(Dr. Gita DasBender is a full-time faculty and Director of Second Language Writing in the English department at Seton Hall University. She has a Ph.D in English Education from New York University where she was also a graduate instructor and mentor in the Expository Writing Program. Her areas of interest include researching the essay as a genre, theory in memoir-writing, and second language writing assessment. She is also on the Board of Trustees for the New Jersey College English Association.)

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The fine line between truth and fiction has been crossed many times but not with the drama and outrage that followed James Frey’s admission that his memoir A Million Little Pieces, was, after all, not entirely true. When pressed by a tearfully indignant Oprah Winfrey to out the truth about the life he portrayed in the memoir, Frey--dry-mouthed and inchoate--turned into an amnesiac about details any intelligent reader of the memoir would expect to be rendered truthfully. Not realistically, but truthfully.

Only a few weeks before, Ms. Winfrey had supported Frey’s lapse into untruthful embellishments by standing up for all her readers with whom the theme of “redemption” apparently resonated so strongly. Is there a need, a member of Oprah’s book club may have asked, of making fine distinctions between what is true and what is not? Were not the gut-wrenching, now questionable details of Frey’s book the very reason they were initially drawn to it? Does it really matter if memory didn’t serve Frey right in the final analysis? Though the debate over truth versus fiction is what created this uproar, as Maureen Dowd of the New York Times puts it, “watching Oprah flay Frey was riveting” precisely because of the spin Ms. Winfrey put on the interview itself. To the large mass of Oprah-watching, reality-TV obsessed pseudo-intelligentsia, Frey’s problem is not one of writerly integrity but of public deception. In her scathing interview of Frey, Ms. Winfrey incessantly drives home the point that she has been “duped,” that James has lied, and if the well-timed gasps from her audience mean anything, that Frey has conned not just her esteemed readership but the daytime diva herself. This is reality television at its finest.

There is no doubt that we live at a time when the word “reality” itself has begun to lose meaning. From postmodernist assumptions that all truth is relative to political decisions such as the war on Iraq that hinge upon shaky—nay, non-existent—facts such as the possession of weapons of mass destruction, we are inundated with multiple realities that invite little scrutiny. One man’s “global warming” is another’s “climate change.” In a culture where fourteen-year-olds get nose-jobs as birthday gifts from grandmothers and the reality of self is altered instantaneously through nips and tucks, distortion of larger truths seem inevitable. When the inward-turning-eye sees nothing but an imagined self, the truth of the world ceases to exist. When Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’ chief book critic represents James Frey’s memoir mishap as a “case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth,” it is clear that truth today is about as valuable as bling-bling on Barbie. Perhaps we have lost the taste for the authentic because experienced reality falls short of aspired reality. We want to experience the world as larger, grander, more hyper-real place than even what the media promises.

To set the record straight, despite the lambasting of creative non-fiction as a muddled genre--truthful yet imagined, honest yet creatively constructed--its very existence depends upon veracity, the habitual observance of truth-telling. Creative non-fiction--as paradoxical as it may sound--refers to the representation of factual events in a compelling way. The memoir, a form of creative non-fiction, is as much concerned with the careful construction of recollected events as with honest representation of facts. But here the lined gets blurred. William Zinsser points out that in manufacturing a text, memoirists impose a “narrative structure on a jumble of half-remembered events” and with this “feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone” (Zinsser 6). In saying this Zinsser emphasizes the “craft” of memoir writing, the act of constructing powerful writing from that unreliable source we call memory. Hazy images of a time gone by have to be re-manufactured through a new focus, the way the mind wants to remember it.

But as Zinsser also reminds us, the art of memoir-writing lies in the “integrity of intention” (6) not in willful deception or deliberate misrepresentation of truth. Writers make decisions about what to write and what not to, carefully choosing details they feel the need to reveal while disregarding others. In this, the degree of manipulation of the remembered emotion--sadness or loneliness, brightness or darkness, love or lack of it—becomes a choice that is available to the writer. But the fact of love, or loneliness, or heart-break must retain its truth because a reader has abiding faith in the realness of the experience. Fictitious happenings do not belong in the memoir and no memoirist has the privilege of creating accounts of events that never happened. Ultimately this is what makes James Frey’s writing intentionally deceptive. Zinsser says that today “everyone has a story to tell and everyone is telling it” (3). What we need to remember is to tell it truthfully.

Works Cited
Dowd, Maureen. “Oprah’s Bunk Club.” The New York Times 28 January 2006, Section A, Column 6, Editorial Desk.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Bending the Truth in a Million Little Ways” The New York Times 17 January, 2006. Section E, Column 1, Critic’s Notebook.

Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998. pgs. 3-6


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