Memoir is a form under siege. In the small-print preface to Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity (2008), Kerry Cohen inadvertently indicates what’s wrong with the memoir today:
This book is a work of nonfiction. I have changed most names and identifying details. I have also, at times, combined certain characters to allow for narrative sense. I have tried to recount the circumstances as best I remember them, but memory can be a faulty device. Facts are important but I believe that even more important than the facts is truth. I trusted truth to guide me as I wrote. Jack Kerouac once said, “Every-thing I wrote as true because I believed what I saw.” So it is for this book.
Such prefatory notes, indicating the degree of fiction found in its pages, have become necessary in the wake of James Frey’s best-selling blowout, his come-to-Oprah moment when he revealed what careful readers suspected: Much of his so-called nonfiction was made up. If Frey’s televised admission in 2006 was a kind of religious confession, then the real penance has been paid ever since by the memoirists who followed, for whom fact-checking has become a ritual purification—and the disclaimer a Hail Mary pass resulting, they hope, in brisk sales, the modern measure of success.
Truth is the goal of the memoir—or at least of its preface. Such authenticating devices are ways of gaining trust in a distrustful world. And yet such a disclaimer comes up against the problem encountered by a fabricator coming clean: “To tell you the truth, I am a liar.” The liar’s paradox has become the memoirist’s mantra, indicated by Loose Girl’s strategic separation of facts from truth; and its declared reliance on memory as recreated facsimile rather than on a strict recounting of verifiable events. Like Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club (1995) and Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception (1990), two books that helped jump-start the memoir form, even the title Loose Girl seems to play with the notion of truth interrupted. This is not to say that these three memoirs are false. Rather, as indicated by their very titles, books such as The Liars’ Club and The Duke of Deception discuss family members who are con artists in ways large and small that the memoir form has proven well suited for.
You could say the memoir is a promiscuous form. The novel, the memoir’s direct antecedent, is omnivorous—it is a form that cannibalizes other forms, from letters to hymnals to confessions themselves. The confusion the memoir has caused is actually one over form—for despite what its recent practitioners seem to think, the memoir is a form, not a genre. In trying to expand the memoir from a form into a genre rather like the broader field of nonfiction, the authors of memoir often mistake its strengths—hard facts ennobled by the fluid, specific act of memory—as something not to be championed but chiefly ignored. As a result, instead of flirting with fiction, as almost all writing does, the memoir flirts with the truth.
I agree with Kerry Cohen’s preface in some sense. Indeed, in my recent nonfiction book, The Grey Album (2012),I have even advocated for “the storying tradition,” which is to say, the trickster tradition of lying and the black art of escape found in the codes of the Negro spirituals, blues, and other music. In this I have referred to fiction not as a genre or even a form, but as a technique: In the bounds of a closed system such as slavery or segregation, it is through storying—through foregrounding the imagined in a manner even as radical as lying—that black folks have not only layered meaning but liberated it and, in the process, themselves. The force of fiction in black lives is to empower the imagination in a world that too often denies it.
Yet the memoir’s new view of the truth, what comedian Stephen Colbert named “truthiness,” remains unconscionable exactly because it bends the truth instead of breaking it. Such truthiness does not risk “the breaks” we see in jazz, or in hip-hop at its best—calling attention to its own process, bending the notes till they may not be recognizable, making something original out of what’s already there. Like hip-hop, another form that has mistaken itself into a genre, modern memoir has done so to its detriment. It is no coincidence that just as rap music—which I loved and grew up with—was once part of a larger landscape of music but now has gone solo, so too has the memoir become an island of marketing and self-love (only after long struggle, of course) and ultimately self-aggrandizement. While it always provided undeniable style, and even a worldview, hip-hop at its best “conversated” with and against other popular music around it. Rap music once stole from everywhere, from Billy Joel to disco, from heavy metal to its own past—the mix was old-school hip-hop’s highest achievement, as well as its way of getting there.
These days hip-hop’s self-reflexivity and self-referencing are more prevalent than ever. Sampling itself is not to blame. Hardness is now hip-hop’s chief mode, a once flexible form made more rigid and even rote in defending its turf; in an inexact parallel, the tragic is the memoir’s chief note, the “facts” of a hard life substituting for its lessons. The memoir is at the top of the guest list at rap’s well-publicized party. Both forms share a need for “realness” over truth, for a feeling over facts.
Most all hoaxers, once discovered, go on to write a novel—indeed, it turns out they were writing a novel all along. “Memoirs by ordinary people have been with us for a long time,” Robin Hemley reminds us in his lively defense of the memoir, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing (2012). “But in my parents’ day, they used to be known as ‘first novels.’ ” It is fine to write fiction labeled as such, no matter how apparently autobiographical. Yet in her preface, Cohen seems to forget that no matter what claims he made for it later, Kerouac called what he wrote fiction. To quote Steve Almond from his 2011 article “The Heroic Life: A Brief Inquiry into the Fake Memoir”:
Every time one of these memoirs gets debunked, writers and critics debate what constitutes non-fiction. Often, there’s an argument put forward about something called “emotional truth,” which is supposed to provide moral cover for lying.
My definition of creative non-fiction is simple. It is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place. The moment you start making up events that you know did not take place, you’re doing another sort of work. It’s called fiction.
Work seems just the right word; fiction is not just a label but a technique, a way of finding freedom not from truth but a freedom in truths told a different way. To claim there is no line between fiction and non- is not a matter of opinion but laziness.
Few I knew in the publishing world were surprised when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003) was revealed to be, shall we say, embellished. The word on the bookish Brooklyn street was that Frey had originally shopped the book as fiction—but that agents or publishers said what he’d written would sell better if labeled as nonfiction. (Frey later would confirm this story in his final interview with Oprah Winfrey in her last week of broadcasting in May 2011.)
