To be honest with you, yesterday’s news about Oprah apologizing to James Frey disappointed me. Apparently, she felt remorse for redressing him so vehemently and publicly, and she wanted to make amends in the same forum. I respect her for openly acknowledging her mistakes and regrets. To my mind, humility and grace are among the most precious gifts one human being can offer another. But unless I’m missing something (or it hasn’t yet come to light), I’m concerned that this apology might leave some with the impression that Oprah’s absolved Frey of all responsibility for his own actions. Say it isn’t so, Ms. Winfrey!
Let’s be candid: A MILLION LITTLE PIECES was a pack of lies. Not just small fabrications, but wholesale whoppers. Frey’s memoir brought him fame and fortune, but at great cost to those who chose to believe him (and who didn’t, at that point, have any reason not to). Maybe his writing is transcendent enough for some to overlook those "indiscretions": continued sales suggest that’s true. But as I see it, he violated the sacred bond of trust between a writer and reader, leaving other memoirists to pick up the shards of credibility he scattered in his wake.
The fallout from Frey’s debacle–as well as the hoaxes/frauds that followed–serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us. To their credit, most memoirists have always been painstaking in their efforts to verify the specifics of their individual stories. I playfully refer to them as my Nancy Drew adventures, but I take very seriously my quests for documentation.
My research experiences helped me realize that there’s actually no such thing as"’permanent’"records, nor is anyone’s memory infallible. Take, for instance, the disagreement I had with my brother just last week. On most things we agree, and the incident I’m writing about is not in question. But he’s drawn a line in the sand about a certain date. Family records refute his position, as do my other siblings’ recollections, but he’s convinced that his memory is more correct than anyone else’s. And for some reason, that detail has taken on monolithic importance for him. "If I were asked by someone whether you told the truth here," he said, "I’d have to say you got the facts completely wrong."
I was initially shocked by his comment. But on further reflection, I see it as a clarification of my views about writing memoir. Arguably, the facts are very important. Critical, in most incidences. Especially when certain events/people are so outlandish as to strain believability. But in memoir– maybe in any genre–it’s the underlying truths that matter most. For example, when I write about the pomegranates Nana stuffed into our Christmas stockings, is it important to know for certain whether they were plucked from the giant tree next to her backyard shed or whether she picked the low-hanging fruit over the neighbor’s fence? Having watched her sneak forbidden fruit on more than one occasion, I decided to write the second option into a scene. No, I can’t verify that fact without photographic evidence. But is the story compromised by offering my best guess? I don’t believe so. And my choice helps reveal to readers my beloved grandmother’s mischievous personality and, most importantly, how her loving gestures influenced my life.
Okay, so maybe that example doesn’t provide a direct parallel for the falsehoods Frey inserted into his
memoir fiction. Still, the point I’m trying to make here remains the same. My siblings and I may not always agree on the facts, but in "telling my story slant," I keep in mind my overarching responsibility to truth. For me, that’s the essence of writing memoir.
James Frey presented falsehoods as facts. Worse still, he twisted the truth for personal gain. And that’s the offense I find very difficult to forgive.