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Memoirs: Fact or Fiction?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 30, 2008 4 Comments

Lerner Publishing, publishers of Angel Girl, based on Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat‘s “love story,” announced that they have “canceled pending reprints of the book and will refund the price of any returned books.” The story, based on Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived, inspired many, including the highly influential Oprah Winfrey. It turned out to have been significantly fictionalized, or, as the publishers called it, “not entirely true.” The famous tale went as follows: “Mr. Rosenblat met his future wife when he was a prisoner and she was disguised as a Christian farm girl and tossed him apples and other food over the fence of the Schlieben camp in Germany. In the story, the protagonist meets the girl again years later on a blind date in New York.” Unfortunately, the first part turned out to be a hoax, as subsequent investigations by Holocaust scholars and the New Republic magazine revealed.

The last few years have witnessed other high profile cases of “misremembered” memoiring. One of the most famous cases was that of the Oprah Book Club selection, A Million Little Pieces, penned by James Frey. Many months after the book was first published, and after an initial dismissal of any claims of misrepresentation, Doubleday, the book’s publishers, had to admit that they had “sadly come to the realization that a number of facts have been altered and incidents embellished.” My own recall of the week the news broke goes like this: Smoking Gun, Supportive Oprah, Larry King, Defiant Frey, Supportive Oprah, more Smoking Gun, Oprah on the war path, “little boy lost” Frey, browbeaten Nan A. Talese, the end of non-fiction as we knew it. Even I, who had never read the book till the story broke, felt badly cheated.

Another recent famous case comes to mind: Margaret B Jones‘ critically acclaimed book, Love and Consequences, published by Riverhead this year. The memoir, about a young part-white, part-Native American girl who becomes a part of So-Cal’s drug-dealing and gang-banging underworld, turned out to be totally false. A New York Times article ended up being her undoing.

In all three cases, the authors took great liberties with the truth in a deliberate attempt to sell books. Readers felt angry at the authors and publishers in all those cases: “duped” readers felt that the latter should have done their “homework.” The problem, however, is that publishers cannot, as Talese noted, “[thoroughly] fact-check every single book. It would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship.” Some questions occur to me. Is a memoir’s “authenticity” entirely derived from its factuality? In fact, what exactly IS authenticity? What omissions, alterations are we willing to accept as readers? Finally, how do we police others’ memories?

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4 Responses to “Memoirs: Fact or Fiction?”

  1. Youki on: 31 December 2008 at 2:21 pm

    yet films take extreme liberties with “true” stories, only needing the words “based on a true story” to be able to take the kernel of a story and mold it into something more “Hollywood.” This is so commonly practiced, and expected, in films yet we have such a different standard for novels.

    Why is the public so fickle?

  2. daveski on: 31 December 2008 at 5:08 pm

    It’s funny, or maybe not funny at all–I actually find myself really riled up by things like this (growl), I mean, the nerve of people like Frey and Rosenblat, not to mention the publishers and media apparatuses that seem to play along until it’s no longer viable, at which point they turn the tables and claim moral high ground. Come on!!

    The word “truthiness” comes to mind. I heard about it first with the James Frey/Oprah hubbub, but I hadn’t realized it had actually won the word of the year honors a few years ago. Amazing that the wikipedia article has no less than 50 citations…

    I wonder if it isn’t a clash of genres, expectations about genre?

    the question about policing others’ memories is really interesting

  3. Youki on: 31 December 2008 at 5:30 pm

    I vote “banal” as word of the week.

  4. Usree Bhattacharya on: 2 January 2009 at 9:11 pm

    The expectation comes with the word “memoir.” People understand that not everything will be remembered precisely: what bothers the reading public is deliberate lying in order to sell more books. Yes, Hollywood films are generally expected to take liberties with the truth; but they are also vulnerable to criticism. A film I’d watched some months ago, A Mighty Heart, based on the events surrounding Daniel Pearl’s death, came under fire by Georgetown professor Asra Nomani, one of the principle characters in the film, for its reworking of the truth: “”For me,” she said, “watching the movie was like having people enter my home, rearrange the furniture and reprogram my memory.”

    I think it’s both a clash of genres (novel/memoir) and expectations of a genre (though this would be difficult to work out: what really is a memoir, but a selective choosing(dramatization?) of memories in order to tell a story?).

    Yes, Stephen Colbert, comedian par excellence, deserves applause for reintroducing the word to the English-using public…very very apt.

    Youki, banal banned.

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