Judging by the relatively modest success of his recent novels, Frey’s thinking may well have been right. Even as a rumor—itself a metaphor for the vagaries of the truth—the story of Frey’s book’s origins indicates one of the chief problems with the memoir: Namely, the perception that the amount of fiction that exists in the memoir is directly related to the amount of money sought.
It also indicates that the measure of the memoir’s success is not necessarily literary, but financial. Money is the chief medium of both gangsta rap and what sometimes gets called “the misery memoir”: As with rap, the down-n-out lifestyle being celebrated has little to do with the everyday life of its by-now platinum-selling (and -wearing) performers. Kissing cousin to that other contemporary phenomenon, reality television, the modern memoir is also a clear descendant of poetry’s confessional mode. But even Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar was labeled a novel, no matter how thin the veil. It even appeared under a pseudonym.
“Yet why not say what happened?” Robert Lowell’s profound question in the last poem in his last book, Day by Day, asks, indicating the appeal of the truth—of fact—amongst a million little pieces of fiction. Writing the truth is never easy, but always necessary, if only to “give each figure in the photograph / his living name.” The modern memoir differs from the confessional mode in this exact way, changing names to protect, we are told, the living—in truth this “touch-up” would seem designed mostly to protect profits. If as a by-product, the truth resists being told, then so be it.
The nature or should I say artifice of the photograph may provide one good way to view the modern memoir. “Fixing,” “dodging,” “touching-up”: All have long been part of the process and history of photography, giving the lie to the notion that the camera doesn’t.
We can see this on the very cover of Margaret Seltzer’s 2008 book Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival, written as Margaret B. Jones. (What’s the “B” stand for anyway? Or is it “be”?) This is not just a pseudonym or “false name” but a false identity—Jones represents Seltzer’s wish to be an orphaned white child (or rather, a half-white, half-Native American one) raised by a foster family in South Central L.A. where she could grow up an ostensible gang member.
With many of these books, you need not be a book insider to sense their falsehoods—you need only be a reader. Frey’s A Million Little Pieces opens with him on a plane on his way to rehab, covered in blood from a broken nose and knocked-out teeth. Seltzer’s book opens with her being taken from her suburban white family to be fostered by a black family (despite social mores that would seem quite against this, not to mention protective laws about Native American adoptions). The opening gambits in both of these famous cases fail to pass the simple smell test.
Believability, however, is not what such books are after. The fake memoir doesn’t just stretch plausibility, it traffics in extreme versions of supposed reality because anything less might cause us to stop and second guess. Theirs is the magician’s mantra: Distraction is the better part of any trick’s power. The inflationary principle is to follow one outrage after another, so that the reader can’t afford to stop and ask whether plausible means “apparently valid” or “giving a deceptive impression of truth.” Instead, we are too busy being shocked and awed—or schlocked and aww-ed.
I wasn’t swayed by either Frey or Seltzer’s books before they were revealed to be fakes. I recall picking up A Million Little Pieces in a bookstore, having heard that it was a publishing phenomenon; finding it dubious at best, I put it back down. With Seltzer/Jones it was even more extreme. My local NPR station interviewed her when the book came out, just before the jig was up, and hearing only a few responses, I told my wife (who’d been listening along) that it sounded like the corniest, Boyz n the Hood-era set of clichés about gang life I had ever heard. Sure enough, when she was exposed by her sister soon after—who recognized her from a glowing article in the New York Times—it turns out Seltzer had assembled her alter ego much like Frey did from every outrageous image of that gangsta-lite era.
At least Frey’s name was true. “Jones,” called yet another name, Bree, in the book, was a total fiction; so was “Big Mom,” the alleged black woman who raised her. Anyone with any ear for African-American vernacular knows the phrase “Big Mom” just don’t sound right—the nickname’s two blunt syllables are awkward and inelegant, two things black vernacular doesn’t much go in for.
Stepping back to look at the literary hoax more broadly, it is shocking how many hoaxes involve race—indeed, seem to require race in order to properly function. Is this because race is the ultimate fiction? Or because only in the narrative of race in America does the outrageous seem not only possible but inevitable?
The Reality-Based Community
Once, the point of memoir or nonfiction like James Baldwin’s or Joan Didion’s, or poetry like Robert Lowell’s, was to say, Look at me as a way of saying, Look at us. “I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” to quote Whitman, as James Baldwin did as an epigraph for his second novel—a book written in the voice of a white man wrestling with his sexuality. The mask is as American as lynching. Those memoirists who once asked “Who am I?” saw themselves as not just American but as the whole of America.
Today’s memoir all too often says, Look at me and look no further. Worse, it says, Looky what happened to me. And if it didn’t happen, why not make it up?
The fabrications of the literary hoax nearly always make the authors more interesting or tougher or bolder—worser—than they really are. Frey says he was imprisoned for four months rather than in jail for mere hours. He claims hard time when he served none. Never does a JT Leroy or Seltzer say, Life wasn’t so bad. Never does the blogger known as “Gay Girl in Damascus” claim, You know, I get by. (You may recall that Amina Arraf, the lesbian blogger who so ardently opposed the Syrian government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters, was revealed to be Tom MacMasters, a white man in Georgia.) Frey and Seltzer and MacMaster’s game is the same: to increase ego, or readership, or sales. Consider this interview with Frey by Amazon.com:
Q: What book has had the most significant impact on your life?
A: Tao te Ching by Lao Tsu. Completely changed how I think, behave, live my life. Nothing else comes close.
Q: You are stranded on a desert island with only one book, one CD, and one DVD—what are they?
A: The book would be the Tao te Ching, the CD would be some compilation of love songs from the 70’s and 80’s, and the DVD would be highlights from the history of the Cleveland Browns.
Q: What is the worst lie you’ve ever told?
A: No way I can answer that.
