’s not expecting a flood of public interest. "I did this for myself and my friends and family," he says. "I wanted to produce something that my kids could have and read. I wanted to keep these memories going."

Traditionally, the ability to write — or at least publish — a memoir has been contingent on a number of factors: you needed to be famous, or to have known someone famous, or to have done something noteworthy, or to have suffered something terrible, or even simply to have had a way with words. No more. Bernstein is one of a fast-growing number of ordinary, unwriterly Americans who have decided to record their experiences for posterity. And not content to sit down with a note pad and a pot of strong coffee, many of these would-be memoirists are seeking out the services of professionals to help them get their lives into print.

In Bernstein’s case, he went to Amherst-based Modern Memoirs, a company owned by "personal historian" Kitty Axelson-Berry. Since its founding in 1994, Modern Memoirs has published about 50 personal-history books. Today, Axelson-Berry can hardly keep up with her growing client list. "I think more and more people are trying to make meaning of their lives," she says. "They want to increase their understanding and pass along what they’ve learned."

And supply, as ever, follows closely on the heels of demand. Around the same time she founded her company, Axelson-Berry, 52, started the Association of Personal Historians (APH) to promote and coordinate the fledgling field. Since its first meeting in 1995, the APH has grown from about a dozen members to 250. There are eight APH-endorsed companies in Massachusetts alone, and an unknown number of what one personal historian describes as "hacks for hire." But, for now at least, there seems to be plenty of work to go around. "New clients," Axelson-Berry says, "keep on calling."

Made up largely of retired teachers, journalists, genealogists, and therapists, personal historians are a fairly new offshoot of the book industry. Generally a one-person conglomerate of ghostwriter, editor, and publishing house, a personal historian makes writing a memoir as hands-off for the subject as possible. Indeed, with someone like Axelson-Berry behind you, you can be functionally illiterate and still get the job done.

Though some memoirists, like Bernstein, choose to pen their own books (he hired Axelson-Berry as an editor and publisher), a large number choose the as-told-to technique — the preferred autobiographical method of Hollywood celebs — wherein you sit down and, with a little prompting, tell your story. Your personal historian will take care of the rest: transcribing, writing, editing, scanning, designing, printing, binding. Before long, you’re the owner of a handsome memoir — leather-bound and gold-embossed if you so wish. It couldn’t be easier.

There is, however, one snag: the cost. Bernstein shelled out $30,000 for the privilege of seeing his thoughts in print. And though many personal historians charge a lot less for their services, some charge even more. Webster L. Bull, who in 1987 founded the Beverly-based Memoirs Unlimited, was one of the first professional personal historians — and his services are among the priciest. "You have to be willing to spend at least $40,000 [for a memoir]," he says. "Plus printing costs." Forty thousand–plus, of course, is a lot of money. "I’m damn good at what I do," says Bull. "We offer a tremendous service. And this is extraordinarily labor-intensive work."

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Issue Date: January 17 - 24, 2002

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