So we have a new brouhaha over “untrue” memoirs, this time by 12-step critic James Frey. I’ll have to admit- up until the story broke I didn’t know James Frey from Glen Frey and I’d never heard of his book. Sure, if an author says he was arrested six times I’d prefer to find out later that this was actually true, but let’s face it, the simple truth of the matter is that most memoirs play fast and loose with the facts. Recently released recordings have shown that Henry Kissinger’s memoirs were something like 90% fictional. “All Creatures Great and Small” apparently took liberties with the truth in the interests of good storytelling.
And isn’t telling a good story what books are all about, anyway? If you go to the trouble of writing a memoir you probably have a story to tell, a point to make, or an ax to grind, and it may be good and it may be bad, but I’ll bet very few people manage it by sticking 100% to the facts of the matter. I’m not even sure it’s possible- heck, we all believe a lot of things about ourselves and our experiences that end up not being true. Self-delusion, selective memory; when it comes to facts versus memory we’re a lot like the blind man being presented with a single part of the elephant. One’s life, from within one’s own mind, is mostly a matter of point of view and opinion, isn’t it?
That’s not to say there are no gradations. Making up a long rap sheet when you apparently did not have one is a bit bizarre, to say the least; most people would usually fake it in the opposite direction. But Frey had a point to make with his book, which was that 12-step programs are not necessary for everyone to overcome addiction, and the real question is, did he get it across effectively? Given the campaign by the 12-steppers to pound the bloody corpse of his literary reputation into the mud, I’d say his book hit a few nerves, which makes it worthy of something, even if not a prized spot on the non-fiction shelf. And as a 12-step critic pointed out elsewhere, if he told a few whoppers in the process that just puts him in the same boat with your average 12-step member.