Memoir and Truth

For weeks now, the furor over James Frey and his book A Million Little Pieces has buzzed loud and long. Following an exposé in early January by the website The Smoking Gun and the (to me) incredible amount of fallout that followed, Frey has slowly and reluctantly admitted that large swaths of his memoir are indeed embellished, if not downright fabricated. It seems that his story, while horrible for him to have lived through, probably harrowing for him to recall and retell, was not in his mind lurid enough to really sell books. So he has had to admit to Oprah over and over again that he lied, his publisher is offering a (very-limited) group of readers refunds on the book, and on NPR’s Weekend Edition last Saturday they spoke with a Seattle attorney who plans to file a class-action lawsuit against Random House, seeking pecuniary recompense for the time readers wasted reading the book. One of the most passionate tirades I have sampled comes from the blog Voix de Michèle. The “Frey fray” — as blogger Michèle terms it in her entry of 9 January — has drawn forth a torrent of strong feelings from a huge number of writers, readers, and others.

And now, at long last, I offer my two cent’s worth on the situation. I am never one to get my thoughts together in time to be a part of things while they are current, but now that I am on task I want to do two things in the space alloted. First I will speak directly to the the James Frey ‘scandal’ and how I feel about the particulars of the case. Once through that rhetorical hoop I will then turn to address what seems to me an essential point that bemused pundits and outraged writers alike are all seeing wrongly.

I started reading A Million Little Pieces in the spring of 2003, shortly before its April release. Our friendly neighbourhood Random House rep knew I was a shameless trauma junkie, and when she slid the reviewer’s copy across the breakroom table I snapped it up.

It was immediately clear to me that this was not a factual book. This is not to say that I thought it was untrue — far from it — but merely that it did not strike me from the outset as a narrative concerned with facts. Were I writing a review of the book I would say that it is “a deeply impressionistic narrative told (for deliberate artistic effect) in a well-contrived matter-of-fact style and voice. The narrative persona often seems to be saying nothing much beyond ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened….’ But this flatline voice becomes very quickly an eloquent mode of relating emotions and inner states, all of them tormented and damaged.” But I don’t write book reviews. The books works, in the opinion of this reader, and it made me a big fan.

This past July I met James Frey. He struck me and others I was with as a surprisingly arrogant individual, given how shy he seemed at the same time. His frank admission of the literary aspirations that led him to write A Million Little Pieces was impressive in its near-megalomaniacal ambition. He stated that he wrote A Million Little Pieces in the style he did as part of a carefully-conceived plan to win a lasting place among literary greats like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce. Nothing like aiming high for yourself.

And now it is revealed: he made it up. Not the whole thing, but pretty big details that, if disqualified, leave us with a pretty tame story bereft of much of tension and narrative drive that fills the book as published. His true story was not, apparently, nearly so thrilling as the narrator in the book would have us believe. Which revelation leads to an outraged public and an even more outraged community of non-fiction writers, who seem to feel that Mr. Frey has irreparably harmed the reputation of the genre and jeopardised their chances at getting their own books published and read by tens of thousands of readers.

What is my opinion of Frey’s literary transgession? He now admits that he did indeed lie to us, his readers. He appears to have gone beyond the ‘acceptable’ bounds of embellishment and given us in his arrogance a tale of the tub, and played us all for suckers. (Unless, of course he is lying about having lied…) Does that make him a charlatan, his literary achievement a fraud? Perhaps. It is certainly disappointing. Yet it does not utterly discredit him for me. When I was reading the book, it was clear to me that this was not a narrative of events so much as the impression of an experience. From an external point of view I knew it was too amazing to be true, yet between the covers of the book, it was true, and that is the only real criterion I insist be met in my reading. In the case of A Million Little Pieces, I was satisfied.

But enough about Mr. Frey. I have bigger fisher to fry now. (Don’t even think that there was a pun there.) In all the fracas this past month a troubling theme has been constant. Those who are upset over this incident are operating on an expectation that is to my mind completely unrealistic: the expectation of objective truth in memoir. In fact, in most of the punditry on this, it strikes me that there is a widespread application of journalistic expectations being imposed (inappropriately) to a genre where they do not apply.

Journalists report to us facts, at least that is the assumption we still operate under for the most part. When that ‘contract’ is breached, as it has been in a handful of highly-publicised cases in recent years, the public is rightly outraged. We read the newspapers and newsweeklies with an expectation of a high level of concrete factual reporting, backed up by carefully-researched and scrupulously-verified evidence and testimony. We expect journalistic integrity. Such are the parameters of the journalistic genre, and its practitioners are painfully aware that they must work within them, or reap the whirlwind.

Does the same apply for the writer of a personal memoir? I do not believe it does, nor that it should. The memoirist is not (typically) a journalist. Nor is he or she under obligation to provide the public with timely information of a factual nature. Instead, he or she is voluntarily sharing, with widely-varying degrees of candour, their personal lived experience, often after a passage of some years from the events described. In some cases the memoirist may employ journalistic techniques to verify their recollections against other sources, in others they might not. But the primary source for the memoir is — like the word says — the memory of the author, the one who remembers. He or she is attempting an ‘eyewitness’ account of their own lived experience, and such an undertaking, based on individual memory, is simply not going to result in a ‘true’ story in the sense that the public seems to suddenly demand.