The motto of the make-believe memoir is fibbing only with the point of helping someone else get through a similar struggle—which becomes the measure of the book’s real “truth.” Even Frey’s invoking his love of the Tao, which may be a belief he truly holds, allies him with ancient wisdom. But no gay girls in Damascus ask for MacMaster’s representation or help, no prisoners for Frey’s. The real sin may be that these fake memoirs are nothing more than “self-help,” designed to advance one’s own career while disguised as inspiration for others.
Take the example of Frey’s narrative about Lilly, a fellow addict he supposedly falls in love with in rehab, who later kills herself. The events of Lilly’s death, told in Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard (2005),are so generic as not to be believed. The style of his writing isn’t simply to mimic reality, but to create an alternative one by distracting us—in part by mimicking older versions of tough-guy reality patented by Ernest Hemingway. Frey is channeling not reality, but “realism.”
But where Hemingway had the good taste to call even his clearly autobiographical novels fiction, saving his adventures for his life in almost a manic pursuit of “material,” Frey gives us no such relief. Rather, even Lilly’s actual death falls prey to his hoaxing eye. If Frey is still to be believed after his confession, it is not whether she killed herself that he fabricated, but simply how. In his 2006 interview with Oprah after being unveiled, he indicated he fabricated to protect her. But the real reason seems to be that Frey is not producing genre fiction but genre memoir in which drug addicts die and in certain ways. Though the real Lilly supposedly cut her wrists, Frey confessed to Oprah that he changed the method of death to hanging “to render [her] unidentifiable.” The sad result is that this poor woman’s certain death becomes instead a figure of distressing doubt. Frey conflates making someone “unidentifiable” with changing her actual identity. Fake memoirists plagiarize another’s pain—as if that were the only way to empathize with it.
Critic Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in the New York Times of Frey, Seltzer, and the disturbing trend of fake Holocaust memoirs, reminds us that “In each case, then, a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit—a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too.” This is the problem with pain, as any doctor might tell you: One’s pain cannot be felt by another, only described and, lately, prescribed away. The fake memoir conflates recounting and inventing pain for its cure. In truth, it is the placebo effect.
Frey makes his approach to pain manifest—he is its victim and its martyr—by claiming to have had two root canals without painkillers. Oprah challenges his truthfulness, stating “my dentist said that could not have happened. And I said, ‘Oh no. It happened. He told me it happened.’ ” She receives a typical non-denial denial:
Frey: I mean, once I talked to the person at the facility about it, you know, the book had been out for nine months. We’d already done a lot of interviews about it… . Since that time I’ve struggled with the idea of it …
Oprah: No, the lie of it. That’s a lie. It’s not an idea, James. That’s a lie.
Winfrey’s reply, if memory serves me better than it has Frey, was met with applause.
What wouldn’t Frey lie about? It’s all just material, after all.
Fake memoirists regularly feature figures in their books that express certain ideas about race, namely stereotypes, damn lies, and statistics. The sequel to A Million Little Pieces, Frey’s My Friend Leonard begins:
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 for lunch and I didn’t see it coming. I went down. When I got up, I turned around and I started throwing punches. I landed two or three before I got hit again, this time in the face. I went down again. I wiped blood away from my nose and my mouth and I got up I started throwing punches again. Porterhouse put me in a headlock and started choking me. He leaned toward my ear and said I’m gonna let you go. If you keep fighting me I will fucking hurt you bad. Stay down and I will leave you alone. He let go of me, and I stayed down.
I have been here for eighty-seven days.
Knowing this is entirely fabricated, our questions may be less for Frey than about Porterhouse and his imaginary punches: Can you blame him for them? Since Frey was never in prison, how can his sequel even exist, much less open with a character he met inside confinement? His friend Leonard, like his imaginary friend Porterhouse, is Frey’s alter ego, or rather, his egotism altered and made real.
The disingenuousness extends to Porterhouse’s race—which is never mentioned, though clearly he is black. Frey strains not just credulity but his attempts to remain “color-blind” by not coming out and saying so. Frey’s reluctance is implied as another sign of his blunt prose, styled as reality but really a sign of his stereotypes about race. If he were telling the truth, he’d tell us Porterhouse was cooked up—black and blue. Instead, a few pages later, his figment—“His real name is Antwan, but he calls himself Porterhouse because he says he’s big and juicy like a fine ass steak”—asks Frey to read to him for three hours a day. “In the past twelve weeks we have worked our way through Don Quixote, Leaves of Grass, and East of Eden. We are currently reading War and Peace, which is Porterhouse’s favorite.” Even in captivity,
Frey is a social worker, an ex-alcoholic abolitionist teaching the poor brute about words and peace. Once hurt personified, Porterhouse now plays Boy Friday to a heroic Crusoe, rescued by Frey’s very presence. (Daniel Defoe’s influential novel Robinson Crusoe made use of the confessional to shape its world, as did his Journal of the Plague Year. Though fiction, both had impact on the travel narrative and the modern memoir.) Porterhouse’s mythic blackness comes complete with illiteracy—he is a porter, after all. It makes you almost yearn for the “magic Negro” of recent films, where at least the made-up black characters convey some knowledge or healing before they die or disappear.
What are we to make, 200-odd pages later, when Frey twice has characters, including Leonard, his friend and father figure, order a porterhouse—cooked well?
You can’t make this stuff up. Only Frey can, mixing the statistical and seeming truthful in the way truthiness loves best: “Most of the prisoners are in for long stretches and will most likely never be free. If they are ever free, they will be more dangerous than they were before they were imprisoned. They could give two fucks about rehabilitation, they need to survive. To survive they need to replace their humanity with savagery. Porterhouse knows this, but wants to remain human for as long as he can.” Porterhouse, with Frey on his side.
