Autobiographies of famous people are almost always disappointing. The demands of public life degrade literary prose: the euphemisms, evasions, forced optimism, and name-checking; the pressure to please different constituencies; the need to project one’s personality onto a huge stage; the relentless schedule, the lack of time alone. Living with one eye on popular opinion and the other on history kills the inwardness without which writing turns into making statements. The great can’t afford to be honest. Too much of anyone’s life is failure and disappointment; too much of greatness has the smell of monomania. No—they have to learn from every setback, move on to the next “challenge,” find inspiration in ordinary people, and if they had it to do all over again, they wouldn’t change a thing. The masks they wear become their faces. Even the words they write themselves sound ghostwritten.
George Packer reflects on the challenge of memoirs and autobiography.