Monday, June 6, 2011

Want to Write a Memoir? If so, Be Honest!

What is the memory capacity of the human brain? This might be a question some of us think about from time to time, or perhaps you're one of those who doesn't remember to think about much at all. According to Scientific AmericanPaul Reber - a professor of psychology at Northwestern University - says:
The brain's exact storage capacity for memories is difficult to calculate. First, we do not know how to measure the size of a memory. Second, certain memories involve more details and thus take up more space; other memories are forgotten and thus free up space. Additionally, some information is just not worth remembering in the first place.
When it comes to writing a memoir, sometimes, it seems, that fudging our memories means more money in the end. If you are planning to write your life story down for all to read, keep in mind that those who lie about their pasts tend to (a) Still be read about today and (b) Carry a never-ending shame when it comes to a story that should have been slapped with a "fiction" label in the first place.

Here are some of the more notoriously failed (?) memoirs filled with a lot of fibbing and a thin (if any) thread of truth:
A Rock and a Hard Place: 
One Boy's Triumphant Story

by Anthony Godby Johnson
A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story is the heartwrenching "memoir" by Anthony Godby Johnson. That is if Anthony Godby Johnson had existed. When the book first came out in 1993 it was described as an autobiography of a boy who'd survived an abusive childhood with parents who repeatedly beat and raped him. Questions were raised when several magazines and journalists attempted to interview Anthony, but only got through to his adoptive mother, Vicki Johnson. Only Vicki had ever actually "seen" Anthony, therefore leading many to suspect the boy never existed in the first place. In the end, many suspected the story to be a mere fabrication of Vicki Johnson's imagination.
Note to self: If I'm going to completely create all my characters from scratch, then I might as well avoid calling it an autobiography.

A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey

This story is now touted as the semi-autobiographical memoir by James Frey. This is the story of a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser rehabilitating through a 12-step program. Now, if you haven't heard the brouhaha over Frey's little book (and who hasn't), then visit Oprah's website. She flogged him royally on her show back in 2003 (and forgave him just a few weeks ago in one of her farewell episodes), after being forced to see that the author had pretty much elaborated on many aspects of his so-called "memoir." Note to self:  No one likes to be made a fool, including Oprah.

Three Cups of Tea
by Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson's 2006 memoir has recently come under attack by 60 Minutes. The story states that in 1993, to honor his dead sister, Mortenson attempted and failed to reach the summit of K2 (the second largest mountain peak in the world). He got separated from his party and ended up in the small town of Korphe. The non-profit organization Mortenson set up afterwards has come under fire for mismanagement of funds. Many of his early backers (including President Obama who donated $100,000 to his charity that promotes education in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan) have cried foul over the story Mortenson wrote. According to *Entertainment Weekly, his memoir "has fallen under suspicion, particularly passages about finding the Korphe village and being captured by the Taliban." Note to self: Don't make up the story, make up the charity, and then use all the money on myself.

Love and Consequences:
A Memoir of Hope and Survival

by Margaret Seltzer
I read a blurb about the hoax behind this wonderful little gem of a story (sarcasm intended) about a year or so ago when I learned that all copies of this "memoir" were being recalled due to the fact that the whole story was essentially a work of fiction. According to Wikipedia, this is what they have to say about Margaret Seltzer's book:
Her first book, Love and Consequences:  A Memoir of Hope and Survival, about her alleged experiences growing up as a half white, half Native American foster child and Bloods gang member in South Central Los Angeles, was proven to be fictitious. She actually was fully white, grew up with her biological parents in the upscale San Fernando Valley community of Sherman Oaks and attended Campbell Hall, an affluent Episcopalian day school in the North Hollywood area of Los Angeles.
Note to self:  If I'm planning on creating a completely different story from the life I've lived, then perhaps I should just call it a work of fiction.

As humans, we all have what James Frey coined as "individual recollection." Our recollection of a given situation may not be like that of another individual who experienced the same event. Facts can be checked, but in the end it does boil down to how and what we remember. As Reber stated in the quote above, we tend to forget certain memories, freeing up that extra space in our brains. But if we want to revisit that fuzzy or forgotten memory how do we go about putting it into words? Should we make it up as we go along or, perhaps, even make it a blatant lie just for the sake of putting a well-written "nonfiction" story on the page? As you can see from the "memoirs" I've highlighted in this article, those lies can bring about a notorious sort of fame one may never live down in his/her lifetime.

How about for you? Can you think of any memoir you've read that turned out to be mostly false? How did that make you feel as the reader? Perhaps you're writing your own memoir. Are you tempted to slip a few fabrications in just to enhance the story?

Be sure to stop by The Random Book Review and check out what I've read this week!

