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How true is that memoir?

(Page 2 of 2)

Some authors consult their journals and diaries. Others, like Ms. Karr, check with people featured in their memoirs and ask them to sign releases stating the books are accurate. This is a good idea, Karr says, not least because "most of the people in my family are armed."

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In the larger picture, Karr says such consultations help keep her honest. "For me, the greatest pressure is to tell the truth to the best of my ability, knowing that it will be corrupt, and I'll forget things, and I'm self-serving."

In addition to fact-checking, some memoirists warn readers about the pitfalls of memory.

In his groundbreaking memoir "This Boy's Life," author Tobias Wolff notes that he and his mother disagree over the attractiveness of a dog in the book. He allows some disputed details to stand "because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell."

It's important to be clear and upfront with readers, says Patricia O'Toole, author of the 2005 biography "When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House." "You have to let the reader know what your game is. If you're telling the reader it's the way it really happened, it ought to be the way it really happened."

Frey offers no disclaimer in "A Million Little Pieces," and there's no indication that his publishers wanted one. In fact, publishers have traditionally been more concerned about libel than accuracy in memoirs, says Charlotte Abbott, senior editor at Publishers Weekly. "They don't undergo the same scrutiny as a history or current-events books," she says.

Frey could have sold his book as a novel, and some reports suggest that he tried to do that at first. But nonfiction, Ms. Abbott says, tends to sell better.

Author Ms. Wright hopes people won't lose faith in memoirs. "The reader's with you until proven otherwise, until that trust is broken," she says. "With good reason, readers should trust memoir writers. Most people are doing it the right way."

A brief history of hoaxes in memoirs

1977: "The Education of Little Tree" tells the supposedly autobiographical story of a half-Cherokee boy. The book becomes a smash hit in the young-adult market, but the author's real name is exposed, along with the fact that the memoir is fiction.

1983: A German magazine publishes excerpts from what are said to be the diaries of Adolf Hitler. The diaries turn out to be fake.

1993: Anthony Godby Johnson, allegedly a teenage boy suffering from AIDS, writes a wrenching memoir called "A Rock and a Hard Place" to popular and critical acclaim, but journalists are unable to confirm his existence.

1994: A memoir called "My Own Sweet Time" appears in Australia, supposedly written by an aboriginal woman who was raised by whites. The author was actually a white man.

1995: The critically acclaimed "Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood 1939-1948" appears, tracing the author's life as a Polish and Jewish child during the Holocaust. But journalists unmask the author as an imposter reportedly born in 1941.