In college I studied Shooting an Elephant (1936), an essay included in this collection, which recounts George Orwell's time as a young British police officer in Burma. The essay has haunted me in the years since.
It was the brutality that stuck with me, the killing scene, one which goes on for several pages as Officer Orwell fires "shot after shot into [the elephant's] heart and down his throat" while the beast refuses to die. But more than that, it was the brutality of his reflections about the time, the place, the Empire occupying the place, the native people, the class system, and the self who suffered the execution of the elephant "solely to avoid looking a fool" (Orwell, 156). That honesty cut me to the bone.
In his famous essay about life at a boarding school in England as a youngster, Such, Such Were the Joys... (1949), Orwell opens with the horrors inflicted on the little boys who wet their beds. Today we acknowledge that this is an innocent phase in every child's life. We also know that most boys struggle with the training longer than most girls, but this story is only the first of many. Orwell goes on to relate the punishments and canings, the bullying, the accusations of latent homosexuality, the prejudices of his headmaster and instructors, his own laziness. Nothing is off-limits.
By being willing to touch on every subject, willing to treat nothing with undue deference or discretion, Orwell accomplishes as unbiased a study of childhood as possible. Children, he believes, live in "a sort of alien under-water world which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves" (Orwell, 44). This chief clue is what drives Orwell's writing about his past, and he transcribes his memories as well as possible. Accuracy, though, can be relative.
"In general, one's memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it... But it can also happen that one's memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others." (Orwell, 5)