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Speak (Correctly), Memory!

PUBLISHED: December 31, 2008

This spring, a colleague at the Christian Science Monitor and I collaborated on a piece that ran under the headline: “Memoirs: whose truth — and does it matter?” The context, as I wrote at the time, was a “string of high-profile scandals,” from the James Frey debacle to the revelation that Mischa Defonseca, the author of a fantastical memoir of the Holocaust—which suggested Defonseca had been rescued by a pack of wild animals—”lived in Brussels during World War II, is not Jewish, and was not raised by wolves.”

Teresa Méndez and I split the reporting, mostly because there was so much ground to cover: presumably, editors, writers, and publishers would have a wide range of viewpoints on the necessity of truthiness in modern memoir. We talked to dozens; many were happy to chat, and only a few demurred. And for the most part, almost everyone—save Jack Shafer, Slate’s formidable media critic, who had come out loudly against David Sedaris in a 2007 column—was in agreement: totally false was bad, but a little slippage was acceptable. As Sedaris told me, speaking from his home in England, “I guess I’ve always thought that if 97 percent of the story is true, then that’s an acceptable formula. Put it on a scale. Is it 97 percent pure?”

Angel at the FenceSo should we judge memoir on different criteria than journalism? (Again, Shafer vociferously disagreed: “In the taxonomy,” he said, “a memoir is an attempt to capture the truth. A memoirist has all the latitude in the world to describe their interior landscape. But just because they’re hot, they can’t call the Arctic a desert.”) Well, now we have another chance to discuss anew. This week, Berkley Books announced it was nixing publication of a Holocaust memoir, “Angel at the Fence,” which was apparently fabricated by retired television repairman Herman Rosenblat. (The Holocaust, perversely, seems to be ripe ground for make-believe.) Cheers to Gabriel Sherman, who first broke the story open in the New Republic. And some questions, dear readers:

How much is too much? Do you care if a memoir isn’t 99.9 percent true? And wherein lies the dividing line between memoir and fiction?


Pete's picture
Pete · 12 years ago
It doesn’t have to be 99.9% true, but all of the major components have to be true or at least have a basis in fact. Yes, Rosenblat was a Holocaust survivor - good for him, though it hardly makes him unique. Hundreds if not thousands of survivors have told their stories, with many going so far as to write a book about it. But from what I’ve read, the truth of Rosenblat’s story mostly ends there, and the love story he wrote about was completely fabricated - most likely to make it unique, distinctive and of course marketable. And that makes the whole thing utterly wrong. It wasn’t just some embellishment to the true story or a case of selective memory, but obviously a conscious effort to make the story better. And that’s something I don’t quite understand. Frey fabricating shocking elements of what was by all accounts a fairly mundane addiction is one thing - addiction-recovery memoirs are a dime a dozen, so it’s not surprising (though inexcusable) that he’d try to spice up the story. But for Holocaust survivors to do the same doesn’t make much sense. The Holocaust was such an epic event - one of the defining events of Western Civilization - and such a great story in itself that anyone directly associated with it would have a interesting tale to tell. Why Rosenblat would need to embellish is just beyond me.

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