Dubious Memoirs

March 2, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Memoir | 4 Comments

What do you do when a contested memoir makes the news?  A few years ago we learned that A Million Little Pieces was partly fabricated.  I just finished listening to A Long Way Gone on audio, and somewhere during the final disk I learned that some of the facts were in dispute.

I’ve written before about problems with memoirs.  Chances are good that at least one person involved in the story will disagree violently with the author’s interpretation of events.  That doesn’t mean the author is wrong.  Other people in the story may have been in an altered state, may be in total denial, might not have been there, may misremember or have very poor recall in general, may misunderstand what the author is trying to say, or may simply have a bone to pick for some reason.  Say someone writes a memoir about being raised by a drunken, abusive child molester, and it’s all true – is the parent going to stand up and say, “Yeah, I did it”?

On the other hand, just where is the line between memoir and fiction?  It’s wrong to present fiction as truth, we all seem to agree on that.  What if you wrote a memoir and presented it as a novel?

News media uphold a certain standard of fact-checking before they will publish a story.  When caught in an error, they will publish a correction.  Book publishers are not held to the same standard.  One suspects that they may regard a controversial memoir with delight, because it can only serve to drive up publicity and thus sales.

I reviewed The Night of the Gun some time ago, and to my mind this is an ideal format for a memoir.  The author realizes his memories of a particular event do not jibe with those of his friends, so he sets out to interview people he knew at that time in his life to try to get the most accurate picture possible.  He was doing a lot of drugs at the time and recognized that his recall might be faulty.  What emerges is an absolutely terrific, mind-blowing book.

The author of A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah, seems to be taking the position that he has a photographic memory (he elaborates on this in the book) and that thus everything he wrote has to be true.  The power of his story would not have been reduced if he had presented materials to support his recall of events.  On the contrary, it would have built his case.  If only 5% of his story turned out to be true, it would still be enough to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis of child soldiers.

I think dubious memoirs would not be such a problem if the reading public showed a greater taste for hard-core nonfiction.  As long as we need a memoir or a novel to draw our attention to something newsworthy, we are going to continue to see scandals of accuracy.


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  1. I read Frey’s book before the controversy and I can’t believe that anyone believed it was real because it strained credulity so completely.

    • That’s how I felt about “Mutant Message Down Under.”

  2. I think it really hurts an author’s credibility when it turns out things they published as fact were fabricated. Why can’t they just publish it as a novel, and state that it was based on true events? That always intrigues me, actually, because I puzzle about which parts of the story were real and which invented.

  3. Jeane, I wonder that all the time! That’s what hooks me!

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