Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Based on a TRUE story

Remember James Frey? He's the author of the memoir "A Million Little Pieces," that became a bestseller as well a selection in Oprah's Book Club. In it Frey tells about his life of addiction and recovery and how he was wanted in three different states. Great story, right? The only problem here is that this memoir was fabricated. Later, Frey went back on Oprah to defend himself in the controversy about his book.

Following in that tradition, this week The Associated Press revealed two more memoirs that turned out to made up.

The first book was Misha Defonseca's “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years.” It is a recounting of how, as a young a girl, she lived with a pack of wolves to escape The Nazis, killed a German soldier in self-defense, and traveled 1900 miles across Europe to find her deported parents. It now turns out that Defonseca, now 71, made the events up.

The second fabricated memoir exposed was "Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival," by Margaret B. Jones. Jones shares with the reader her experience of growing as a half-white, half Native American with a black foster mother in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood. Jones also said that she sold drugs for a gang. The truth came out when Jones's sister saw an article on the up-coming memoir in The New York Times. In reality, Margaret B. Jones, a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, is white and grew up in a very well off neighborhood in The San Fernando Valley in California. She lived with her biological family and never sold drugs for a gang. She also admitted that the recollections in the book were based on the experiences of people she had met while working at an anti-gang outreach program in Los Angeles. So why did Jones claim the experiences as hers? "For whatever reason, I was really torn, and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don't listen to." That's all good and well, but telling someone else's story as your own is not helping them find a voice.

It is a fact that among readers non-fiction still sells more than fiction and one of the most popular kinds of non-fiction is the memoir. In today's market some of the memoirs that are selling extremely well are written by celebrities, because let's face it: it's a highly voyeuristic society when it comes to the lives of people in the public eye.

The other type of memoir that sells very well are those of people who have interesting stories to tell, particularly if it involves a hardship and the triumph over it, which is the case of Frey, Defonseca, and Jones. The problem with those three though is that their memoirs turned out to be fiction. And their fabrications go beyond the old "I caught a fish at least seven feet long" stories. These stories talked about true hardships and survival in life. In a lot of people's eyes, there is an unwritten understanding between them and the author of the memoir that the events are true and accurate as possible. Now, I concede that it's not easy to remember things exactly as they happened, but it's another thing all together to make up a story and pass it off as fact.

So, I would like to hear from all of you out there. What's your feeling on this whole fake memoir thing? No big deal or something that can be construed as a betrayal of trust between reader and author?


Anonymous said...

I think a lie is a lie anyway you cut it. But I have to say that I'm more offended by Margaret Jones. Ten years ago my son was killed in a shoot out between two different gangs who had decided that the park near my home was their turf. He was only nine.

This woman, who isn't even half Indian like she said took the real life stories of people and said they were hers. She came from a safe neighborhood and for her to even pretend to know what it's like to have grown up surrounded by gangs is disgusting.

R.J. Mangahas said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your son. I'm not even going to pretend that I have the slightest idea how it feels to lose a child to such a senseless act.