The real reason that Frey recites the “facts” of prison life taken straight out of Stereotypes 101 is to maintain the veneer, the very appearance of nonfiction, he needs. Likewise, he relies on listing classics of fiction and Whitman that he never read to a prisoner in a jail Frey never was in, in order to borrow some gravitas. Huck Finn must be next on the list. At stake here, as it were, is nothing less than savagery and civilization.
Frey’s hoaxes and the fake memoir more generally are much like the world of “mondo” films from the 1950s. In mondo, documentary and stock footage met with fiction-filled stories about “strange places,” like “deepest Africa,” presented as real—a tradition that could be said to have begun with the 1922 film classic, Nanook of the North. The result was a kind of visual colonialism—everything in sight was leveled, made equal or equally unworthy of extended study, whether human or animal, fact or fiction, with implications that there was little to distinguish the two.
By the 1960s, mondo films soon gave way to exploitation films that didn’t rely on stock footage or documentary style in order to be “true,” but that used the guise of real stories to allow them to explore taboo subjects for profit. Women in prison, drug addiction, nudism, the ghetto: All these topics the films conjured as fad or pressing dangers in order to exploit them for profit. In such a light, Frey’s and Seltzer’s works are late projections in the history of Blaxploitation cinema.
The front cover of Seltzer’s Love and Consequences is itself a fiction: An older black woman stands with her arm around a young white child who looks into the distance, the woman looking only at her. Both have their backs to us. The cover doesn’t so much announce the book, as signal concern with types. This image, after all, is one of the most familiar in American icono-graphy from the nineteenth to almost the end of the twentieth century. The mammy with her white charge only ended as a widespread image with the insistence of Black Arts in the 1960s—here it returns, unbidden, a figure of nostalgia and somehow hope. (Most recently this issue was evoked in the idea and controversy surrounding the Oscar-winning film The Help, whenthe book’s author was accused and sued unsuccessfully by her brother’s maid for stealing elements of her life story and her very name.) The only difference is that on Seltzer’s cover the mammy is not oversized—heft a symbol of Mammy’s nurturing yet asexual, sassy yet nonthreatening nature.
However, a glance at the back flap of the book notes that the cover image is a composite, a convenient fiction. Made by a designer, the image is actually two separate but seemingly equal ones, placed together by one Honi Werner. It reminds me of how Time magazine, rather than find one of the many mixed-race folks who walk the Earth, created an “Eve” of their own via computer manipulation. Electronic miscegenation is acceptable; actual race-mixing is not. This, despite the fact that mixing is exactly the thing that Seltzer the fictional character claims she is the product of—the frisson of mixing is the thrill she provides through her narrative, its closeness suggested by the fake photograph with its familiar, altered but in no way alternative, iconography.
We may remember the way Time also darkened O. J. Simpson’s face after his arrest, his blackness returning in literal ways that Seltzer’s whiteness does in the book—and that is maintained throughout. The whiteness Seltzer intimates, constantly reinforced by her supposed South Central surroundings, is her own. She cannot imagine writing of an all-black world, her “memoir of hope and survival” seems to say, so she inserts herself into one, and into a personal past that didn’t exist to explain what does. In this she’s no more guilty than those reenactors or “living histories” that don’t wish to address slavery; or those who view Dixie as a place of quiet contentment, rather than the real old days when things were good and bad, depending on who you asked.
But is Seltzer reenacting something else besides an age-old story of exploitation? The book’s cover promises an intimacy of black language and experience that, while not realized by the poor prose, indicates that blackness lurks on every page. Opening Love and Consequences at random finds this passage:
I didn’t let his words sting me; I expected it. Really, I didn’t know much about making [drug] deliveries, except that it paid better than selling weed. I took a step closer to him and looked right at him. That’s what my brothers had taught me. Always make people take you seriously. “What you mean, homie? I’m perfect. Who would ever suspect me?”
Part of the forger’s pleasure is parading her forgery. In hindsight, hoaxes provide clues to the lies that can be found in the lie itself or its cover-up, a trail of crumbs we both are and aren’t meant to follow.
If this passage reads now as a not-so-subtle confession of Seltzer’s lying, it is followed by “black dialect,” a fiction that Seltzer’s introduction makes clear is integral to her faux-memoir. She writes, “Please do not confuse the use of slang and myreplacing c’s with k’s as ignorance or stupidity.” I’m not sure whose ignorance she means—the fake black speakers’, or her own? It is clearly Seltzer who’s ignorant of black speech and who needs to be schooled:
He thought about it for a minute, then laughed again. “Aiight, sho nuff, you right. Ima take a chance on you. You meet me here tomorrow morning befo skool. You go ta skool, right?”
“Sometimes.” I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a half smile. He laughed again. The high school graduation rate, though it varies somewhat from neighborhood to neighborhood, in South Central, hovers somewhere around fifty percent.
The gap between the narrator’s “Standard English” voice and her use of slang is not only strained. Neither her story nor her vernacular is believable, resorting to clichés: hers is the distortion of Black English taken not from life but from plantation novels and gangsta cinema. Rather than a living language, these are the broad strokes of speech misheard, language as a bunch of missteps learned nowhere near “skool,” when in truth the vernacular is actually a varied, vivid commentary on language itself.
Hence, the old joke: You know the difference between a dialect and a language? An army. Or at least a gang.
In this, Seltzer’s book is all too familiar—this is what dialect always meant, often literally inscribed on the very photograph of the mammy, or provided by whites as substitutes for the mammy’s speech. Hollywood actress Louise Beavers, for instance, famously had to go to a dialect coach to be taught how to talk in her many mammy roles. But, as Hattie McDaniel, the first (but not the last) black actress to win an Oscar for playing a maid said, “I’d rather get paid $700 a week for playing a maid than $7 for being one.”
These days, she’d be a TV maid who’d pretend she was one in real life.
