Fact or Friction
Or, How Truthful does a Memoir have to Be?
It seems like a long time ago that the James Frey debacle played itself out in the media. In case you were living under a rock, it was revealed that Frey had fabricated small portions of his memoir A Million Little Pieces, and had not been entirely accurate in his reporting of other incidents in the book. There was an initial embrace of the writer when he stood by his work, then a very public denouncement on Oprah when irrefutable facts contradicting the author were revealed. When all was said and done, public and media opinion fell firmly against Frey. Now, the entire cycle seems to be starting again with Greg Mortenson, who is accused of falsifying events in his best-selling memoir Three Cup of Tea.
Should a memoirist be held to the same standards as a historian, or of a public figure who pens their autobiography? Most commentators of the Frey debacle felt that, yes, misreporting events represents a kind of fraud. I disagree. I’ll start by stating that I believe every writer should be allowed to ‘lie’ in the composition of a memoir. They should have the leeway to re-create the course of events and conversations past as they see fit. This type of ‘lie’ is inevitable – because memory is subjective. Memoirists are not savants, recreating conversations in exactitude, down to the last word. What memoirists do have – and what inspires people to pen memoirs – is a shard of emotional truth about their lives that needs to be expressed. But facts and truth are not the same thing. A memoir acts as a lens in a telescope, literally tricking the eye into seeing what it otherwise could not. Memoir is not history, it is not auto-biography. Memoir should not pretend to be an accurate recreation of events – it should be honest only to the emotional core of the person who experienced those events. If dialogue has to be re-created, or if characters are made composite, or even if actual events are shuffled, so be it. This the author’s perspective, filtered through the prism of time and memory, not a journalist’s reportage.
Memoirs, on the other hand, are also the stories of those people around the memoirist. Does the writer not owe it those involved to maintain as much fidelity to the facts as possible? I don’t think so. But perhaps I might not feel that way, had somebody in my own life written a memoir and misrepresented what I know to be true. Well, here is the twist: I have been misrepresented in a memoir. Elizabeth Wurtzel, in her memoir More Now Again, wrote of the time she was ensconced in an office at Doubleday, writing her second book, Bitch, which was far behind schedule. My boss, Executive Editor Betsy Lerner, had left much of Ms. Wurtzel’s care to me; my tasks included fetching Cds from her apartment, keeping her company when she had a problem to talk through, and clearing the numerous song lyric permissions. In her memoir, she claimed that she also sent me to pick up drugs for her from her dealer. When I read this, I laughed out loud, so preposterous was the claim. Ms. Wurtzel’s character has been dissected by much abler and incisive writers than me, so I will keep my personal feelings about this behavior to myself, but I will say that I can’t hold her misrepresentation of the events against her: it was done to serve a point in the memoir: illustrating that her situation had degenerated to the degree that she couldn’t even score her own drugs. Point made. The truth was much more mundane, though I was dispatched to her apartment to pack her bag so she could leave for rehab (directly from the Doubleday offices! The glamour of being an editorial assistant!) For the record, I have no idea how or where she got her drugs, but if some illusory Matt Ellis needed to troll a downtown haunt to score Elizabeth Wurtzel her needed drugs, I am happy to have accomplished that task in the service of memoir.
For a little lying, and a lot of truth, check out my own memoir Strange as Angels, available here.