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 American, Paul 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
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.
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.
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."