Frey, Leroy, and lots of yawning

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.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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5 Responses to Frey, Leroy, and lots of yawning

  1. winter says:

    Sorry, QB, but this kind of thinking drives me nuts.
    You say that “We all lie at least a little about themselves, to others and to ourselves.” But in a memoir, there are lies and then there are Lies. It is one thing to “fudge” a little bit when recalling the exact words your mother said to you when you were five — memory, in that sense, can be unreliable, and I think the genre is flexible enough to allow an author to “fill in the blanks.” But it is entirely different to say that you were thrown in jail for 3 years when you were actually there for 3 days, as Frey has done. That is a Lie with a capital L. It changes the whole meaning of the book. And it should automatically relegate a book to the fiction section.
    I have been appalled at how the many in the publishing industry have tried to relativize Frey’s lie, arguing as you seem to have that the truth is always subjective. Random House and Oprah in particular have argued, more or less, that “the spirit of the book is intact, even if the facts are in question.” Bullshit. That really makes me wonder what kind of people are running the industry.
    A memoir can be attractive if it honestly tells the story of a remarkable life — oh, and here I disagree with you again: some lives are clearly more remarkable than others (I’m an elitist, sorry). If an author wants to play fast and loose with the truth, whether for purposes of narrative arc or sheer vanity, then that’s fine — but call it fiction. Otherwise, they, and the people who apologize for them, are fucking up an entire genre at the expense of the readers who believed it was the truth — and at the great cost of those writers who have (often obsessively) tried to be as loyal to the truth as the genre permits. That, I think, is why so many people are angry about this.
    Btw, I do agree with you that the whole “redemption” angle is irritating. And I hope you’ll change your mind about reading full-length memoirs. They CAN be good, from time to time.

  2. Walter (QB) says:

    It’s not the anger that makes me roll my eyes at Frey’s readers. They have every right to be upset that he told major whoppers in his memoir, ones that affect our understanding of him as a person. The reason I quoted so extensively from Seth Mnookin’s article was twofold: 1. Mnookin is himself an ex-junkie, and can therefore cast a colder, more informed eye on Frey’s narrative than I can; and 2. to emphasize the severity of Frey’s transgressions. Frey and Leroy’s lies—but especially Frey’s—hurt people because their books were offered to us not just as authentic memoirs, but also as authentic guides to salvation. These were guides offering advice that many people used.
    No, what makes me sigh over the controversy is how shocked, just shocked!, the media pretends to be over these debacles. After Jayson Blair conned the New York Times and Stephen Glass conned the New Republic, you’ll have to forgive me for being appalled by the “Oh-my-god-it’s-happened-here!” tone of these jeremiads. It’s like no one is putting these controversies in context, as if they all happened for the first time.
    And, yes, I’m a little annoyed at how easily people seem to be snookered by these fakers. That’s not a bid for “moral relativism”—sorry, but that term gets me fired up; it’s always the last refuge of a conservative who’s about to be found with a nose full of coke and his dick in a prostitute—but an understanding of subtlety, and the inherent problems of a person telling the full truth about himself. Again, I do think we tell lies about ourselves all the time, which is why an autobiography can’t be trusted completely. Even when we think we aren’t lying, we are. Even about the small stuff. And if I can’t trust someone to get the small stuff right, why should I trust him to get the big picture right?
    Frey can’t see himself clearly—few people can. The fact that he probably knows this, and is still to cash in on his “life” (and exploit dead people in the process) is disgusting. But the blind faith that his readers and his publishers exhibited is disgusting as well.
    I fully understand why biographers and ghostwriters are pissed at Frey and Leroy. Biographers can be careful observers of a person’s life in a way that a memoirist never can be. They can provide a perspective—cockeyed, curious but with a bullshit detector at the ready, impassioned but also disinterested—on their subjects that the subjects themselves can’t muster. Understanding this difference doesn’t mean I think “anything goes,” and it’s a little disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
    We’ll indeed have to agree to disagree on the “interesting lives” question. I’d rather read the profile of a beekeeper than a Q&A with most politicians; at least the life of a beekeeper will be new to me. But the life of a politician “as told to” someone… well, that’s entirely different.

  3. fin says:

    Life is subjective. I agree with you.

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