Lies and Consequences
Why are book editors so bad at spotting fake memoirs?
Late yesterday evening, Margaret B. Jones admitted to the New York Times that Love and Consequences, her critically acclaimed memoir about growing up in a foster home in gang-ridden South Central Los Angeles, was almost entirely fabricated. In 2006, in the wake of the scandal surrounding James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, Meghan O'Rourke wrote a "Highbrow" column that examined whether disclaimers give memoirists a license to invent, how publishers should handle fabrications, and whether it's possible to avoid them in the first place. The original article is reprinted below.
In 2002, a man published a memoir chronicling his substance abuse and the months he spent in jail after committing a crime. When a reporter discovered that the memoir was built around a fabrication, the author defended his embellishments in the name of literary license: "What I was doing was a literary genre known as a memoir," he explained, and pointed to a disclaimer in his book noting that identifying details had been changed. The man was not James Frey. He was Jimmy A. Lerner, the author of You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish, published by Broadway Books. The fabrication was a significant one. The book describes Lerner's murder of a thuggish 6-foot-3 maniac he calls "the Monster," in a drug-fueled fight to the death in a hotel room. In fact, as David Kirkpatrick later reported in the New York Times Magazine, Lerner had actually killed a 5-foot-4 former medical equipment salesman who may not have been armed.
Confronted with Lerner's and Frey's blithe willingness to tell lies, it's time to ask: How much leeway does a disclaimer really give an author? Take the disclaimers that James Frey and his publishers recently announced they're appending to forthcoming editions of A Million Little Pieces. "I altered events and details all the way through the book. [One such embellishment] involved jail time I served, which in the book is three months, but which in reality was only several hours," Frey writes in a defensive three-page "Author's Note" that avoids cut-and-dried accountability. He insists that his changes were artistically motivated—serving "what I felt was the greater purpose of the book"—and studiously avoids the word fabrication. Meanwhile, Doubleday's "Publisher's Note" may strike some readers as evasive at best: "We bear a responsibility for what we publish, and apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion surrounding the publication of A Million Little Pieces," Doubleday writes, announcing that it also plans to take out ads "concerning these developments." Precisely what these ads would contain is unclear.
The original function of a disclaimer—which commonly read, "Names and identifying details have been changed"—was to protect the publisher from being sued by people who recognized themselves in an author's portrait. The disclaimers offered by Frey and Lerner, however, serve the opposite purpose. These disclaimers protect the authors from our realization that the people in their "nonfiction" books are not real people at all. Rather, these once "real" people have been so altered as to be inventions—fictions serving the author's story of redemption. Nothing about these caveats protects identities; nor are they present merely to suggest that the author's memory is imperfect or note that elisions have been made for narrative economy.
This is especially true in the case of My Friend Leonard, Frey's sequel to Pieces,which if anything is filled with fabrications even more extreme than those in his first book. My Friend Leonard was originally published with a disclaimer, which, printed in small type on the copyright page, reads in its entirety: Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed. Some sequences and details of events have been changed. To see just how inadequate this is, consider the memoir's opening lines: "On my first day in jail, a three hundred pound man named Porterhouse hit me in the back of the head with a metal tray. I was standing in line and I didn't see it coming. I went down. When I got up I started throwing punches. … I have been here eighty-seven days. I live in Men's Module B, which is for violent and felonious offenders. … My cell is seven feet wide and ten feet long." Frey spent only three hours in jail. While you could call this description a "change," it's better to call it exactly what it is: a flight of fancy. As Tom Scocca pointed out in the New York Observer, a disclaimer that truly captured the liberties taken here would reach epically absurd proportions within the first paragraph. But Riverhead has done nothing to emend its presentation of the book. Its catalog copy chirpily links to an old CNN article headlined "The angel from the underworld," which describes Frey as a "fearless" writer reluctant to "whitewash" his life. Indeed. He prefers to black-wash it.
Impostors have always stalked publishing, and the embellished recovery memoir is merely the latest specterto hauntthe industry—trading, partly, on readers' willingness to turn a half-blind eye if they feel that the fabrications smack of emotional truth. Given this, what should a publisher do, if anything? One problem is that book publishers have no obvious public venue for holding writers accountable. Magazines and newspapers issue corrections, and readers find those corrections in the same medium in which they read the stories—usually not long afterward. Books don't have corrections pages, and new editions are not issued with the frequency that makes newspaper-type corrections possible. Many editors think it's not economically feasible to fact-check every book; intellectually, it may not be feasible either, given the degree of expertise brought to certain subjects. The publishers' predicament is a real one.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.