* This quote can be found in the May 6, 2011 issue, #1153, in the article "The Biggest Book Hoaxes of all Time."


  1. "If I'm planning on creating a completely different story from the life I've lived, then perhaps I should just call it a work of fiction."

    My thoughts exactly, Sister Mary. My assumption is that these authors thought they had a better chance at selling their books if they embellished the truth and made it more dramatic. Perhaps they thought if they called it "fiction" it would get lost among thousands of novels. (After all, people like stories that are *truly* based on real events--the whole car accident scenario.) And maybe because half of it was true (probably less than that) they thought they could call it "memoir."

    Maybe in Frey's case, his book sold more after the Oprah scandal (it's possible that people wanted to read it to know what was the big deal with the book.) But in the long run, it hurt his credibility, and it may have ruined his career. Does anybody know if he's published since?

    Great post!

  2. I second Lorena: great post! (And thanks, Lorena, for introducing me to this divine blog)

    "[...]if we want to revisit that fuzzy or forgotten memory how do we go about putting it into words?"

    Great question, Mary Mary, especially for someone like me with a notoriously bad memory. What do I do when I want to give my readers a sensory experience yet I can't remember the basic details? If I force my memory long enough, I start coming up with colors, sounds, details... but I can never be sure if those details are memories or my imagination filling in the blanks.

    Your post also reminded me of fiction writers who look down upon fiction writing that is heavily autobiographical because, allegedly, that's not real fiction. Heavily autobiographical fiction seems to them like a shortcut, like the easy way out. Have you run into that?

    The last thing I want to mention is another quirky thing about memory. After writing fictionalized accounts of events that actually happened, I can no longer remember what is fiction and what is not! Next time I write that type of fiction, I'm going to have to write down a separate account of what actually happened to keep things straight in my mind.

  3. HA! Great comments!! (and, also, yuck to the authors. the world has enough real sadness.)

  4. Lorena, I think you make a good point with the "car accident scenario." Anymore, it seems like people enjoy a good nonfiction read and, more often than not, memoirs. As a writer, it is a way to find footing in an overloaded market, especially if you have a story that is unique. When each of the "memoirs" above were published, they were probably seen as shocking stories that would immediately draw readers and sales.

    As to Frey, he has been published since and actually owns his own publishing company (he is the proud owner of rights to I Am Number Four). He says he's learned his lesson with lying, and let's hope he has!

    Raquel, Memory changes so much that my personal belief is to take every memoir out there with a grain of salt. Besides, most of the time how do we even know when an author is telling the truth? As I said, other people experience our memories differently if they are there with us.

    As to other authors looking down upon the semi-autobiographical fiction authors, I have heard it both ways. Some people think it's great when someone uses their own life to glean info and events for their novel. But then, like you said, there is the flipside. If I can think of any good examples, I'll let you know! Thanks for stopping by and welcome to the Sisterhood!

    Erica, I can't agree more! Who needs authors like these when there is so much real grief in this world? Why should we read other's lies? It's just sad if you ask me.

  5. Very interesting post. Obviously these authors are borderline swindlers, but on behalf of bona fide memoir authors, memory can be very tricky. Especially when it comes to things that happened a long time ago. In her “We Always Wore Sailor Suits”, Suni Agnelli includes a preface where she says that in the book she tells things about family and friends that she was told and always believed to be true. And I think that’s legal because she is describing her childhood and youth and the way she perceived those around her, not the way they really were.

    I remember in the 90’, during the Serbo-Bosnian conflict, that a large publishing house (that shall remain unnamed) published a journal supposedly written by a Sarajevo teenage girl. The so called journal sounded very phony, sort of a Bosnian Anne Frank’s Diary.

  6. I confess to reading a Chelsea Handler book not too long ago, and she admits she makes up most of her stuff. I'm not sure how she gets away with calling it something other than fiction? A group of her friends and family members recently released a book called "Lies Chelsea Handler Told Me" about *their* perspective. But it's still a Chelsea Handler book so I think it's basically a CH promo.

    I agree with the general consensus here that memory is really slippery. For a really interesting exploration of just *how* slippery, listen to this: (I never pass up a chance to promote RadioLab!) It's relevant to the discussion because they show how memories we're quite certain are accurate turn out to be deeply incorrect. So what can a memoir writer do? It helps if she's been keeping a journal, of course, but I'd say it's also a buyer beware thing: readers should not expect memoirs to be terribly accurate.

