Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Stories and Lies: "A Million Little Pieces"

I was a 12-year-old brat who should have been knocked on my heels by my father for my impudence. My father was a good story teller. And, like all good story tellers, he changed the details sometimes, depending on the audience and the occasion. As a 12-year-old snot-nosed literal-minded little Christian, I could not abide my father's inaccuracies. So, I would helpfully correct him in the middle of a joke or an anecdote that I had heard before, saying, "No, Dad, that's not right," and proceed to tell the story the exact same way I had heard it the last time he told it. I don't recall him ever getting angry or rebuking me for my interference, but then again, how could he when telling the truth was one of the virtues that he espoused?

I am still not a good story teller, in comparison with my father, or my brother, The Sensible One. But I have learned that lightning does not automatically bolt from the sky the second that a story is embellished a little for dramatic effect. In fact, even in the Bible, stories are often told differently, depending on who is doing the telling and who is the apparent audience.

So, I find the brouhaha about "A Million Little Pieces," the supposed "true" memoir that has been on the New York Times best seller list for 17 weeks and sold more than 3.5 million copies very interesting. The book has been touted on the Oprah Winfrey show and other places as "raw" non-fiction. The author, James Frey, claims to be a reformed drug addict and dealer who had multiple run-ins with the law and spent long stretches in prison. He portrays himself as a tough guy, tough talking and tough acting. The Smoking Gun, an internet web site that specializes in publishing police reports and mug shots of the famous and weird, did an investigation, speaking with police agencies and people about whom Frey wrote and determined that much of the book is composed of gross exaggeration, if not outright lies. The site is at: The Smoking Gun
Other media have now investigated and it turns out that Frey took his book manuscript to Doubleday, wanting to have it published as either fiction or non-fiction and Doubleday decided to publish and market it as a non-fiction memoir. Doubleday chose to publish it as a memoir, apparently, because right now memoirs are hot with the reading public. Books that would be mediocre as fiction, become hot properties when the public thinks they are true stories of what actually happened to someone. Frey admitted to The Smoking Gun that he exaggerated some details of the book because of dramatic effect, but his lawyers threatened to sue if The Smoking Gun called Frey a liar.

Another book of the same ilk is "Running With Scissors," by Augusten Burroughs. It was on the New York Times bestseller list as a non-fiction memoir for close to 100 weeks, and also earned millions of dollars for its author and publisher. When our reading group read it about two years ago, I complained that I did not believe it to be truthful. The story of Burrough's childhood, growing up in his mother's psychiatrist's crazy household did not have the ring of versimilitude to me. I thought the key to the book was in the last chapter in which Burroughs described his current profession in the advertising business as a professional liar. I thought it was a message that the book was a bunch of lies. It turns out I was not the only person questioning the truthfulness of Burroughs's account of his life. In an article in Salon reviewer Priya Jahn asks the question, "What if Burroughs made it all up? What if he isn't the train wreck, the victim, the innocent bystander who overcame the odds?" It turns out the surviving members of the family with whom Burroughs lived say exactly that and have filed a lawsuit against him alleging libel, fraud and other things. I haven't researched the outcome of the lawsuit.

I have previously complained on these pages about the fictionalized portions of Bob Woodward's insider books about Washington. I think it is unethical for authors and publishers to sell books on the premise that what is contained in them is essentially true. I hope I'm not still being the 12-year-old jerk, who insists on complete literalism to the point of taking the life out of the narrative flow of a good story. But surely a true story can be told truthfully, even if sometimes one has to go with the larger truth rather than the literal truth.

8 comments:

Debra Hope said...

Oh me, oh my. I was afraid of this. In my opinion, the parts that are being pecked at are irrelevant to the larger story of a man who was able to change his life, and who has stayed clean for 13 years and, more impressively, through the past week--no mean feat. It’s a story of redemption. It’s the story of a family who actually stood and fought this monster together. It gave me some insight into the absolute, unfathomable control addiction has over a person’s being and helped me, in no small way, to understand some old mysteries about addicts I’ve known and loved. It’s a memoir . . . Frey's recollection of events that happened in his life. It’s an amazing book and I would still recommend it without reservation. Have you read it yet, John? Just wondering!

Amishlaw said...

No, I have not read Frey's book, so I can't judge whether his story is merely embellished or it's essentially a lie. I think enough of it has been found not to be true as to call into question the whole book. How do you know that it is the story of a man who changed his life and stayed clean for 13 years other than that's what he claims?

Patry Francis said...

A lot of what happened inside the rehab--the conversations and relationships--is not easily verified. The things they could check, arrest and prison records, proved to be false. Facts are not subjective. You can't say you were in prison for three months if you weren't and then call it "your perspective on the story." The problem is that once a writer sacrifices his integrity, everything he says is in question. For instance, SAYS he's been clean for 13 years. He SAYS he hasn't used during this trying week. Is that simply "his perspective" on his life or is it true?

Patry Francis said...

Looks like I cross posted with you and essentially said the same thing!

Amishlaw said...

Great minds think alike. I was thinking in my earlier response to Debra, perhaps I should have said that I have read the book -- for better dramatic effect. I've read so much about it, that it feels like I've read the book. When I do my memoirs, can I say that I read the book?

Debra Hope said...

Hahahahaha . . . yes, I get the irony, John. You should have said you read the book for better dramatic effect. Bottom line, it's a good read that gave me some insight into the lives of at least two dear friends and the family members of many other friends. In my opinion, that's valuable. Plus, do you REALLY think Oprah would have called the Larry King show last night without insisting on a current drug test for Frey? Just wondering.

Anonymous said...

I read "Running with Scissors" and found it to be fascinating read but so unbelievable as well. It is difficult to believe that a life sobizarre and different from our own can be real. I agree that there are plenty of facts that can be verified in those situations. Is the issue that we don't like to be duped by a memoir? I love fiction so does knowing that it is a "pack of lies" from cover to cover make me more of a sucker?

Becky

Amishlaw said...

I like fiction too, and I don't think we're suckers for liking it. Sometimes it takes fiction to portray a larger truth that mere adherence to dry facts cannot. The problem I have with memoirs like Frey's and Burroughs's is the mislabeling. If a book is sold as non-fiction, then I think it should be pretty much true. In Frey's case, apparently the publisher thought they could make more money by marketing it as non-fiction, and I hate such crassness, although if it had been me cashing the checks for millions of dollars, I could probably figure out a way to justify it. Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club, and then the follow-up, Cherry, I thought were great reads, but I had to wonder how much of them was true. If those memoirs had been marketed as fiction, would they have been as popular? I have read that Frey's memoir would be considered a badly-written novel if it had been marketed as fiction. I haven't read it and don't intend to. He has made enough money without getting mine too.