Sunday, January 29, 2006

More on Win-Frey

(photo from Over at Huffington Post they're hotly debating the James Frey on Oprah moment. Who knew I was watching a moment of pop cultural history last Thursday!

This commenter concisely articulates the bottom-line of my response to the show:

"I think Oprah is a basically a wonderful person and if she wanted to express her anger at James Frey's deception and his intentional use of her show to promote what he knew to be fiction, that's fine. But I wish if using her show to promote a lie merits a public flogging, why doesn't she apply the same standard to Judith Miller, Condi Rice and Colin Powell. They all used the Oprah show to disseminate known untruths and thousands of people have died as a result of their fraud. Compare that to what Frey did."
Posted by: dcbs on January 27, 2006 at 08:04am"

As for James Frey, there seems a moment in our public lives when, anyone who is living vibrantly at least, is called on a mistake, or something more momentous than a simple mistake--say a bald-faced lie for instance. At that moment we have an opportunity to define ourselves. We acquiesce to our weakness or fear or insecurity. We admit our fallibility or defend the lie if there was some creative reason we felt it had to be told. We explain our definition of genre, back our asses up! Or we border on defensive or catatonic like Frey did. There was very little likable about him that day, as he was being systematically lampooned.

I believe it is precisely at those moments--when we are being "attacked"--that we most eloquently live and express our humanity by staying engaged in it, good or bad. That we open to that space of vulnerability (Judith Butler's Precarious Life). This is how an epiphanel shift occurs, either individually or societally. In Frey's case the question seems to be the ethics of a former addict's inflated story.

I would have loved to hear Frey fully explain why he altered facts. It would have been enlightening to hear him explain that no one was buying his book when he shopped it as a novel. That only when the publishers saw it as a voyeristic expose' did it have the final element of sordidness necessary for mass appeal.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Evil Memoirist

By coincidence yesterday I turned on the television to find James Fry being publicly dismantled over the subject of untruths in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. His spacey stare and inability to sometimes even formulate an answer to Oprah’s barrage of accusations, indignations and proclamations of betrayal, suggested that maybe he’d been sedated. It was a freak show, really, with the audience moaning as if on cue, and the author staring to either side of the camera— booed mid-sentence and looking as though he’d bolt if he could stand firmly on his feet and find the exit! There were clips of top-notch journalists espousing their various ideologies on the importance of “truth,” and the degeneration of our society into one of artifice and lies, evidently spearheaded by James Frey. There was a panel of so-called thinkers (one guy was a total joke, actually suggesting that memoirs should include a “truth barometer” at the beginning indicating how close to reality it is—as if this can ever be accurately determined, a person’s experience judged against “truth”).

And although I think Frey was, at the very least, stupid (I mean jail records are easy to check), I was just floored that this man who wrote a memoir not an autobiography or even a creative non-fiction account of his life, was being so publicly humiliated for nearly an hour, while men in power are continuously exposed for lies and never made to bear any burden for the harm they’ve caused. Can we say, various U.S. presidents? Newt Gingrich, James the preacher Baker, Kenneth Lay, a good portion of corporate America (special kudos to the multi-national corporations), to name a few?

The harm Frey caused—he misled his readers. He was not in jail for 3 months like he asserts in his book, he was there for about 3 hours. His friend, Lilly, did not hang herself, she slit her wrists. He may or may not have suffered through a root canal without anesthesia. There is question as to whether he was suspected by the police for contributing to the death of a woman (as he asserts), and he left the rehab clinic with one person, not two. He definitely embellished circumstances and fabricated a person or two. And to make matters worse, he was anything but contrite with Oprah.

Still, it is amazing to me that anyone would demand that the creative arts be literal. How accurate are our memories? I clearly recall my childhood one way, and my brother recalls it another. Our personal agendas surely intervene. My husband argues over the validity of my impression of an event or remark that happened moments before—and there is never a resolution. I had an accident with a white van last summer that I would have sworn in court had no side windows, but apparently it did.

