Thanks to chance and circumstance—because people left them, sent them, or lent them—a trio of autobiographies landed on my desk last weekend: Valerie Plame's Fair Game: My Life As a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, George Tenet's At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, and Peter Gay's My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin. Though Plame and Tenet were published in 2007, and Gay in 1998, I hadn't read any of them before.
Motivation to pick them up was, however, provided by Margaret B. Jones and Misha Defonseca. For those who missed their stories, Jones, a half-Indian drug-dealing gang member who grew up in foster homes, according to her well-received memoir, last week turned out to be Margaret Seltzer, an all-white suburbanite who grew up with her family. Defonseca, a Jew who survived the Holocaust by living with wolves, according to her acclaimed autobiography, is in fact Monique De Wael, a Catholic who spent the war in Brussels. The two revelations—coming in the wake of JT Leroy, James Frey, Binjamin Wilkomirski, and other hoaxes—inspired much criticism of the publishing industry (why do they fall for it? why don't they fact-check?) and some excellent parodies. (See Slate's "advertisement" for Margaret B. Jones' next volume: "She brought down Sen. Joseph McCarthy, founded the Black Panthers, and wrote Ronald Reagan's Berlin Wall speech—all before taking over the notorious Crips gang in South Central …")
But maybe these extreme examples should inspire some other questions, too. How "true," for example, are real autobiographies, written by real people, describing real events? Coincidentally, I was first taught to ask this question by Gay, now an emeritus professor of history, during a seminar on autobiography that he taught some 20-odd years ago. As I recall it, we were debating Rousseau's Confessions when Gay pointed out some element of the story that could not possibly have been true. He then invited us to think about why, in that case, Rousseau had changed it. For unconscious emotional reasons? Or consciously, in order to shape his reputation?
Reading Gay's own idiosyncratic autobiography, it's evident that he had such historical uses and abuses of autobiography in mind while he was writing it. During his account of growing up in, and emigration from, 1930s Berlin, he frequently questions both his recollections and his motives for recording them. He confesses to prejudices—most notably a hatred for the Nazi regime—that might color his account of his pre-Nazi early childhood. He admits to important gaps in his memory.
By contrast, Tenet's and Plame's books show no such hesitations, no such uncertainties, and certainly admit to no prejudice. Tenet does concede that "no such undertaking is completely objective," but he calls his book "as honest and as unvarnished as I could make it." Plame doesn't even go that far, offering instead, by way of introduction, a rollicking account of her CIA recruitment (and, bizarrely, a very large number of irrelevant childhood photographs).
But I have no intention of picking on Tenet and Plame, much though they might deserve it, just because I stumbled on their books last weekend. After all, what struck me about their memoirs was not their uniqueness, but their very similarity to other books in the "political memoir" genre, recent examples of which include the autobiographies of both Clintons; Leadership, by Rudy Giuliani; No Retreat, No Surrender, by Tom DeLay; and The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama (but not his first, quirky, pre-fame book, Dreams From My Father), just to name an arbitrary few.
Beyond "setting the record straight," none of these books was ever intended to have deeper literary or historical significance. They don't do careful self-analysis, but neither do they add much to the bigger picture. They don't necessarily lie, but they are intended to shape public perceptions of the author, which is why many read like extended versions of those candidate-life-story films one sees nowadays at political conventions. Some—I'm thinking here of Bill Clinton's hefty memoir—seem designed to decorate coffee tables, not to be read at all.
So, why don't the publishers who produce them come in for more criticism? And why aren't authors more often parodied? ("He achieved peace in Northern Ireland, fixed the American health-care crisis, and singlehandedly dismantled the New York City trash collection mafia—all the while remaining a perfect husband and father and never accepting a single penny from lobbyists …")
Or maybe the publishing industry shouldn't get all the blame. We've all gotten used to the idea that life stories can be "sold," that lives that contain accidents, deviations, and inexplicable moments of uncertainty—as all lives do—can be crafted, shaped, and presented to the public by marketing specialists—and yet still remain "true." No wonder we're so easily taken in, nowadays, by fraudsters, hucksters, fake drug dealers, and children who claim to have been raised by wolves.