“Falsifying a Life,” by Louise DeSalvo

February 8, 2010

After it was discovered that James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces contained lies and exaggerations, and with his public rebuke on the Oprah Winfrey show, literary critics, pundits, and ethicists have weighed in about the issue of falsification in the writing of memoir.  In fact, in the brouhaha surrounding Frey’s memoir, the genre itself was subjected to scrutiny, which has not since abated.

I was in the process of writing a memoir when the Frey controversy hit.  I’d handed in a chunk of my memoir-in-progress, which my editor had read in part a year before.  The editor had praised my pages, told me to keep working.  The pages I submitted were a departure from the proposal I’d submitted to my publisher – as I wrote, the work became more memoiristic, less an admixture of memoir and a researched work of creative non-fiction, but my editor knew the turn the memoir had taken. The preliminary reading of these pages, according to an email I received from my editor, was positive; I was told there would be a definitive response to my work within a week.  While I was waiting, Frey appeared on Oprah Winfrey, and I immediately thought that the book I was writing was in serious trouble.

And it was.  The response I received stated that my publisher wanted me to return to the book I’d promised in my proposal, wanted me to abandon the narrative I’d spent a year developing.  Because, until that moment, I’d heard nothing but support for my work-in-progress, I suspected – and I could never find out if this was the case – that publishing this memoir was making my publisher skittish.  At first I was furious, and wanted to withdraw the book – these were pages that had taken me a year to write.  But then I decided I’d comply and the book I wrote, and that I’m proud of, adhered closely to the proposal I wrote initially: a bit of my story combined with researched narratives describing my theme in the lives of other people.  In one sense, then, I see my work, that work I wanted to write but didn’t write, as having been stymied because of the discovery of Frey’s falsification of his life.

Questions about how to verify events in a memoir always come up when I speak in public about the genre or about my work.  Kay Redfield Jamison in her most recent memoir,  Nothing Was the Same, about her relationship with her husband, his death, and her response to it writes in an afterword of her concern about the “damage done to the credibility of autobiographical writing by those who have written fraudulently about their lives.”  So that there will be no question that her account is accurate, Redfield provided her editor with extensive documentation of the couple’s life together, including copies of their letters, and excerpts from journals.

Will all writers of memoir now be required to document their lives in this way because of Frey?  Will we have to truck in Xeroxes of notes of conversations we’ve had with people? Crayoned early meanderings? Copies of emails? Receipts?  But what if – as in the case of the memoirs I write – the people we’re writing about left no written record and the memoir depends largely on, well, the memory of the stories told to the writer? Will “I remember….” “My father said…” now be insufficient?  And will that mean that those most needful of having their stories told – the poor, the unlettered, those whose worldly possessions have been destroyed, those who have been forced to leave their lives in one place behind to live it in another place – will be sentenced to silence because of the fraudulence of a few?  I hope not.  As illustration: I’m now writing an account of my parents’ lives during World War II.  My mother, when she was alive, told me about the letters they wrote to each other during the war, and she described some of them to me; my father, in the last year of his life, did the same.  My mother, though, burned those letters – she once told me that they were just gathering dust, and so she got rid of them.  She never imagined that an account of her life, of his life, of their life together, was worth recording.  She was an ordinary person, as was my father.  Since no record exists of those letters, and they exist, now, only in my memory of what they contained, must I omit them in my memoir because they no longer exist?

To backtrack…. In one sense, I see what happened with A Million Little Pieces as growing out of a publishing climate that prefers the recounting of a sensational life to the recounting of an ordinary one.  James Frey – handsome, stalwart, brilliant, recovered, was once an addict.  But not just an ordinary addict.  His addiction made many others look like small beer.

Reports after his exposure stated that Frey had circulated the work as fiction, but it was sold as memoir.  Some day, perhaps, the entire story behind that transaction will be told, and I, for one, would love to hear it.  Would the book – the same book – have gotten as much publicity had it been published as fiction?  I don’t think so.  Frey on tour as a novelist wouldn’t snag the attention that Frey on tour as a memoirist did.  As it stands, I believe A Million Little Pieces is a splendid work of fiction, and it’s fiction in the same sense that To the Lighthouse is fiction – both are deeply rooted in the writers’ lives, but both depart substantially from the facts of those lives.

I’ve maintained that memoir is not autobiography (more about that in another post).  Again and again I’ve said that, for me, memoir recounts, not the facts of a life, but the experience of a life.  Which means that, in the case of A Million Little Pieces, there could have been an ethical way of maintaining the essence of Frey’s grossly exaggerated narrative.

All Frey needed to say was something like, “I was an addict; addicts lie; I used to lie all the time about my life; I lied to myself; I lied to everyone else.  In this narrative, I’ll tell you all the lies I’ve told myself, and told others about my life.  Some of what I say is true.  But not everything.  Much is exaggeration.”  If, throughout the narrative, Frey had clued the reader about his exaggerations, then we would learn, not just about Frey’s life, but also about how he experienced his life as an addict.  We could have learned that he could not be trusted.  That would have been a memoir to remember, one that described for the reader, the experience of living an addict’s life, one filled with distortions and obfuscations.

In fact there’s a scene in Augusten Burroughs’ The Wolf at the Table that does precisely what Frey could have done.  Burroughs recounts something that seems like a memory of his father coming after him that’s truly chilling.  As you read it, you believe it happened.    Then Burroughs tells you that this event didn’t happen, that it was something he imagined.  Yet the imagined event tells you so much about how Burroughs experienced his relationship with his father that it is a far more effective device than if Burroughs had said something like “I was afraid of my father.  I imagined him chasing me, imagined him trying to harm me.”  Burroughs, in this instance, doesn’t break his contract with the reader.

Here, Burroughs gets it right, Frey gets it wrong.  But just because Frey got it wrong, this doesn’t mean that exaggeration, imagination, and downright lying can’t be valid ingredients of memoirs.  A memoir recounts a life.  Lives – yours, mine – are filled with instances of exaggeration and deceit and so it seems important to discuss these in our narratives.  But we memoirists have an ethical obligation to let our readers know what we’re doing; we need to let our readers know when we’re describing the lies we tell ourselves or tell others.

I once had a student who wrote a memoir about a difficult time in her life, a time when she was addicted to heroin and lived on the streets of New York City.  Her work was full of lies and exaggerations.  But she tried to discover for herself, and for her reader, why she found it difficult to tell the truth about her life.  She lied, yes; but then she deconstructed, if you will, her falsifications.

If Frey, like my former student, had let the readers of his memoir know that what he wrote was not true, his memoir  would have been a brilliant example of what the experience of being an addict was like for Frey.

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