If the cover of Seltzer’s Love and Consequences doesn’t clue us in that no black person seems to have weighed in on the book in its years-long journey from pitch to print, the writing should have. And if bad slang isn’t enough to raise our doubts, then the prefatory matter is. Seltzer’s preface refers to its language, not its reality—though you could say in the fake memoir both are one and the same. Such prefaces are forms of authenticity foisted upon black authors for centuries; Seltzer appropriates even this precondition for the black writer!
Turning each “c” to “k” indicates more than spelling; it indicates a philosophical view, one that somehow is less “aural” (where “c” and “k” can sound the same) than visual (where, oddly enough, they comment on and cause us to hear differently, the aural). The book puts it this way in its “Author’s Note on Language, Dialect, and Kontent”:
My words and views were learned in the dirt and desolation of South Central Los Angeles. The streets where I grew up were run by the laws of the local gangs. Their laws shaped what we wore, how we talked, and how we navigated the city. When one resident of the urban core asks another where they live, the response often includes not only a street name but also which gang claims that area as its turf. I do now see that there is no difference between Bloods and Crips. We are all the same, the problems and conditions we all face are the same. We were just born into different neighborhoods. My particular street, however, was ruled by the mighty Blood Nation. You will see that reflected in the language and vision of the book.
Please do not confuse the use of slang and my replacing c’s with k’s as ignorance or stupidity. I choose to write as we chose to speak in the world of my childhood. A world where Bloods and Crips have such a deep-seated hatred for each other that Bloods smoke bigarettes and Crips celebrate C-days rather than B-days (birthdays). I do it in order to offer up the whole story.
I will spare you the almost unreadable “eye dialect” that follows (all such dialect follows “Standard English” in her own voice, making the spoken dialogue a mask only for her, not for those she writes of). Seltzerrenders language as merely a function of race, gang status, poverty, and other consequences—such talk invents nothing on its own.
In contrast, actual African-American Vernacular English is generative above all else. It is preservative and persevering; coded, recontextualizing, and cryptic; youth-oriented, difficult, and self-conscious; ironic and dangerous. Seltzer’s language, on the other hand, is “kontained” and “kliché”—it is ventriloquism on a high scale, one in which black folks are commonly used to express “the truth” without thought of the consequences on them as actual people. Symbolized, and thus simplified, it is only the white author in this situation—as in Uncle Remus tales, say—who manages to get out of the ghetto—or prison, if you are Frey—that they themselves made. Her book’s biographical note indicates the ways in which Seltzer’s success at University of Oregon—where, contrary to her bio, she never graduated—is the measure of her escaping the milieu she found herself in.
What’s most true about the hoaxers is that once they lie, or hoax, or plagiarize, they rarely do it only once: Fiction’s addictive. Seltzer has to make up even this biographical note, not just out of habit but so her tale ends as all such tales do, with triumph.
If faked authenticity is the engine, the chief product of these memoirs is truthiness—a term actually discussed in the Oprah “trial” of Frey. Though it started as a joke, Colbert’s term remains useful because “truthiness” indicates both distance from the truth and its reliance on it for the appearance of authenticity. Though it fetishizes the truth, the memoir is not, in fact, particularly interested in it. The difference here might be called the difference between lying—something everyone, even children, does now and again—and being a liar, which renders even truths untrustworthy because of their source, whether crying wolf or a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The difference might as easily be understood as that between autobiography and the memoir. This distinction is more than merely semantic: Our age’s reliance on memoir is also an overreliance on “memory,” rather than history, on the imminently subjective rather than the immanent or verifiable. Biography, whether of the self or of another, though interested in the past, is actually a function of the present—it often seeks to understand the present through the past. We are drawn most to those figures who help explain our times (past presidents), or those rarities where our times shed light on theirs (usually lesser-known figures now moved to the center of our cultural conversation). These days the memoir has a distant relation to the past, taking a kind of dramatic irony that is left unexplored: Here’s how horrible I once was; let me tell you how hard I had it.
Or maybe the issue is not that there is any distance at all. This may be the memoir’s chief appeal. Such books aren’t concerned with reflection, but remain stuck in the despair they chronicle. In some ways, they don’t reenact the experience—unlike a poem, which, to quote Lowell, “is an event, not a record of an event.” Rather, they reenact their denial and render the unusual or unique as exotic. Intimacy is promised, not just by the memoir’s subject matter but its style. Frey’s style, his lack of quotation marks—just like Seltzer’s preponderance of apostrophes—is a form of rendering reality more real. Their entire books are in air quotes.
To paraphrase the Smoking Gun, the online magazine that first documented Frey’s fraud, fiction would seem his main addiction. Even when confronted by the facts, Frey protested, claiming that the questions that theSmoking Gunposed to him were the “latest attempt to discredit me … So let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt, I stand by my book, and my life, and I won’t dignify this bullshit with any sort of further response.” Bullshit and Haterade is a powerful combo, and seems to lead the hoaxer into delusions of grandeur—I stand by my life—and illusions of grand truths.
What’s stranger to me are many readers’ responses to such revelations, symbolized by Oprah’s initial response after Frey’s hoax had been called into question. Frey showed up with his mother (!) to defend himself on Larry King Live. Calling in unexpectedly, Oprah said, “I feel about A Million Little Pieces that although some of the facts have been questioned—and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book.” Is this the equivalent of, If it feels real, it is?Later, Oprah would recant this statement, but the power of that initial attitude—feeling as fact, feeling over fact—is a therapeutic and theatrical one familiar to anyone in Western world of the twenty-first century.
For all her wisdom, Oprah herself embraces such pop psychology as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, with its notion that you can remake reality only with your attitude—coming dangerously close to embracing notions simultaneously about fate (everything happens for a reason) and wishful thinking (“It is very true that the way you think creates reality for yourself,” Oprah once put it to Larry King). Such paradoxical stances are echoed by Frey—even in the idea of “secrecy” as a value. Yet, memoirists such as Frey never manage to mistake the Oprah Winfrey Show’s motto of searching for “your own truth” as a search for facts.
