Believe It or Not
Memoir fabulists getting caught means the system is working.
In 1837, the American Anti-Slavery Society published the life story of a fugitive slave who went by the name of James Williams. The book, narrated in Williams' first-person voice, told of his harsh treatment on an Alabama plantation and the torture he had seen inflicted on his fellow slaves. The veracity of the book was almost immediately challenged by an Alabama newspaper editor, who called it "a notorious libel upon our country" and printed a letter claiming that Williams was in fact Shadrach Wilkins, a fugitive not only from slavery but from charges of attempted murder. The Anti-Slavery Society initially denied the charges, but the accusation didn't go away, and the society directed two of its members to investigate. These men reluctantly concluded that "many of the Statements made in the said Narrative were false." Weeks later, the society discontinued sales of the book. James Williams/Shadrach Wilkins, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found.
So the fake memoir—currently in the news with the daily-double outing of Love and Consequences and Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years—is by no means a phenomenon that originated with James Frey. In fact, the history of autobiography is full of them. A 1937 book called Sisters of the Road was supposedly the memoirs of Boxcar Bertha Thompson, a female hobo; years later, the real author was revealed to be Ben Reitman, a Chicago physician and reformer. The Education of Little Tree, the autobiography of a Cherokee boy growing up in the 1930s, was published in 1976 and became a young-adult classic. Actual author: Asa Carter, a white Alabaman who had once been a Ku Klux Klan member and a speechwriter for George Wallace. So many holes have been found in Lillian Hellman's autobiographical trilogy of An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time that the books couldn't keep you dry on a drizzly day.
But is it such a terrible thing that so many lying memoirists have been exposed? On the contrary: It's evidence that the system works. (Full disclosure: I am writing a book on memoir for Riverhead Books, the publisher of Love and Consequences.) Consider the case of James Williams' tale of his life as a slave. The discovery that it was a fraud chastened the abolitionists who had been behind the book. They continued to seek out and publish slave narratives, but post-Williams, knowing that their very cause was at stake, they put a finer point on the truthfulness of the tales they were distributing. They began sending their authors on the lecture circuit to answer questions from all corners and, equally important, to show that they existed, scars and all. Scores of slave narratives—including The Autobiography of Frederic Douglass, a classic of American literature—were published after the Williams affair, and it's universally acknowledged that these memoirs were an important factor in the abolition of slavery.
And this is pretty much how things have happened since then: The perpetrators have eventually been found out. Or, to be more precise, the more brazen or audacious the lie, the greater the likelihood of exposure.
In the wake of the Frey and now the Jones scandals, there's been hand-wringing about the need for fact-checking—or lie-detector tests or something!—at publishing houses. But you're never going to stop people from making stuff up. It is a fact of human nature that a substantial number of people have the capacity and inclination to lie. Some of them are pathological and lie because they are compelled to or just for the fun of it. But generally people lie only when a) they sense that people will believe them, and b) they will be rewarded (with respect, attention, career advancement, money, pity, or something else they covet).
It stands to reason that the same thing would be true for writers (and this includes disgraced journalists like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass as well as memoirists). The more skilled they are, the more deftly they can make people believe. Moreover, in today's competitive literary market, editors and other gatekeepers want to believe. That's in part because people are naturally credulous (the alternative—reflexive skepticism—is unattractive for many people to contemplate) and in part because the rewards are so great. Memoir today is like one big game of misery poker: The more outlandish, outrageous, or just plain out-there the recounted life, the more likely the book is to attract the attention of reviewers, talk-show bookers, and, ultimately, the public.
A personal narrative presented as factual—whether it's between covers or coming out of some guy's mouth at a bar—always plays for some level of stakes. If the story is innocuous or dull, it will probably stay unchallenged. But the higher the stakes—if its "facts" are in support of charged political issues, if it makes unlikely or melodramatic representations, if it defames some recognizable individuals, or if it starts selling in significant numbers—the more likely it becomes that the fakers will be outed.
Lillian Hellman didn't get the investigative treatment until part of Pentimento was made into the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda as Lillian; James Frey didn't get it till Oprah anointed him. The family depicted in Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors didn't sue him until the book became a massive best-seller. And the author of Love and Consequences was exposed only when her picture appeared in a New York Times interview as "Margaret Jones" and her sister called the newspaper to report that the lady in question was really Margaret Seltzer.
As I say, the system works. It throws shame on the perpetrators and metes out more or less appropriate career punishment; certainly, the fabulists lose the credibility needed to publish additional nonfiction books (unless they're in the form of an apology for—or explanation of—their misdeeds, as with disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair). The editors of fake memoirs are suitably chastened: Even if they acted in totally good faith, it's presumably one-more-strike-and-they're-out. And with each scandal, the whole book world—editors, reviewers, and readers—gets a little warier and adjusts its BS detectors one more notch toward Level Orange. The NYT reported that at the request of Riverhead Books, Seltzer "signed a contract in which she had legally promised to tell the truth."
Of course, she lied on the contract, too. So while the system works, it isn't perfect. No matter what color the general alert, at some point in the not-distant future, a memoir—say, an inspiring saga about being raised by autistic parents in the hollows of Kentucky—will come across an editor's desk and knock his socks off. He will meet the author, who will talk a good game and who will, once the book is published, get plentiful bookings and money reviews. It will seem too good to be true. It will be. But sooner or later, someone will do some checking and get the goods.
Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.