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."


At 12:33 PM, Blogger J Geezil said...

Hi, thanks for this perspective. Without infiltrating your blog, I just wanted to put in my two cents. I can't help but think that there is a lot going on behind the scenes, between Frey and Oprah that isn't being presented. For years, Oprah's honesty has been her strength. Her audiences could always count on her openess. I just wished that she had acted like much less of a CEO and had followed her "spirit" by trusting the public enough to explain why she "really" had put Frey on her show. Perhaps it's obvious to her harshest critics, but the people who follow her every word, faithfully, have the right to know. I suspect it had a lot to do with self-preservation.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Pamela said...

Jim, first I want to encourage you to infiltrate my blog as often as you feel inclined to! I am eager for thoughtful responses, particularly those that introduce me to a different perspective than my own.

You have brought up an important element which I initially missed in regard to the Oprah appearance, which I believe is the function of damage control.

I forget that even literature is big-business these days, and there was a lot at stake, both for Winfrey and for Frey (hey look at that coincidence, Frey is absorbed in Winfrey). When Oprah endorsed Frey's book, he attached his reputation to hers. Therefore you make a valid argument that she had the right to call him publicly on his lies.

Excellent point, since she absolutely does have a reputation for openness and integrity. I have always held a soft-spot for Oprah, despite her sometimes obvious pandering to the status quo.

Please do come by again!

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