I’ve tried to care about l’affaire Frey and the J.T. Leroy debacle, but it’s hard. Many people claim proudly to never read fiction, because it’s “about made-up stuff,” but it’s been memoirs that I’ve always been leery of. I’ve always assumed autobiographies to possess more fiction than a run-of-the-mill fantasy novel, and to be less aesthetically pleasing, too. Our memories are notoriously faulty, selective, and filled with half-understood half-truths gleaned secondhand. We can never fully live outside ourselves, so it’s impossible to write a comprehensive, completely truthful version of ourselves. Just when we think we have, our mothers remind us that, no, you weren’t thinking that at the time; our siblings tell us that we were, and are, full of it; our enemies roll their eyes.
I can’t understand why we’re so surprised that James Frey just made shit up, or that Leroy may not exist or, if s/he does exist, that s/he can’t decide what s/he’s got between her legs on any given day. We all lie at least a little about themselves, to others and to ourselves. These incidents are the most noteworthy for the moment, but there have been other unsettling events lingering around. In the Nation, Lee Siegel questioned what he acidly called the “superhuman powers of recall” that Sean Wilsey exhibited in Oh, the Glory of It All. Dave Pelzer came under heavy fire for fabrication in his memoirs about the child abuse he probably never suffered.
The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that old chestnut: redemption. We all like to believe we’ve experienced singular shocks of transformative growth, that single events have caused our lives to turn about-faces. The power of a memoir is that we get to see how someone else found redemption. Maybe this writer’s journey will show us the right path. No matter how iconoclastic Frey wants us to believe he is, no matter how transgressive Leroy wants us to think s/he is, both their stories lean toward the same kind of intellectual and emotional salvation that everyone else wants to believe in, too.
As usual, cultural critic James Wolcott nails why this is all so much bullshit:
The whole concept of redemption seems fishy to me, another form of sentimentality. How many people do you know have found redemption? What does “redemption” really mean? It’s got a lofty religious sound, but the vast majority of people improve or worsen in varying degrees over time, and even those who radically turn their lives around or pull themselves out of the abyss still have to go on doing the mundane things we all do, often suffering relapses or channeling their sobriety and sadder-but-wiser maturity into passive-aggressive preening of their own moral goodness. Most change for better or worse is undramatic, incremental, seldom revealed in a blinding flash or expressed in a climactic moment of heroic resolve. The whole cult of “redemption” has acquired a Hollywood-holy aura emanating from the therapist’s couch. And when a tale of redemption becomes a success story, it’s as if the monetary reward is the special prize bestowed on spiritual growth in this bountiful, forgiving land, where each closeup tear from Oprah and her readers is worth its price in gold (closing price today: $545.70 an ounce).
This tidybowl Redemption Story—an homage to Frey, who seems to love random use of capital letters—only happens in bad movies. Even the true versions of this story are different from person to person. As Seth Mnookin points out, however, this story is an influential lie:
Unfortunately, because A Million Little Pieces—one of the best-selling books about drug addiction ever written—has been trumpeted as an unflinching, real-life look into the world of a drug addict, it has helped to shape people’s notions about drug abuse. Ironically, the very abundance of its clichés has likely helped make it a runaway best seller: People, after all, like having their suspicions confirmed. For nonaddicts, Pieces reinforces the still dangerously prevalent notion that it’s easy to spot a drug addict or an alcoholic—they’re the ones bleeding from holes in their cheeks or getting beaten down by the police or doing hard time with killers and rapists. For those struggling with their own substance-abuse issues, Pieces sends the message that unless you’ve reached the depths Frey describes, you don’t have anything to worry about—you’re a Fraud. And if you do have a problem, you don’t need to necessarily get treatment or look to others for support; all you need to do is “hold on.” In building up a false bogeyman—the American recovery movement’s supposed reliance on the notion of “victimhood“—Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that most stories we tell about ourselves are half truth and half fiction, and have always been so, people turn to Frey and Leroy because they expected truth. They expected a guide to salvation, a way out of the mess we’re all in, and they got snookered. These lies can hurt people in ways that the lies of a bad novel cannot.
As you might have guessed, I avoid full-length memoirs.
This isn’t because they’re false—that’s a given—but because they’re boring. Variants of the same old lie quickly get dull. Truthfully, most people don’t lead very interesting lives or, at least, lives that are interesting to others. We have interesting moments, some fascinating ideas, and we’re genuinely exciting to be around, when you get us talking on the right subject. We all have parts of us that are brilliant, every damn one of us.
But the whole of a person’s life isn’t much to write home about. That’s because we have more that unites than that which separates us. That sounds corny, but I’m no hippie. Every one of us has enough that’s unique to us to fill a 40-page magazine profile. Few of us have enough to support a 500-page biography. That’s not just true of regular joes like Frey and Leroy, but also of artists, politicians, and other movers and shakers. Most writers—surprise!—are not natural bon vivants, and much of their working lives are spent toiling in solitude. Most rock stars have done more drugs, fucked more people, and traveled to more cities than you ever will. The lives of politicians involves pressing the flesh, sitting through meetings, and arguing through the finest points of the 3rd sentence of page 348 of the third bill they’ve seen that week. While the ideas of interesting people may fascinate, their full lives will narcotize. I’m always interested in an interview with great artists about their work and their thought processes, but I’ve read less than ten full-length memoirs or biographies in my life.
Autobiographical writers who get it right do one of two things. The first batch write of themselves in essays, self-contained pieces that don’t try to capture the full breadth of a life but that rather illuminate a part that reveals a sense of the whole. Here, I think of Outer Life, who writes movingly and amusingly on aspects of his life. Withdrawing money from an ATM, workplace rumors, life in suburbia, a night on the town—it’s all fresh in his eyes. His blog is a life in miniatures, one that acknowledges that life only flows in an uninterrupted way if we think in purely chronological terms. By detailing his quotidian dramas, Outer Life actually shows how his daily foibles (or his interpretations of them) are different from anyone else’s. He makes the mundane extraordinary.
The second batch of great memoirists do so, ironically, by writing outside of themselves. Hordes of great travel writers write of themselves, of course, but primarily as a lens through which we see another world. You learn more about Patrick Leigh Fermor from his description of the Holland countryside than you would in a tell-all exposé. Vikram Seth, in describing his trek through China and Tibet, tells as much a helluva lot about how he views the world and his place in it. Travel writing is as much about the traveler as the travel.
In Cosmpolitan, bartender Toby Cecchini looks at his life through the filter of his bar. (Bar life is intrinsically interesting. As my brother Langston pointed out to me, if you grow up in a bar, “you can get both a really accurate picture of people, and a really distorted one, too, at the same time.”) He gives us his life in flashbacks and snippets, using the bar and its denizens as his springboard.
Truly great memoirists combine both traits. James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times is funnier than any autobiography I’ve ever read. His short tales, mostly about his eccentric family and odd crackpots in the Columbis, Ohio, he grew up in, lack sappiness and the quest for redemption. Thank god. Instead, he rips through stories about his relatives—who throw shoes, play pranks on each other, and forget that other family members are long dead—with his casual prose. Thurber reveals his worldview with every line, through fragments that even he admits are inconsequential. Nonetheless, ML&HT tell us plenty about small-town America in the early 20th century, about how Thurber understands his life and his community, and about how American life has changed.
I don’t care if it’s not all strictly true. No memoir is; Thurber has obviously filtered the world through his sardonic wit. But it’s emotionally and intellectually true—much more important. Frey and Leroy could learn a lot from him.