The idea that “James wrote the real deal” is still found years later on comments posted after the Smoking Gun’s article. “I get that readers felt duped by his embellishments,” reads one comment, “but I have to say, who cares? He still wrote the book, I think the only crime in art is plagiarism and that’s just not the case here.” Legions of readers, even knowing that Frey falsified his memoir, still persist in saying the book is truthful, or that truth doesn’t matter. What’s at stake for true believers is nothing less than their feelings—a book “feels real” so it must be, in a tautology that may be the best definition of truthiness.
A hoax is never a victimless crime (a phrase I never quite understood), and rewarding someone for simply having written something discounts exactly what it means to praise. The notion that the hoax merely meant to help suggests hoaxing is the only way to help. This idea of help is quickly replaced by the hoaxer’s typical defense that no one got hurt—the hoax treated more like a prank, without malice and meant to be detected. But apart from a few such pranks, hoaxers such as Frey defend their hoax nearly to the end, only relenting as the evidence mounts and the court of public opinion turns against them. They plead innocent till they issue a plea of No Contest.
The language of the legal system seems particularly apt, as it is the basis of the opening of both Frey and Seltzer’s hoaxes—both protagonists are taken from home by officials, left captive among blacks and Porterhouses. (They are taken in, and so are we.) Many of the hoaxes depend on liberal pieties (Blacks can learn, too! Everyone’s ok!), as well as conservative spin (Anything can be made true; ketchup is a vegetable) for their effect.
People who write about hoaxes seem to fall back on old ideas about truth and beauty to explain the hoax—or more often themselves, if the hoax happens to be their own. Most seem to miss the simple point that the hoax is something fake passing itself off as real. Like race. I have come to realize that the hoax is almost always about race; cases of plagiarism, about class.
The problem here isn’t merely one of speech, or representation, which is troubling enough. Instead it’s the mix of these large, unwieldy, and inherited fictions—black mammies, bad dialect, and drugs, oh my!—with the statistical impulse, the two being more closely related than you might think. The desire to fib about Seltzer’s supposed experience mirrors her wish to “skool” us on the horrors of black life. Just the facts, ma’am. That socioeconomic statistics could provide the basis of her fictions fails to see the ways in which even statistics contain fictions, can distort, and aren’t a referendum on an actual life as lived, just as slang isn’t. Whose consciousness is she raising here? The ignorant drug dealers’? Or that of the reader—presumed white, and not from South Central—who needs to be reminded how different things are there? What’s in your heart, brother? There is, Seltzer implies, no there there.
It is the travel narrative—better yet the captivity narrative—that is Seltzer’s and Frey’s true antecedent. I will tell you about these people, I lived amongst them, dancing with wolves, and have learned not only their language and their habits but also their promise for hope and survival. This is one clue as to why Seltzer makes her Jones alter ego part-Native American—a way of both belonging and not belonging, of kinship with a story seemingly as old as America, that of triumph over hardship. The story chimes with the other American story of capture and danger as prelude and excuse for anti-Native American violence. Even violence to language itself.
Captivity narratives bear lengthy titles that easily could be the subtitles to Frey’s and Seltzer’s books, not to mention modern memoir more generally: Memoirs of Odd Adventures, Strange Deliverances, etc.; or, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of;or, perhaps my favorite, Cotton Mather’s Humiliations Follow’d with Deliverances. Like the modern memoir, captivity narratives are accounts of life “in the wild”; they imply (or infer) sexual violence; they are also ultimately conversion tales, tales of salvation Taken in Substance from her own Mouth, as one title has it. And the captivity narrative’s mix of piety and self-pity—A faithful Narrative, of the many Dangers and Sufferings, as well as Wonderful and Surprizing Deliverances—becomes more and more familiar the more hoaxes you read. Only faithfulness is missing, at least where the truth is concerned.
The hoax doesn’t borrow the captive’s “faithful narrative” but rather its effects. The fake memoir shares the captivity narrative’s way of experiencing the body not always permitted in a society that was fully American but not yet the United States. In Captured by Texts (1995), critic Gary L. Ebersole describes the captives in this way, inadvertently echoing the protagonist of the modern memoir: “Captives are human beings in extremis, that is, in situations of grave danger and heightened vulnerability. They are suddenly carried into an alien world and cut off from the normal support systems of family, friends, church, and the larger society in which they had lived. They are abruptly and rudely faced with an immediate threat not only to their physical survival but also to their psychological and sociocultural integrity and identity.” Suffering, alienation, the body in pain, redemption: All this found its form in the “white Indian.”
This “white Indian,” or European settler changed by his or her capture or willing life among the natives, symbolizes what Ebersole calls the “mixture of fascination and dread” that captivity (and return) held for those on an American frontier. Not only was the white Indian arguably part of the popularity of captivity narratives for a century and more, when more than 300 narratives found their way into print, he is embodied in fictional characters such as Natty Bumppo and Jeremiah Johnson whose appeal over almost two centuries of American literature and film included embrace of getting back to the land and, in turn, crafting their own legends. Identifying with the land means answering a call to return to nature, pointing out the savagery of the present.
We can see this in the “white Indian” of Katniss, the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.Katniss’s image in the movie version—dark haired, tracking the land with bow and arrow, enflamed—is symbolically Native. Like the other white Indians, she is the so-called noble savage that often characterized the Native American made flesh and familiar (in the film, her dyed-blond companion is doubly marked white and, we’re told, weaker). But which part is noble, what savage? Where does the white begin and the Indian end?
