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How true is that memoir?

By Randy DotingaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2006

As he wrote a memoir about being an abused child and adult criminal, Joe Loya didn't feel the need to embellish anything, he says. In fact, he felt the urge to do the exact opposite.

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"There were things that I thought there was no way people would believe," Mr. Loya says.

He ultimately left out some of the more outrageous facts about the 673-pound inmate who gave Loya's acclaimed 2004 memoir the title: "The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber."

When it comes to such detail, "it's enough to tell a little bit," he says. "We can't write every story that ever occurred in our lives."

Indeed, no one wants to read an 8,000-page memoir that pores over each waking moment. But now, the controversy surrounding James Frey's bestselling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," is raising questions about how factual even the most carefully written memoirs are.

"The memoir is a strange kind of performance. It's halfway between fiction and testimony," says Brian McHale, a professor at Ohio State University who studies literary hoaxes. "Anybody in his right mind knows that a memoir is unreliable."

Some memoirs contain more embellishment or fiction than others, however. Last week, uncovered a number of seeming untruths and exaggerations in "A Million Little Pieces," Mr. Frey's 2003 memoir about his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. Among other discrepancies, Frey apparently spent just a few hours in jail - not three months, as he writes in the book. (Random House will provide refunds to disgruntled readers, as is their standard practice.)

Frey and Oprah Winfrey, who promoted the memoir last year through her book club, defended "A Million Little Pieces" and said the redemptive power of the book remains unscathed.

Others in the literary world have expressed outrage, including Mary Karr, whose memoir about her dysfunctional family, "The Liar's Club," has spawned many imitators. "My experience is there's no way you can manufacture events and find the truth," Ms. Karr says. "Great memoirs don't take bizarre experiences and make them more bizarre and outrageous. They take bizarre experiences and make them familiar. That's the power."

But some find that power through the techniques of fiction. Indeed, like novelists, many memoirists write pages of dialogue, even if the actual conversations took place decades earlier. They often create composite characters, collapse time, and fill scenes from long ago with lush detail.

"You're taking the highlights of your life. It's a work of art, it's selective, it's subject to memory," says memoirist Lili Wright, author of "Learning to Float" (2000). "A memoir is art, it's literature. It's not journalism, it's not a documentary."

For many memoirists, balancing reality with the art of writing is difficult.

"Every second of the process, you're confronting questions about ethics and the boundaries of what's true and not true," says Nancy McCabe, author of 2003's "After the Flashlight Man."