As a reader, I do not turn to memoir seeking objective truth. I am going out on a shaky ideological limb here, but I do not see objective truth as possible in the relation — written or verbal — of personal lived experience. The memory of lived experience is distorted through so many psychological lenses under the tamest of circumstances that it is hardly to be trusted; and memoir as a genre often deals with circumstances that are far from tame. Indeed, in cases of extreme and traumatic experience, it is often only in the distortion of the memory that any narrative is able to emerge, and from that distortion we have received many great and powerful works, particularly those emerging from the devastating events that filled far too much of the twentieth century.

This is not to say there cannot be truth in memoir; there usually is, sometimes a great deal of it. But I believe it misguided to attempt to certify any memoir as objectively true, or to try to hold such work to the same standards that works of journalism or historical research are held to. The distinction may seem pedantic, but I believe it to be an important one. To say something is objectively true makes a claim of empiricism that individual memory can never, never support. And further, I fiercely hold that we as readers have absolutely no right to demand such empiricism from memoirists.

Is this to say that all memoirs are lies, their authors liars? No! Am I proposing that there is a different standard of truth for memoirists. Yes.

I myself am in the early stages of writing a memoir. It will deal with the roughly four years I spent as a Roman Catholic seminarian, and the painful era immediately following. I am very excited about this project, by far the largest block of prose I have ever attempted. It will be a deeply personal work, and I know that it will contain as much of my wounded soul as I can bear to expose as I explore this tumultuous era in my life.

But how true will it be? Well, I consider my memory excellent, so I am confident that I will recall events pretty accurately. But I know already that all conversations will be reconstructions, by which I mean complete fabrications built around a few remembered phrases at best, or perhaps nothing more than a general sense of place and mood and who was there. And as for cast, some people are already slipping behind the obscuring veil of oblivion, and a lot of names will have to be changed, not because I don’t remember them but to protect the identity of those involved in situations that were other than virtuous. Indeed, name-changing alone will probably be insufficient in some cases, so I will have to alter aspects of some individuals considerably to adequately protect them from undue embarrassment (or myself from accusations of libel). A detailed and accurate chronology of events is a near-impossibility; except for one particularly-tumultuous semester, I didn’t keep anything even approximating a useful diary, and I have never really used a day-planner of any kind that I could look back on. Often my only basis for dates and order of events is my invaluable collection of movie ticket stubs.

So before I even write a word of it you can see that my memoir will be nothing more than a gauzy tissue of lies and fabrications. But it will be true. I will tell my story, as I recall it and as it makes sense to tell. This is not going to be a history textbook; it is to be the impression of this young man’s life in a set of circumstances that were, well, very interesting to live through. My goal is to convey that ‘interestingness’ in the flow of a (hopefully) engaging narrative, and capture as much as I possibly can of the hope, fear, faith, and despair that I experienced, that I lived in those days and months and years. If I can do that, I will have written a true book. A memoir.

To tie things up with the particulars of the Frey case: I do not need every, or any, detail of his ordeal to be empirically verified, or verifiable. I don’t want testimonials from witnesses protesting the veracity of the text (a la The Book of Mormon), nor do I want a disclaimer pointing out which bits “really happened” and which bits are just made up. I just want to feel the truth in the narrative. I did so when I read Frey’s book, and I hope future readers will someday feel the truth of my memoir when it hits the book stores. If the reading public gets irredeemably hung up on holding memoirists to unreasonable standards of factuality, the result will inevitably an impoverished output of memoirs. Memory is what it is, and a person shouldn’t have to research their own life. If people can’t read a memoir with a grain of salt, then why are they reading a memoir to begin with? Did anyone read Art Spiegelman’s Maus and come away believing that Jews had the heads of rodents? I should hope not. Again, I am not trying to defend Frey’s choices; I am trying to defend a beautiful genre from a public that seems to have forgotten what it is reasonable for them to expect.

4 thoughts on “Memoir and Truth

  1. I don’t expect fact from memoirs, especially after reading those of Edith Piaf and Sarah Bernhardt. I expect to hear someone’s personal truth. This whole Frey-Oprah circus reminds me of a quote from my favorite book ever, The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLaughlin. As a young child Minna tells her mother, an author, “Fact and fiction are different truths.” I’m sorry Oprah felt humiliated, but I think her emotion is more about being wrong than Frey’s fabrications.

  2. It all comes down to what’s true vs. what sells. Look at reality TV – isn’t it just a hyped up, sexed up, spiced up version of real life? Instead of dating one man at a time the bachelorette dates what, a hundred? It’s real life on speed…

    I love these lawsuits though – what a creatively lazy way to attempt to score some cash…

    I have the perfect solution. I call it “A Million Little Countersuits.” It’s all outlined at

    Join me in making a mockery of the mockery.

  3. I have to say, I was preparing a post on this topic when the buzz first began, but I thought I’d better let Beaner take this one. Because I knew you would. And because I remember how affected you were by this book when you were reading it. If I’m not mistaken, at the time, you were questioning the likelihood that this book was entirely factual, but that you were suspending disbelief because it was that good. What you have written is basically what those of us in the book world have been grumbling to each other these past few weeks. In addition, I’d like to point out that the lack of line between fiction and reality that disturbes me in this situation exists in the mind of a culture that would supprt litigious action against an author who told a personal story in a book (whether entirely factual or not) because their feelings were hurt by it.

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