Frey’s fictional memory syndrome
Does it matter if misery memoirs are not absolutely true?
‘The vacuum sucks and the instrument scrapes and I endure. The interior of the canal is cleaned and drained and I endure. The canal is filled with new flesh and the root is protected and I endure. […] I’m somewhere in Minnesota and I’m a Patient at a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center and I’m having my front four teeth rebuilt and I’m strapped into a chair because I can’t have any anesthesia. All I can do is endure.’
Two questions: Firstly; why would anybody want to read this sort of toe-curlingly painful stuff for any sustained period of time? And secondly, would it matter to the reader if what he had just read was not absolutely true?
The recent scandal of American literature – which concerns the book from which the above extract comes (A Million Little Pieces by James Frey) – has provoked responses to both of these questions. Frey’s ‘memoir’ has caused something of a furore over the Atlantic, with readers and Oprah viewers up in arms after being tricked (so they see it) by the lying Frey. The book tells of Frey’s tragic story as a drug addict. It is clearly labelled and marketed as a memoir, yet a few weeks ago it emerged in an article by investigative website The Smoking Gun that a lot of it is false: Frey lied about how his girlfriend died; claimed to have had a terrible three-month stint in prison, when actually it was only three hours or so; and wrongly claimed to have played a role in a tragic car crash involving teenage girls from his high school. The book had been a massive success in America, largely on the back of Oprah Winfrey picking it for her TV book club. Yet since the truth has come out, there have been calls for apologies and refunds, with Oprah decrying the whole thing as a breach of trust and demanding that future memoirs be better checked for their accuracy.
The fact that everybody has got so upset about James Frey and his book (a book which he has since been forced to describe slightly more accurately in a new ‘note to the reader’ as being ‘about my memories of my time in a drug and alcohol treatment center’ – my italics) is enough to make one wonder exactly what it is about these books that makes them so attractive. And these ‘misery memoirs’ as they’ve come to be known – tales of childhood suffering, of abusing oneself or being abused by others – really do sell like hotcakes.
Dave Pelzer, the unprecedented king of the misery memoir, has not one but three autobiographies – A Child called It and the follow-ups, The Lost Boy and A Man Named Dave. According to Amazon.co.uk, those who brought Pelzer’s output also splashed out on titles such as Ugly by Constance Briscoe, Friday’s Child: What Has She Done That Is So Terrible by Sandra Crossley, For Crying Out Loud: One Woman’s Story of Hope and Courage by Cheryl Frampton and Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors. The books typically involve an alcoholic abusive parent, a large dose of self-flagellation, and an ultimate feel good, survivor’s punch in the air.
If you ask me, this fascination with the (relatively new) genre smacks of voyeurism and the pornographic, with each book taking its power from titillation and gory details. Sue William Silverman’s offering, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, for example, is given five stars in Amazon reviews, along with the accolade, ‘graphic memoir of sexual abuse’. Going by the reaction to the Frey revelations, it’s certainly not the prose style itself that holds the appeal for the reader, but what the prose is revealing. So why do we want to read these books? Is it a desire to relate? To compare your own brand of hardship with someone else’s? Or is it a schadenfreude-isch obsession with suffering; the titillation of the gory? Here’s a blogger, Todd, writing on the Guardian Unlimited Culture Vulture blog on 11 January 2006: ‘It’s not fun to watch a car wreak [sic] if you know it’s fake/just a small fender bender and no one got hurt’. So it’s a hoot if four people are catapulted out of the car and skewered on iron fences?
Todd may be one of those who slows down on the motorway to look at the ambulances and fire engines and wailing widows, but other readers’ responses to these tales of fortitude tell a slightly different story. Amazon reviews are testament to readers identifying with the first-person, ‘suffering but surviving’, voice – having been through similar hells and licked similar wounds. And those who have not suffered themselves can take inspiration from the fighter spirit: ‘If he can get through that with a smile on his face’ they say, ‘then I can deal with this big pile of paper bursting the buckles of my IN tray’.
Whatever the reason for reading these books, the reader seems to want to know for sure that the pain is entirely bona fide. At least this is what has been suggested by the James Frey scandal. Readers today get upset, it seems, if generic boundaries are crossed: Elizabeth Sadler, also on the Guardian blog, advises publishers – ‘If it’s truth call it truth, if it’s fiction call it fiction. If it’s somewhere in between then why not just say it’s “based on a true story”?’. So that’ll be practically everything on my bookshelf then – based on a true story because a biography lapses into opinion once in a while; based on a true story because a novelist happens to write of a protagonist who has startling resemblances to his creator (Lunar Park, for example, by Bret Easton Ellis, is narrated by a second ‘Bret Easton Ellis’); based on a true story because an autobiographer tries to make himself sound a little cooler than he actually was in his last year at school.
While one may understand the fascination to be had in reading a genuine life story, the natural conclusion to an insistence upon this ‘truth’ would be a sad end to creative licence. One of Oprah Winfrey’s questions when she hauled Frey in front of a booing studio audience was why he didn’t have a disclaimer on the book. And suddenly our literature is subject to the same kind of absurd red tape as our food; packets of peanuts emblazoned with the slogan ‘May contain nuts’ are joined with book covers warning that that ‘this book may contain some elements of fiction and / or embellishment, but don’t worry, there are plenty of grisly bits to get your teeth into, and most of these bits are true’.
Alexandra Jackson is working as an intern at spiked.
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