Should we expect memoirs to be true?

Years ago, I watched the episode of Oprah where she interviewed James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, to discuss his memoir on overcoming drug addiction. I read the book and didn’t love it. But I sort of gave him a pass: not everyone who pens a memoir is a good writer.

Later, when it turned out that parts of the story were fictionalized, I watched the episode of Oprah where she raked him over the coals. I never really understood her anger.

First of all, I believe that every memoir is fiction to some degree. It’s subject to the faulty memory and bias of the writer. Add to that the fact that this writer struggled with demons- drug addiction being one, honesty being another. Did he exaggerate things to make himself look good? I don’t have a hard time imagining that.

If he made the whole thing up, that sucks. I can see how readers who were inspired in a “if he can do it, so can I” way would feel cheated. I wasn’t struggling with a similar issue so I just felt vindicated that the reason many parts of the book were unbelievable was that they never happened.

But one of the things Oprah was upset about was that he changed the method of a character’s suicide. In real life, she’d taken pills; in the book, she’d hung herself. That is the sort of change that preserves the meaning of the story, while obscuring identifying details for this real person and their family.

I think a memoir often blurs the line between what is literally true and what feels true. The question becomes: does a memoir writer owe the reader the absolute truth?

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed begins by assuring the reader that although she may change names and identifying details to preserve anonymity, she does not create composite characters or events. Lena Dunham says the opposite. She actually begins a chapter of Not That Kind of Girl by writing “I’m an unreliable narrator.” That didn’t save her from the controversy that chapter caused when the altered description of a character led to accusations that she had made the whole thing up.

I think these ethical questions about a writer’s obligation to be truthful are ramped up when they write about an event with historical significance, like war. Chris Kyle’s memoir has been used as the basis of the film American Sniper which is so full of misinformation about the Iraq War, many are calling it propaganda.

When reading a memoir, I expect that some of it is fiction. Who can reproduce a page of dialogue as it actually occurred? At what point is it the writer’s story and their right to express it in whatever way they choose and at what point do they have a duty to portray things as they happened? Where is the line? Where is it for you?

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3 thoughts on “Should we expect memoirs to be true?

  1. That’s so hard. I’ve written creative nonfiction for years and it’s an issue I struggle with all the time. I come at it from the perspective of as long as I’m writing about what I honestly remember happening, then I’m comfortable. If a person disagrees with my memory of a situation, then he/she is free to write his/her own version, which I’m sure I won’t remember in the same way. There are multiple sides to every story, so who’s to say which one is *fully* true? That’s why eyewitness testimony is so problematic. I do not purposely create what didn’t happen. When I feel the need to do that, I write fiction.

  2. Isn’t there a saying, there are three sides to every story. Yours, theirs, and the truth?

    -RB

  3. There’s a family story that I remember happening to me. I know the circumstances and the event that eventually introduced me to an English word I’d only ever heard before in Yiddish. My mother remembers the same story – only in her version, it happened to my brother. Could I have fabricated a story from decades past that is really my brother’s story only to remember it as mine? Is it more likely that my mom recalls some of the essential facts incorrectly? She has Alzheimer’s and favored my brother when we were kids, so that’s possible. There’s no way of establishing absolute proof, except that for all the doubt she’s thrown into my memory bank, (maybe I appropriated his story) I still remember the confusion I felt in my 5th grade class as I asked for a gupple that Mrs’ O’Brien didn’t understand, and finally heard the German boy next to me figure out what I needed was a fork.

    I think memoir works that way. The sensation is colorful and dominant but the facts may be hidden in the mist of events that happened long ago but weren’t recorded at the time. What stands for me is my honesty in retelling the story as I’d experienced it. I think the problems begin when someone says that everything is true – except for that which is not.

    As for James Frey – he was making a buck more than a memoir. Buyer beware.

    Excellent ideas to consider, Katie. Thanks for bringing this one to the forefront.

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