As Donna Haraway so eloquently illustrates in her essay “Situated Knowledges” our outward gaze is embodied, always already (as my professor says) subject to the space of “real” that exists between us and the other, and the subjectivity of existence. If the experience is subjective, how can the memory not be subject to further tainting? Do we demand that a book, a thing that first and foremost tells A STORY, be utterly subject to facts pertaining to personal truths? The essence of A Million Little Pieces (which I have not read), seems to be the struggle and eventual exorcism from the demons of addiction. Period.

Why has everyone so rabidly crucified Frey (who by the way seems a bit unlikable to me)? Is it really due some particular indignation when the creative realm shatters our fantasy about the real? Fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction have different standards and I don’t mean to dismiss them. But in a society where lies and half-truths are told publicly on a daily basis (no weapons of mass destruction, no sex with Angelina, our marriage is solid, etc.), do we actually hold a formerly-addicted memoirist to the standards of an historian? Is our indignation at our own willingness to believe, or do we gain an ugly momentum when one of our own is offered up for an ideological sacrifice?

I’m very interested in anyone’s perspective on this. I don’t mean to indicate that I have no respect for the truth--I actually am pretty committed to it in terms of truth as ethics. I have a certain empathy for Oprah’s position, since she stood by this author based on his reassurances that his memoir was truthful. Are any of you out there outraged at Frey? If so, tell us why, tell us what you expect when you read a memoir, and what it means if certain recollections turn out to be untrue. Maybe my liberal arts education has led me to feel that there is no memory that is not subject to some imaginative “hole filling,” or altering of events to suit the psyche.

Finally, I think Oprah’s show would have been far more important— and far less of a spectacle and public flogging—had she presented an examination of image and perspective in the realm of truth. Or had she deconstructed the lies of a person who we’ve entrusted with a sort of truth, and who makes decisions that effect whether people live or die.

From an excerpt of Dave Eggers at
“"For all the author's bluster elsewhere," Eggers archly writes, "this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes." Eggers then proceeds to list a number of these parts, some of which don't actually appear in the book. Later, in his acknowledgments, Eggers is more pointed: "Besides, if you are bothered by the idea of this being real, you are invited to do what the author should have done, and what authors and readers have been doing since the beginning of time: PRETEND IT'S FICTION."”

"We initially shopped the book as a novel, and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a nonfiction book," Frey said. "When Nan Talese purchased the book, I'm not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Thou Shalt Not Love

Yesterday a group of us went downtown to see a mid-afternoon showing of Brokeback Mountain. As a devout Annie Proulx disciple I have been anxious to see this story come to life—although amidst the hoopla and broad-ranging attention, I admit I was worried. If a film is universally accepted, I am often suspicious that it might be pandering to (and I’m sorry for sounding like a stuffy academic here) the lowest common denominator. I hoped Brokeback would avoid sentimentalism or manipulation.

But the hoopla around this film is warranted. Brokeback Mountain is simply unforgettable—filmed with such sensitivity and insight, and of course written with a poignant, authentic voice and believable pathos. I loved it. I haven’t seen a film that placed me so close to the breath of its subject in a long time. I haven’t stopped thinking about it, or hearing Gustavo Santaolallo’s evocative soundtrack all day.

Why is this love story so compelling, even for an unexpected element of our social demography (the man buying his ticket in front of me painted an entirely conservative picture—I was so happy to see my stereotype shattered!)? Why do we ache for stories like Romeo and Juliet, Heloise and Abelard, Thelma and Louise? According to many classical philosophers, love is inherently suffering. On many levels, the love-as-heartache of Brokeback is familiar to us.

But in the case of Brokeback Mountain, love is socially restricted; an emotion monitored, compartmentalized, and moralized by an invisible, disciplining entity. The suffering is imposed, the result of dogma. A perceived order is imposed by restricting difference. Why, why on earth, do we care who people love? Why do we accept an 80-year old billionaire marrying an 18 year old, but two adult same-sex lovers are still stigmatized?

