Truth in Memoir

In the course of the revelation of the shocking, just shocking embellishments in James Frey’s memoir, there has been a frightfully thin discussion of the quality of the writing and what it told us all along: exaggeration of the power we have over our own destinies rings true to those who are looking for that kind of thing, and false to anyone else who knows better.

The debate between truth and fact in personal essay and memoir is an old one, and the test of authenticity has rarely been, “Did it really happen that way?” Many argue that memory is just too slippery to be held to that kind of standard, and that the discernment of fact itself isn’t obvious. William Maxwell’s small and elegant novel So Long See You Tomorrow takes on the fickleness of fact. When contemplating what testimony was not called upon in the case of love and betrayal and a small-town grisly murder-suicide, he tells us fact is not just elusive, it’s impossible: “The unsupported word of a witness who was not present except in imagination would not be acceptable in a court of law, but, as it has been demonstrated over and over, the sworn testimony of the witness who was present is not trustworthy either. If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it. I would be happy to stick to the facts if there were any.” So there.

But what Maxwell does that James Frey doesn’t is notable. For Maxwell, the act of weaving together this story against his memory and newspaper clippings is, at its heart, an act of compassion. It is a gentle attempt to account for a fleeting moment when he encountered the son of the murderer in the school hallway and didn’t do what he should have. Instead of acknowledging Cletus, with whom he had played on the construction site of his new home, the narrator passed him without a word. (Though even this is called into question. Did that chance meeting really happen?) The novel itself is the story of the narrator, presumably Maxwell, weaving himself back to this boy with whom he shared some sense of loss. Cletus’s upheaval begins with his mother’s affair as she, out of resentment, uproots herself and her children from their home. It culminates in his father killing his wife’s lover who is also his best friend, and then killing himself. The writing, the creating, of this story is the artful rendering of a compassionate imagination (can compassion occur any other way?), and it is in the writing that Maxwell binds himself to this boy and his grief. For both boys lost a home—the only universe of constancy a child knows—upon the loss of a parent. The death of Maxwell’s mother to the flu epidemic fueled a lifetime of writing. He wrote through this loss over and over again in his long career, in part, I think, to find a way to live with it.

It isn’t that fact doesn’t matter in memoir. It’s that the very form, at its best, wrestles with fact and with the space between fact and memory. Because there’s always space between fact and memory. We are dependent on stories, not facts, to make sense of our lives. Our narration of a traumatic or life-changing event isn’t created in the event. It’s created in hindsight as we try to make sense of what happened, and like good storytellers, we amplify some things and recede others through a quiet slight of hand, as Maxwell would have it. We juxtapose certain recollections in our mind to create a cohesive whole we can live with. And there’s the rub. What of those most depraved moments when we thoughtlessly did wrong? What of those moments when our achievement fell short of what we aspired? What of those moments when we flat out lied to preserve our own story, even if it meant hurting someone else? No life is without these hiccups of brokenness, some greater than others, to be sure. But what memoir doesn’t permit is to allow this kind of falsehood go unexamined. The act of writing, if the writing is any good, is necessarily a struggle not in remembering what happened, but in what little we can know of what happened. In a recent roundtable discussion published in the Fourth Genre (fall 2005), Michele Morano describes the negotiation between accuracy and emotional truth, especially when a particular event is experienced by different people in different ways: “This is a perpetual problem for the nonfiction writer, and there’s no clear answer for how to deal with it. Writing from personal experience and from memory involves negotiating with ourselves over every piece we write, grappling with questions of truth and accuracy and fairness, which is really hard. But the positive side is that tremendous power can come from those negotiations as well.” Power, I would add, that can’t be fabricated through glosses or convenient amplification.

Memoir should be something about the journey and difficulty of self-knowledge. No one said it would be easy. The excerpt of Frey’s book posted on the Random House website is a kind of wrestling, but it isn’t wrestling with the difficulty of truth. It’s wrestling with how he wants to see himself, a venture that is more trickery than art. Sure, there is plenty of brokenness in addiction, but it seems the story of redemption isn’t quite finished yet, if Mr. Frey is interested in exploring it. Five million dollars the richer, one might wonder if he had it in him to bother. Of a story hinged on an overstatement of bad-boy antics, self-consciously literary cheap tricks, and a tidy arc of sin and salvation made memorable and, ironically, believable to a certain kind of audience only through exaggeration, any good writing teacher worth the salt would say, “You haven’t yet said all you can say.”

James Frey gave the public what it was looking for, and was probably a little more subject to its whim than he realized. Nan Talese, as a friend recently put it, was crazy like a fox. Calls to fact check memoirs are quite beside the point. As long as people are infatuated with “reality” as a way to restore their faith in the hope that they are the masters of their own destinies, then we will have false memoirs like this one. They are a dime a dozen and they sell. But something truer might show a different kind of story—a story that shows us how little control we have in the world, and how vulnerable we are to forces bigger that we are, and that all we have, at the end of the day, are our stories.

Scroll to Top