The fake memoir turns the white Indian caught between cultures into the “half-breed,” who is part Native American and part white by birth, a “mixture of fascination and dread” no longer symbolic but literal. This “half-breed” is found in Love & Consequences and in any number of hoaxes by pretend Native Americans,including The Education of Little Tree (1976), a fake memoir about yet another half-white, half-Indian child that made many school reading lists before being revealed as a hoax. Written by Asa Earl Carter, a former Ku Klux Klan member and speechwriter for segregationist George Wallace, the book’s continued publication and film adaptation puts the “k’s” of Seltzer’s kontents into a rather kreepy perspective. In fact, the author of Little Tree also penned the infamous “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech (not to mention the novel that became the film The Outlaw Josie Wales). The main character’s “half-breed” status—of a kind played to the hilt in the 1970s by the likes of Cher or by Burt Reynolds in his early film appearances—would be symbolic of the books being half-truths themselves, if they weren’t fiction entirely.
The hoax’s claim of Native American heritage is a claim for unimpeachable origins—and while it may seem odd for a Klansman to ventriloquize in this way, doing so feeds a nativist impulse. Such claims are widespread in the hoax world, appropriating an outlaw nativeness that ultimately ends in aboriginal-face, whether red or brown. The white Indian, though surrounded by doom—from The Last of the Mohicans to The Hunger Games—is triumphant, however fragile her victory. In contrast, bound by blood, cursed by birth, in-betweenness embodied, the half-breed is forced by fate into something far worse.
I can’t help thinking of the displaced nature of the hoax as related to the captivity narratives. The colonials saw the “New World” as alien in order not to think of themselves as alien. Slavery is absent from these tales. It is strange to come across literally hundreds of narratives of captivity that seem to look westward, which is to say, look away from the capture, sale, breeding, beating, and owning of African slaves in the Americas that began soon after the captivity narratives do. You could say the two were married to each other, though not exactly speaking.
But the captivity narrative rarely goes that far, just as the memoir never seems to recognize its direct ancestor. This despite the fact that, as Ebersole writes, “In captivity (as in war), one’s body is experienced in more fundamental ways than previously.” He speaks of the narrative in ways that easily suggest the modern memoir:
The body is also known more immediately than before as a boundary of fundamental exchanges: severe hunger and thirst reveal the integrity of the body to be fragile and dependent upon the intake of nourishment; at the same time, the body is experienced extruding blood, pus, bile, entrails, embryos, dashed brains, excrement and vomit. Moreover, in the world of the alien Other, strange sights, sounds, odors, and tastes assault the captive’s senses, while dreams, flashbacks, hallucinations, and uncontrollable screams, sighs, tears, and tremors emerge from inside.
In such situations, the body is a painful register of the shattered or porous boundaries of inside and outside, self and other, past and present.
Seltzer wants us to believe she’s a “Blood.” In his unbelievable yet once-popular set of three fake memoirs, faux-Navajo Nasdijj presents reservation life as one filled with doom and bodies in pain. Later discovered to be a white author, Tim Barrus (as Nasdijj) stressed his membership in the blood nation in the very titles of his fake memoirs: The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams (2000), The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping (2003), and Geronimo’s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (2004). In the same way, Frey needs us to believe his pus-filled past and his dentistry without painkillers in order for us to see how out of bounds he is in the present. Suffering in the hoax is redemptive, an attitude infecting the popular memoir more generally. Humiliations Follow’d with Deliverances: Body fluids also distract us from how fluid Frey is with the truth, neither faithful nor really narrative.
Instead, like the captivity narrative, “such stories are never objective or neutral accounts, they are always structured and informed in specific ways in order to give a shape and a meaning to the captivity,” Ebersole writes. And what is captivity without meaning? That would be like a fake memoir without redemption.
Oprah giveth, Oprah taketh away: Frey’s book was already successful when Oprah Winfrey fueled it into an even bigger bestseller by selecting it for her Book Club. Once the hoax began to unravel, just weeks after supporting his appearance on Larry King Live, Oprah brought Frey to her show (along with his feckless publisher, Nan Talese) in order to defend or deny what he could no longer claim was the truth. There Frey “came clean”—something demanded of public figures, at least since Watergate, as part of an unspoken pact with the public. The cover-up is worse than the crime, the saying goes—and in politics and marriage this still seems true. But what if the cover-up is the crime?
What Frey has produced is not just falsehood but a multitude of other, smaller Freys, for whom truth is almost always relative. The fact that one of his lies was about the suicide of an actual woman and the death of two others goes by the wayside. According to the Smoking Gun:
In addition to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students. In what may be his book’s most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy’s third victim. It’s a cynical and offensive ploy that has left one of the victims’ parents bewildered. “As far as I know, he had nothing to do with the accident,” said the mother of one of the dead girls. “I figured he was taking license … he’s a writer, you know, they don’t tell everything that’s factual and true.”
For Frey, the accident and the girl’s death are collateral damage, like the truth. Why wouldn’t the mourning mother conclude that fabricating facts is something that writers just do?
The death here is one not just of truth but of art.
Gone is the idea that something made up, unreal or surreal, could move us. Instead, readers insist that the thing that isn’t real is: that if it affects them it can’t be affected; that they cannot have real feelings about made-up things. This explains why many mistrust poetry—what to do with art that doesn’t insist on emotion, but suggests it? That chiefly aspires not toward confession but the condition of music? These days, readers insist the hoax is even better than the real thing in the ways theorists have postulated for decades—by calling it the simulacrum, or the hyperreal, or the absolute fake. But the looking-glass, however shattered, now never looks back; instead, it is something simply to pass through, and over, amazed yet utterly unfazed.
Maybe because I’m a poet, I find both the hoaxer’s excuses and excusing the hoaxers not enough. I agree with Marianne Moore, who in her poem “Poetry,” supposes that one definition of the art is “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” But in that same poem, she lists the baseball fan and the statistician as both sources and the audience for poetry. “Nor is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school-books’; all these phenomena are important.” Moore seeks a truth in the everyday, even in the mundane, in our actual ephemera and phenomena, in what we too often overlook in favor of spectacle. Poetry’s not good at spectacle, as much as it may talk about it. But does it need to be? To compete?