If you might think (as I tend to) that society has accepted the presence and rights of same-sex partners, take a look at these vitriolic reviews from customers of I’ll mention that these are quite the exception to an amazing number of positive responses, but still are a sample of a good number of nasty responses:

“These days you turn on the TV and it seems like every station has a couple gay guys lisping and flitting around. One time I actually turned the channel and found six stations in a row featuring gay guys... hair dressers, decorators, etc. Gay Hollywood would have us believe that most of us are gay and this movie just goes along with that idea. This movie was sickening. The people raving about it hear are probably pole-smokers too.... not that there's anything wrong with that.”--notice the typos and logical fallacies.

“Hollywood keeps finding new ways to try and force homosexuality into mainstream acceptance. This time they do it by ramrodding the subject into the most heterosexual genre of all... the western film. The Duke is certainly turning over in his grave now. The Lone Ranger is behind a big rock on the prarie puking his guts out right now. Sickening. Seriously... what I find interesting is that the Hollywood top brass have been sitting around for the past few weeks trying to figure out why 2005 was such a down year. Well, here's a hint fellas. When the "best" movies you turn out in a given year are about a couple of sodomite cowboys, a third remake of King Kong, and yet another Star Wars prequel with the script apparently written by a third grader.... well, what do you expect?? You are not appealing to a broad audience with this crap. Go check out Rocky Horror Picture Show instead.”--again, incorrect spelling, and what is that end bit about RHPS?

“Crap like this is just what the whole michael moore relgion is forcing on everyone! And GOD forbid if someone is against it...oops, I said GOD!”--yup, you said it twice in one small sentence, and look at that, you misspelled religion!

Very sad, indeed. There always seems to be a direct correlation between poor articulation and paranoia, fallacious logic and this kind of small-minded prejudice, doesn’t there?

Monday, January 16, 2006

My Big, Fat, Greek Epiphany!

(Photo of Plato from

Oh, how learning is the nutrition of living!!

I’ve not much time today, I’m trying to wrap my mind around the entire Symposium written by Plato. In my earlier ignorant bliss, I delighted in avoiding the ancient Greeks (the classics) because I really viewed them as the seat of patriarchy. Socrates this, Aristotle that, Plato the great, great dominant-male mind.

Well, guess what? I forgot all about humor, and irony and satire—of which the ancient Greeks were glorious masters, and missed out on the chance to embrace brilliance early! Perhaps as subtext to much classical, masculine posturing, I find a direct connection between Platonic reasoning and the foundations of feminist theory. Additionally I find a resonant concept of the boundaries of both empirical thinking and reasonable argument in this unbelievably sophisticated, glorious text—text written thousands of years ago!

I am particularly interested in this section from Diotima’s questioning of Socrates on page 46 (of the Nehamas and Woodruff translation) of Symposium:

‘“She said, ‘Watch your tongue! Do you really think that if a thing is not beautiful, it has to be ugly?’ … ‘If a thing’s not wise, it’s ignorant? Or haven’t you found out yet that there’s something in between wisdom and ignorance?’ … “It’s judging things correctly without being able to give a reason. Surely you see that this is not the same as knowing—for how could knowledge be unreasoning? And it’s not ignorance either—for how could what hits the truth be ignorance? Correct judgment, of course, has this character: it is in between
understanding and ignorance.’ “

This argument is exquisitely elegant. What could translate more clearly the tenets that many feminists (Donna Haraway and Judith Butler come to mind) go to great lengths to demonstrate? Diotima (how utterly feministic of Plato to cast this fictional character as a woman of infinite wisdom) presents—HURRAH!—the “grey zone” or the ways in which the world is not binary. This is so relevant in today’s political landscape—which, in a historical way, is bifurcating along a dichotomous template. I’m A-1 guilty of this. I’m leaning left I say to anyone who cares to hear, yet I believe that we must always, always, always strive to find the overlaps—or as Donna Haraway calls them, “the borderlands.”

This is how I believe feminist theory can save us—in the “third, fourth and fifth” ways. Any thoughts from anyone out there? Has anyone else ever viewed Plato as an “accidental” (or maybe not so accidental) feminist? It is so difficult, in our warp-speed world, to take the time to encounter things at a deeper level than face!

