What do James Frey — author of A Million Little Pieces — and Margaret Seltzer (who last week published a book under pseudonym Margaret B. Jones) have in common? Both wrote acclaimed memoirs that turned out to be fabrications.
Today The New York Times article “Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction” detailed how Seltzer, who is white and grew up in a well-to-do community in Los Angeles, portrayed herself in her memoir Love and Consequences as a half-white, half-Native American foster child involved with gang-bangers and drug dealers in South-Central LA.
It was like déjà vu all over again, reading about publisher Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Books USA, recalling all copies of the book and canceling Seltzer’s book tour. I was reminded of the ruckus triggered when The Smoking Gun exposed Frey’s greatly exaggerated account of his years as a drug abuser. Some of you might remember Frey’s appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and how she admonished him and his publisher, Nan Talese of Doubleday, for duping readers (including Oprah).
Last week, the 1997 memoir Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca, also turned up fraudulent. It told the incredible story of a Jewish girl from Brussels who by herself walked from Belgium to Ukraine over a period of almost four years, during which she survived alone in forests, encountered wolves, and stabbed a rapist.
What strikes me most about these cases is the extraordinary, almost over-the-top nature of each memoirist’s life. (Fabricated life, that is.)
These writers don masks, presenting themselves as individuals much more exciting than they really are. What happened to the notion that great writers can tell great stories, even if those stories are about ordinary lives?
In some respects, I can understand the appeal of an out-of-the-ordinary life. Looking back at the memoirs I’ve gravitated towards, more than a few detail highly unusual life experiences.
Consider this soundbite from Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors:
…the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus…The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of…where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull, an electroshock-therapy machine could provide entertainment.
While Running with Scissors did not make my all-time favorite list, I found it engaging enough to buy the sequel Dry. Both books became national bestsellers.
One memoir I enjoyed immensely was Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. At the age of three, Fuller moved with her family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The opening scene sets the tone for the almost insane adventure Fuller’s family had undertaken — staking a claim as whites in this turbulent, war-torn region of Africa:
Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”
“We might shoot you.”
“Okay.” As it is, there seems good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. “Okay, I won’t.”
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight did make my all-time favorites, primarily for writing that would make even the dullest of lives seem magical.
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr is another best-selling memoir that described a childhood on the edge. What stands out most to me from this book is the scene where the author’s drunken mother starts a bonfire in her front yard, burning up every article of clothing and piece of furniture owned.
Critics characterized Karr’s childhood as “God-awful,” “calamitous,” and “crazy,” yet, again, it was the dazzle of her words that pulled me in and landed this book on my list of favorite memoirs.
I have to wonder, though, if the success of childhood accounts like Running with Scissors, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and The Liars’ Club has created pressure for memoirists to one-up the drama. To come up with life experiences that are almost so wild-and-woolly that publishers can’t pass them up.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m simplifying.
What I do know is that these fradulent memoirs have cast doubt on the genre as a whole. Lee Gutkind, often described as the godfather of creative nonfiction (of which memoir is a subset), dedicated a special issue of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction to countering damage caused by A Million Little Pieces and helping shed light on the oft-misunderstood genre of creative nonfiction.
In the process of explaining what went wrong with Frey’s book, Gutkind talks about the “Five R’s” — or basic tenets — of creative nonfiction:
The Real Life aspect of writing
Reflection of the writers feelings and responses about a subject
Research about a person, place, idea, or situation
Reading the work of masters in their profession
This issue is a must-read for anyone interested in writing or reading memoir. If that happens to be you, I would also encourage you to read two more books from my all-time favorites list.
A Girl Named Zippy: Growing up Small in Mooreland Indiana by Haven Kimmel was almost extraordinary for the boring, small-town life it recounts. And Looking for Mary (Or, the Blessed Mother and Me) by Beverly Donofrio tells the story of a non-practicing Catholic who takes a trip to a holy site where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared.
Both books show how ordinary lives can become ordinary yet engaging stories. No need to have had truly unusual life experiences. And definitely no need to make up extraordinary life experiences.
Just follow Gutkind’s “Five R’s” and you’ll get there.