Thursday, March 06, 2008

Memoir Lies: Why do writers make up stories and call them true?

I've read several articles about recent bestselling memoirs turning out to be fiction and the subsequent outcry against the authors. Kathy O'Beirne's 2005 memoir, Kathy's Story: A Childhood Hell Inside the Magdalene Laundries, about growing up in a Catholic home for fallen women. Love and Consequences, by Margaret B. Jones, in which she chronicles her childhood as a half Indian, half white girl living in foster care and running drugs in East LA. And there is the holocaust survival story, Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca, a story in which six year old Misha travels Europe during WW2 looking for her lost Jewish parents. At one point in her journey she is rescued by wolves.

Why are so many writers creating works of fiction and trying to pass them off as truth? And why are we readers buying these outlandish tales to begin with? Why are wild, gut-wrenching, true-tales so compelling, and therefor, so profitable?

As a publisher of memoir, I am concerned by the possible backlash against the memoir genre. Because of a hand full of writers manipulating the truth, real, well written memoirs may take the penalty. If these high profile, lucrative memoirs are proven to be fake, then the entire memoir genre can be held as suspect. Laura Fogg wrote a beautiful memoir about her work with visually impaired children which is absolutely true and which I am proud to have published. I am afraid that no matter how good the writing or authentic the story, the fact that it is a memoir will make readers doubt her life's work as true. The children's stories chronicled in the book will be dismissed as melodrama, regardless of how real these children and their stories are.

As a writer, I am concerned that other writers feel it's perfectly fine to embellish their tales to get a bigger audience. Sadly, it looks like their action is justified, if unethical. Everyone wanted to read James Frey's A Million Little Pieces because of his incredible, bloody, dramatic voyage from addiction to sobriety. It was hard to believe he managed to overcome such insurmountable odds, but he did, or so we were led to believe. We are hungry for those stories; the little girl protected from the Nazis by wolves, the half Indian foster-child who escapes the ghetto and goes to college. We want to believe humans are that resilient, because if they can change their lives for the better, so can we.

Take a look at the Medusa's Muse mission statement on the website. One of the reasons I started the press was to publish the stories of people who were able to overcome great hardship and joyfully transform their lives. Laura's book shares her journey working with children who many of us would find difficult to interact with. Each one of those children taught her something about life.

I wrote a memoir several years ago about my best friend Paul who died of AIDS. It's been sitting on a shelf for 8 years and I've finally gotten back to it. I tried transforming it into a work of fiction so I could add to the plot and make the story more compelling to more readers. But fictionalizing what happened feels inauthentic, like I'm going for the laughs. I'm returning to the memoir format and I am trying very hard to revise it in a way that brings the scenes to life without adding lies. Memory is a tricky thing. Did he say he hated me when he threw me out of our apartment? Or did I add that to my own memory as I relive each moment with him? Truth is far more complicated than simple fact.

However, claiming "this is what I remember" to a blatant fictionalized "memoir" is no excuse. Nor is saying the events in your memoir are what happened to people you "know" and you were simply trying to give a voice to the voiceless as Margaret B. Jones stated in an article in the Times. That's what fiction is for.

I will continue to publish memoir and hope the backlash won't silence the many talented writers out there with true stories of transformation and resiliency. But I can guarantee we will fact check every story thoroughly. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the publisher to ensure that what is claimed to be true is actually true. Yes, a publisher can only go so far in fact-checking, but from the articles I've read on these false memoirs, it appears the publishers didn't do their homework. Maybe they were too caught up in the story, just as we readers were.

1 comment:


This is an interesting subject to me too, Terena...

I absolutely love writers who walk the line between reality and fiction...Hunter S. Thompson, David Sedaris, Tom Wolfe...but passing something off as real that isn't? Don't really get it...

I always thought fiction was reality disguised, anyway. The layers of disguise are just thicker in some cases. ;-)