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?