I’ll depart with these final words of simple rhetorical wisdom by Diotima:

"'Then don't force whatever is not beautiful to be ugly, or whatever is not good to be bad. It's the same with Love: when you agree he is neither good nor beautiful, you need not think he is ugly and gad; he could be something in between.'"

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Moments of Abandon

Nothing like a little "letting go!"

<---- I'm in the middle

At age 4, the seniorita

Just Breathe (are we suffocating?)

“2 AM and I'm still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, it's no longer inside of me,
Threatening the life it belongs to
And I feel like I'm naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you'll use them, however you want to”
--Anna Nalick, Breathe (2AM)

3AM and I toss restlessly in bed. I can’t fall back asleep. The covers are closing around my neck, as though they have a savage purpose of their own. The night that wraps around me activates my thoughts—sparks of ideas firing around in my brain—ideas I’ll never retain until morning. I try my usual repertoire of mental sleep strategies, no luck. Over and over in my head the chorus of Anna Nalick’s Breathe whispers in my head.

I finally get up; Aaron remains breathing peacefully, rhythmically—despite my repeated surreptitious attempts to rouse him. The dogs follow me into the den, their feet padding like little tap dancers behind me. I fire up the computer—maybe I’ll write. I want to hear Breathe so I access iTunes and search for the song. There are currently well over 50 songs with the word “breathe” as the title, or factoring strongly into the title. There is also a group called Breathe.

This gets me wondering about all these poetic attempts to encourage breathing, to remind us of this basic function. Are we all suffocating? What is constricting us? What makes my life so much more animated at night, in the confines of my over-burdened imagination? How many times a day do I realize that I am holding my breath, that I must make a concerted effort to release the holding? Do we do this less when we’re children, when we lack adult self-consciousness?

Anna sings:
"'Cause you can't jump the track, we're like cars on a cable

And life's like an hourglass, glued to the table
No one can find the rewind button, girl.
So cradle your head in your hands
And breathe... just breathe,
Oh breathe, just breathe"

I download the song, beautiful songwriting, beautiful singer. She’s living her art. I want to live my art, but the risk makes me store it instead in my head—maybe to be intentionally forgotten. What hurts more, singing out loud off-key, or just listening to the music in your head? My ex-husband used to sing off-key in church, loudly, proudly. I remember hating him, rather, for his healthy abandon as I just mouthed the words.

For complete lyrics to Breathe follow this

Monday, January 09, 2006


No real time tonight. I've begun a post about the Hilton sisters, but then I realized as culturally symptomatic as they are, they remain too boring to really talk about.

Instead, I decided to share a wonderful E.M. Forster quote from Howard's End (not really a favorite novel of mine, but sublime writing nonetheless), a quote which has resonated in me through the years--a quality I often try to aspire to when I imagine myself from attempted objectivity (the me I try to fantasize myself into):

"Away she hurried, not beautiful, not supremely brilliant, but filled with something that took the place of both qualities -- something best described as a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encountered in her path through life."

P.S. Is anyone else out there listening to Damien Rice? Blower's Daughter and Cold Water are my current musical obsessions.

I'm sure I'll have much to say and not enough time to say it in the coming weeks--but I will try! :-)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Morford's Take on New Year Possibilities ...

Just because I had my own rant below, I had to chuckle when I ran across another energy-laden, near-rant-but-actually-close-to-poetry piece by my beloved Mark Morford. Check out his take on what his hopes for 2006 are.

Morford is rash and brazen and no-holds-barred. Sorry if anything he says offends you, but for me, he is so tragically spot-on that I can't laugh at his humor for the sad truths he unleashes.

Let's forge another scenario, shall we?

Everything Old is New Again

Ah, a new year! I’m somewhat addicted to change, so new years always present themselves to me in much the same way as a blank page—rife with possibility. I’m in love with dynamism, even as I wax nostalgic sometimes.

