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Sunday, March 09, 2008

All alone in the moonlight

Alert: new pictures in the gallery!

Once upon a time I had a scholarly life, and, in my head, I still do. However, the only venue available to me right now is this blog, so lucky, lucky you! (Again, no Jacob here, so if that's all you came for, you can skip right over this entry.)

One of my areas of particular interest is autobiography, as many of you know. And, as many of you have no doubt heard, the angry specter of "truth" in memoir has raised its ugly head once again recently.

The last big kerfuffle over the truthiness of memoir began with James Frey and the revelations that A Million Little Pieces was made up of close to a million little lies. The fascinating (in a train wreck sort of way) public flogging of Frey by Oprah followed (if you weren't following, he was one of her book club choices). More on this later. Then there was JT Leroy, a teenage male prostitute who wrote about his harrowing story and who turned out to be a middle-aged white woman.

This time around, we have not one but two autobiographies that are apparently "lies" (leading me at first to believe these publishers hadn't really learned their Oprah-approved lesson). First, it turns out that the writer of Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years was not in fact a Holocaust survivor...or Jewish...and didn't trek across Europe and wasn't raised by a pack of friendly wolves. Okay, there have been fake Holocaust memoirs before (see Wilkomirski's Fragments and Kosinski's The Painted Bird), and this kind of lying seems to be a special kind of detestable attention-seeking. However, this memoir also claimed its author was RAISED BY WOLVES. This does not happen in real life, people! Are we all so enamored of Mowgli that we cannot remember he was a fictional character?? Goodness me! The publisher did say there was no way to corroborate the author's story seeing as how everyone she talked about was dead...or a wolf.

The second autobiography that turns out to be fictional is Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones (aka Margaret Seltzer). She (white) claimed to have been raised in a (black) foster home in South Central LA and to have become involved in gang life following the paths of her (black) foster brothers. This fraud was more elaborate, since apparently people masquerading as said foster siblings met the publisher and produced pictures to corroborate the story. However, the jig was up when Seltzer's real life sister called to say it was all untrue. (BTW, Oprah's magazine LOVED Love and Consequences. Ooops, we did it again!)

Now, it's clear to me and to anyone with half a brain that all these people simply lied. Very convincingly and very publicly, it seems, much to their publishers' collective chagrin. But why they lied, the question most stories about the fraud seemed bent on answering, is less interesting to me than the public's reaction to those lies. Indeed, what struck me most about the Frey incident was how incensed everyone was at even the thought that something called "autobiography" or "memoir" or whatever might contain something "false." And yet, as grad school and my own reading has taught me, much of what we call narrative is false, even (especially?) the narratives we write/tell about ourselves, because all is subjective, mediated, remembered and therefore subject to all kinds of fabrications and embellishments and narrative creations. There is no such thing as a "true" story.

Writer Jane Porter puts it like this: "Years ago in grad school I took an Autobiography course as part of my MA in Writing program. We read fifteen different memoirs and autobiographies. During the course I was struck by the subjective nature of memory. As Sarah McCarthy taught me with her memoir, you can have four siblings experience a shared event, and yet you’ll end up with four different versions of the event. We might be shoulder to shoulder with our brother or sister, but we will still internalize, and personalize, the event, and experience, differently. That was a light bulb moment for me. My absolute truth would never be my brothers or sister’s truth. I could write a tell-all story about my father’s death, and it still wouldn’t be the tell-all. Life is far too subjective, and I realized, surprisingly malleable." Arguably, this is one the main jobs of of grad school in English, it would seem.

This question has created courses I'd like to take/teach on the subject and interesting essays on the concept by authors like Vivian Gornick, who wrote recently that "truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of a writing imagination is required." But Oprah and a large portion of her viewing audience would certainly and vehemently disagree with this definition, asserting that truth is king. My point, one of many, is why? Why do my students believe everything they read because it's written? Why must they be persuaded (pummeled) into understanding that everyone is biased and everything has elements of truth but not "the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" Why does that understanding make them so uncomfortable, to the extent that Oprah and her much of her audience reject the notion wholesale?

I have no answers today, only questions and observations.

1 comment:

ege said...

Well, there is subjectivity, and then there are outright lies. After all, even if you and your siblings experience your father's death differently, we could produce a death certificate to show he did actually die. I think it's fair to assume that memoirs are loosely based on reality. I read a good article about how publishers (unlike newspapers and other journalistic media) make almost zero effort to corroborate the truthfulness of autobiography and other non-fiction. I think the gullibility (or greed?) of publishers is the most salient lesson here.