It’s no accident that Frey’s made-up memoirs lack indentations—they are typeset like “poems,” borrowing a stereotypically lyric, left-handed margin look in order to insist on their own marginalization. And to suggest that any variations from the truth come from a kind of poetic license. Frey doesn’t just pretend to truth but has pretenses of poetry.
Moore works the opposite way: She is still a poet while taking her cues from what may seem to be prose. Besides praising Moore in his manifesto Spring and All (1923), William CarlosWilliams combines both prose and poetry—including iconic, untitled poems later given titles, such as “the red wheelbarrow”—in order to indicate there is no difference between the two. And yet, Williams is also trying to refine the difference between poetry and prose. He could easily have been thinking of the limits of the modern memoir when he writes, “I can go no further than to say poetry feeds the imagination and prose the emotions, poetry liberates the words from their emotional implications, prose confirms them in it. Both move centrifugally or centripetally toward the intelligence.” At least they should. Williams means to champion the imagination as a force in ways we still need reminding of—those imaginary gardens have undergone quite some deforestation lately.
Even Moore’s famous poem “Poetry” underwent pruning. She later amended the poem radically, cutting its several pages down to five lines. In her Collected Poems, a prefatory note announces, “Omissions are not accidents,” indicating any culling was purposeful, not mere typography—neither of which Frey can own up to. Moore is most a poet because of her purpose and music, not because of the idea of being a poet; by contrast, Frey’s “lyricism” cultivates poetry as meaning “filled with fiction,” even with pretensions toward literature. The look of his books invokes poetry in order to claim a higher aim.
Indeed, the most troubling defense of the hoaxer may be the literature defense:
This book is a combination of facts about James Frey’s life and certain embellishments. Names, dates, places, events, and details have been changed, invented, and altered for literary effect. The reader should not consider this book anything other than a work of literature.
This is less a disclaimer accompanying later reprints of Frey’s novel than a bold claim. Literature, once a mark of excellence or significance—or at the very least an earnest wish for it—is now nothing more than an effect, a feeling, window dressing.
Millions of copies can’t be wrong, it says, suggesting that what happens within the pages of literature doesn’t matter. After all, poetry—and now prose—can’t make anything happen. This has the numbing effect of saying that what happens outside the boards of a book don’t matter either.
Yet what if this place others call spun, or alien, or unreal is actually your home? What if you are the parents of those deceased girls that Frey claimed to know that he actually didn’t, or what if you are the imaginary Indian, or Porterhouse’s poor mother, never allowed to defend against the hoax or ghost or spook that Frey created? Who defends the defenseless, especially when they are imaginary?
In defending the truth against the hoax, we are in fact defending the imaginary—preserving the possibility that make-believe can make claims on our emotions but not our facts, that the truth is actual as a tree yet can be as abstract and verifiable as the DNA that makes it up. To quote Moore, poetry is made up of “rawness and / that which is on the other hand / genuine”—she could easily be talking about literature, which comes not from mere falsehoods or simple facts, but raw, genuine life.
Time passes, too, and things that once seemed outrageous fictions seem suddenly real. People forget, the made-up memoir seems to say, so why not get started now? Maybe the hoax memoir is not meant to conjure memory, but to help readers forget pain by supplanting it with a pretend pain far worse than they might could imagine. Frey’s claiming not to have taken anesthetic when getting a root canal—another sign to perceptive readers that his book was bunk—provides further proof that the fake memoir is itself a form of numbing.
All these distractions and disclaimers can help dull our own radar. These days we are too afraid to call out charlatans: Everyone’s entitled to his own opinion, we hear, or my least favorite, It is what it is. Meanwhile, the useful saying, All isn’t what it seems, seems to have fallen by the wayside. What it seems is all it is.
In a brilliant spoof of Frey’s fake memoir, Steve Almond crafted a fake but somehow probable future obituary for Frey in a 2006 VQR supplement. Taking some of its power from the knowledge that obits for the famous are often composed in advance, with only the final details of death added before running, “Controversial Author and Cultural Icon Found Dead” uses humor to upend the conventions of the fake memoir and confession, and our own cycle of zero worship and hero worship and back again. Almond imagines Frey living in Las Vegas “as ringmaster of a literary circus, in which exotic dancers and trained animals enacted passages from classic novels.” The show (called Book ’Em Jimmy!) closed within a month. The fake obituary further reports that his eldest son, Malcolm X Frey, published “a searing memoir”—Freyed at the Edges—that claims the washed-up writer was a “sexual predator who routinely made his children watch him do squats and who ate entire roasted turkeys in one sitting.” Frey sued his son for defamation, Almond tell us, and settled after an agreement “to include a disclaimer in future editions, noting that portions of the book were fictionalized.”
Calling bullshit isn’t easy. Liars especially don’t like being lied about. Which is why Almond uses bullshit to combat bullshit. Which is why Oprah’s initial takedown on her show was all the more remarkable, an icon taking down a pretender to her throne. Which is why it was so puzzling to see her, in her last week of broadcasting her famous show, engage Frey over two days in a one-on-one interview. Instead of a studio audience, Frey gets Oprah back to what appears to be his room, as if in an act of on-camera seduction. The episodes even showcase Frey’s farmed-out fictions such as I Am Number Four, as if it is innovative to create an author mill. In truth, his fake memoirs always held the author as an aggregate, a mere idea. By the end of the broadcast, Oprah’s apologizing to Frey, as one might to a manipulative lover, for her former anger at his bad behavior.
All is forgiven.
What’s old is a novel again.
What if truth is not an absolute, or even relative, but a skill—a muscle, like memory, that humans have neglected so much lately that we have grown measurably weaker at using it?