2005 was a complex year, presenting good (my first A+, my first literary contest win, my growing confidence in a career trajectory and social consciousness) and stressful (a lawsuit, a car accident, creative uncertainty, a realization that I’ve chosen an unprofitable career). Despite the periodic angst of some rather unpleasant occurrences, I loved 2005—it felt like I was there, it never shrunk away from making itself known to me! And for the first time in quite a while, I felt that I didn’t hold back as vehemently as I tend to do when I’m feeling insecure. I’ve come to realize that for some of us life feels more manifest, more animated and tangible, when it arrives in experiential peaks and valleys. Some of us actually crave variety with all it’s implications of tension and necessary adaptation. It’s all part of what social philosopher/theologian Eric Santner calls “turning into the midst of life”—in a nutshell, getting engaged with a world outside one’s safety zones. This sort of embracing the world of the unknown, variable, and the so-called “real,” opens us to experiencing our emotional scope,
beauty being emphasized and heightened by the presence of the ugly and gruesome as contrast.

But life is surely easier when we strive to weed out the complications that are part of what is real. This would include shielding ourselves from the inequalities we know exist outside of our protected realms, ignoring a seemingly ethical call to engage in the tougher stuff. This means taking the time, and expelling the energy necessary to recognize the mechanisms of our social order which exclude many people from—at the very least—a decent form of life. It means recognizing how even our apathy (or denial) does not preclude us from culpability. The need to filter unpleasant truths is a natural compulsion, and I’m particularly guilty of strategies such as retail therapy, isolating myself from certain endeavors that require obligation or commitment, and escaping reality by way of the imaginary. I think it is OK to do these things occasionally to give our spirit a rest. But I also think we can become walking zombies (Santner calls it the “undead”) when we perpetually exist in a state of denial and self-protection.

This bracing is manifest in so many ways … namely in our utter worship of consumerism and wealth. We think getting material things equates enjoyment. Anyone who has watched children power through endless gift-opening with barely a fluctuation in emotion, knows how untrue this is—particularly when so much stuff seems infinitely accessible (instant gratification). I believe that we value the small thing earned so much more than the things that are massively availalbe.

Scholar and philosopher Todd MacGowan presents a theory that suggests we’ve turned from a society based on a prohibitive mandate, to one that is driven by a command to constantly experience “enjoyment.” This is really a provocative assertion, and it rings true to me. For those of us who were late baby-boomer/borderline Gen-Xers, we can palpably recall the shift from discipline to indulgence, we realize how lifestyle and social consciousness has radically changed. It was “cool” to be socially aware and engaged when I was young; it is now “cool” to be indifferent and carting around a multitude of toys. I’m not saying one is necessarily a better way to exist than the other, but enjoyment that is commanded can never be authentic—in fact, MacGowan argues that accumulating things or experiences are an illusion of enjoyment, that true enjoyment (jouissance) is never achieved by a concerted effort toward it. It is elusive and requires engagement of the unconscious.This is why, I think, so many of us feel empty even though we “have” so much more than our parents ever did.

I would like to view 2006 as a year in which I begin to take creative and ethical chances, even if they require a certain sacrifice (monetary reimbursement for instance). For the past few years, Aaron and I had to radically change our lifestyle to extricate ourselves from debt. We aren’t totally out of the woods, but we feel the freedom of living in a tangible way (cash for nearly everything). In fact, downsizing is the best thing we ever did. I just want to call anyone who has been teetering with dissatisfaction to try to determine the origins of your discomfort. Are you avoiding “being political?” Are you happy to let “the experts” determine your ethical compass? Are you buying things to feel better?

I’m all for celebration, the expense of artistic gratification, and the dignity that accompanies taking care of oneself. We still need to experience a decent amount of glorious squander (that, too, I believe helps us to feel alive). I just suggest—to myself most of all—a realistic view of determining where enjoyment (jouissance) really originates. I have never felt better than after showing an underprivileged child something s/he has never seen. I’ve never been more rewarded than when saving an abused animal (my days with Sheltie rescue). If you haven’t made time for it, please consider philanthropy in your plans for 2006—and definitely support ventures (corporations) who make this part of their ethic.