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 Comments

  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 http://akathegirl.blogspot.com

    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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