    I think Lorena was spot-on when she said that people want to market their work as memoir rather than fiction in order to differentiate themselves. If I tell a story of an elephant that walked into my house and started tap-dancing, it's going to be a much more amazing story if it really happened than if it was fiction. We are more fascinated by real stories, so the motivation for a writer to say, "this really happened to me!" is high. Unfortunately, this means we get a lot of liars out there. :(

    I wonder if all the high profile cases of memoir-writers caught lying will help dissuade people from doing that? I mean, it's one thing to make a real scene more dramatic by fluffing it up a bit; but if you invent entire scenes and populate them with real people, there's a good chance you'll be caught.

  7. p.s. If I find out Jeannette Walls lied about The Glass Castle I'll be very sad. I really loved that book.

  8. Violante -- I like the example you give about Agnelli's memoir. Unfortunately, most people out there reading memoirs take these stories at face value. They believe a memoir to speak the truth and when they find out they've been duped, they are outraged. If it was made mandatory that the author divulge factual issues right from the beginning (just as many historical writers do) then things would probably turn out better in the end.

    Stephanie -- I've only heard you talk about The Glass Castle, but yes, it would be a crying shame if it turns out most of it is made up. I've never cared for Chelsea Handler ( to me, someone professing to have slept her way to the top is not a pro towards me wanting to pick up one of her books.) and it really doesn't surprise me she makes up her stories. She's one of those in it for the shock value to the reader.

    Ah, the slippery-slope of memory!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  9. Oh wow! Great post and excellent discussions in the comments! What a great site. I look forward to more.

    As for memory, what do I know about reality? I live in a fantasy for Pete's sake. Wanna know what I'm doing tonight? Talking to a demon whisperer in hell. Who would believe that if I wrote a memoire? But that is the plan.

  10. On diaries and memoirs.
    I was reading that one of the arguments of those who claim he Diary of Anne Frank to be a forgery is that it was “doctored” by author and editors. Now, Anne always used pseudonyms for characters in her journal because she was afraid that if the Nazis got hold of the manuscript they would find those who aided her family. Around 1944, she writes that she has begun editing her text after hearing in the BBC hat all diaries written during the conflict might become publishable material after the war. He father Otto Frank cut chunks of material (that he deemed too personal) before the diary’s first printing in Holland, in 1947. Most of that material has been added to later editions.
    Anne Frank and her dad had motives to edit her work, but I was shocked to hear that writer-philosopher Smone De Beauvoir had lied on her memoirs. Between 1958 and 1972, when she was already a legendary figure of French letters and an icon of the feminist movement, SDB published four volumes of her memoirs. Obviously one would expect complete candor from someone who promoted free love and the idea that women should have complete control over their bodies and sexualities, and yet… In 1971, De Beauvoir had signed a petition for the legalization of abortion in France. Supposedly the petition was signed by famous women who, by signing, were publicly announcing having undergone abortions themselves. But in her memoirs, the writer never mentions having aborted. In the second volume of her memoirs The Prime of Life, DB is very open about her loss of virginity in 1930 and how she enjoyed her sexual relationship with Sartre. Recent research claims that she only achieved coital orgasm with American novelist Nelson Algren with whom she had an affair in 1949.
    In The Prime of Life she talks about how close she was with her high-school students, and gives the impression that those girls became sort of surrogate “daughters” to her. In fact, they were her lovers, and she made a habit seducing underage girls, some of whom she shared with Sartre. Eventually, after a mother made a complaint, she was fired from her teaching post. But SDB, who at the time of the memoirs had campaigned for the annulment of age of consent restrictions in France, never mentions this fact. When she talks about her dismissal she makes it sound as if the accusations were groundless. Further hypocrisy is that when describing that period he life, she mentions a much older female colleague trying to seduce her, and how repulsed and shocked Simone was by the attempt.

  11. Violante -- That's very interesting what you've shared about SDB. It has a creep factor to it when you realize she was a pedophile, and one unwilling to admit to it. That's the way those type of people tend to be -- they find nothing wrong with what they are doing even though it's really sick on so many levels. I've heard the debates about Anne Frank's diary. Again, I think it's that grain of salt you have to take with each memoir read. I think it's one of the easiest markets where an author can get away with twisting facts and then calling it nonfiction. One reason I never read celebrity memoirs is because every one of them is trying to outdo the other. Most of their stories are crap anyway.

    Tanya -- We're happy to have you along and I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

  12. In truth she was not a pedophile (the girls were 15 or 16 that is known as ephebobilia) the age of consent in France is 15, but it was an abuse of authority. What surprises me is that most people in her circle knew and said nothing.There ae bridges and awards in France named after SDB and she is stil a feminist icon. I would understand and excuse if she fell for one of her students, but apparently she seduced about three, while still having a sexual relationship with Sartre, and with one of his male students.Moreover when she was about 60 years old, she adopted legally a college girl named Sylvie Le Bon. It makes you wonder.


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