Truth and Lies
What has happened to literary memoir? It’s developed a bad reputation, like the kid on the block that everybody knows is a big fat liar. Why should I believe you? Readers are now asking of every story. Why should I trust anything you tell me? Our faith that a memoir writer is at least attempting to tell the truth as best as he or she can remember it–that faith has been seriously shaken. Last night, a student of mine asked what the difference is between a “based on a true story” made-for-tv movie and the memoirs we’re reading in class. In other words, what’s the difference between, say, a Lifetime biopic and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff?
Of course this hasn’t been helped along by the James Frey fiasco, in which A Million Little Pieces was famously exposed, first on Smoking Gun, then on Oprah to be…well…a work of fiction. Nor has it been helped by the recent revelations about Augusten Burroughs in Vanity Fair. (Things weren’t as bad as all that, is basically how the story ends up going.) But more personally painful than these examples–which were books I frankly hadn’t been all that interested in to begin with–are stories now coming out about writers I have admired all my life. Nadine Gordimer apparently made up a first cousin in a personal history piece she wrote for The New Yorker, and laughed about it with her biographer (until he turned on her by revealing her duplicity). Vivian Gornick, whose lucid memoir, Fierce Attachments, was one of the formative books of my college years, recently admitted, in a talk at Goucher College, that some of the walks with her mother that she writes about in her book (a book in which the entire structure is dependent on these walks that Gornick takes with her mother around New York City) — well, these walks didn’t all exactly happen. Some of them were invented. She had taken creative license–a writer’s prerogative, after all.
For years I have been trying to answer these questions for myself, for my readers, for my students. What’s kosher–and not kosher–when writing something understood to be non-fiction? Certain things seem fairly obvious. It’s not kosher to lie. It’s not kosher to invent, or at least not to have the awareness of inventing. Memory is a slippery business, and one’s relationship to memory changes at every single moment. It’s elusive and maddening, this working with memory. Where I stand in relation to a story I’m telling will entirely dictate how I remember–and therefore how I tell–that story. But the intention is to tell it as truthfully as I can. And that intention matters. That intention is the bond between the writer and the reader. It’s the hand that the writer extends to the reader: come with me. You can trust me. I’ve been to this place and now I’m taking you there.
I’ve been thinking about some of this because of a piece in The New York Times yesterday, about a writer, Jay Forman, who wrote a piece of journalism in Slate about monkey fishing. Years later–now–a class at the Columbia School of Journalism has exposed Forman’s piece to be wholesale invention. The latest, sad example in a string of examples. And then, over the weekend, I read Janet Malcolm‘s review in the New York Review of Books about Allen Shawn‘s new memoir, which sounds fascinating. Malcolm–always a pleasure to read for her bracing clarity–writes in the first few paragraphs of the review, about the trustworthiness of Shawn’s voice. And I found myself wondering: would trustworthiness have been mentioned a decade ago, before all these lines between fiction and reality became so impossibly blurred?
Last Mother’s Day an essay of mine was the cover story in Salon. It was excerpted from a longer essay I had written in an anthology, Maybe Baby. It was a tough, painful piece that explored some of my ambivalence about having children, after having had such a rough relationship with my own mother. In it, I reveal some very personal details about my own family’s life and recent history. Before the piece came out, my editor at Salon called. “Do yourself a favor. Don’t read the letters to the editor,” she warned me. “They’ll drive you crazy.”
Well, there’s nothing like telling a writer not to read something about herself or her own work to make sure that it will be the first thing she’ll do. At least this writer. I waited, oh, about five hours after the Salon piece was first posted before looking at the letters, which were already pouring in. Some of them were lovely, some of them were nasty — but what was surprising to me was this: some of them actually questioned whether the story I had written was true.
Now that–that had never happened to me before. That hand I extend to the reader–I had always first used that hand to carefully pick through the sharp rocks of my own history to produce something coherent and meaningful and above all true. I had believed that the reader on the other side of the page was also holding out a hand–palm open, willing to trust until proven otherwise. I had not understood until reading through those letters (a reader had actually written “I don’t believe her”) the extent to which the very truth of what I was saying was apparently up for grabs. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t.