Jonah Lehrer vs James Frey

In her Aug. 13 blog “The Ethics of Being a Nonfiction Writer” author Diana Raab explores the confusing, shifting and disappearing boundaries between fact and fiction in the scandals of Jonah Lehrer and James Frey.  This blog is in dialog with hers.

I, too, am troubled by the discrediting of James Frey and more recently Jonah Lehrer, authors exposed as liars when it was uncovered that they misrepresented events in Frey’s case and quotes in Lehrer’s that never existed.  I’m not a fan of either Frey or Lehrer, but not for the reasons they were discredited.  I find the work of both men inauthentic in the deepest sense, so I have no desire to defend them.  But I am concerned by the discourse about them: lumping of all nonfiction, as different as journalism and memoir, in the same basket.

Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works was ostensibly writing journalism.  He wasn’t trained as a journalist, but as a recent hire for the New Yorker he was expected to understand journalistic standards of verification. I frankly don’t care if somebody makes up a quote or changes around dates in a memoir to improve the narrative.  I do care if I think I am reading a work of journalism, and Lehrer’s attributing a quote to Bob Dylan that Dylan never said, and then lying about it is beyond sloppy journalism. Yet I am equally troubled by a kind of lie that runs through all Jonah Lehrer’s books, yet is considered acceptable (except in academic circles): he presents as original to himself the insights and life’s work of other authors.  He does not have the respect for other people and their contributions to acknowledge them as sources. For me leaving out sources is as much as an offense as making them up.

As I wrote in Your Life as Story, memoirists should not be held to journalistic standards of verification, so for me the treatment of James Frey as a pariah because he exaggerated and invented in a memoir is troubling in a different way.  Frey made up events that never happened.  Oprah was taken in, which made her mad, and the public, her choir, was taken in with her, and so a sledgehammer came down on all memoir. Certainly, Frey is not the first memoirist to exagerrate and and self-dramatize.  If this is a way to create the “objective correlative” to an emotional truth, I can accept that.  The problem for me was that Frey, an alcoholic, was still lying to himself and giving it to us as if it were the emotional truth.  I could not read more than the first chapter without feeling it was a con job, but then I am a close reader of literary texts and have been doing it for forty years.  When the forged Hitler diaries were published, I could tell immediately by textual clues that they were fake, but that is because I have done close readings of thousands of authentic diaries.

I will leave the question of lying journalists to journalism experts; as for memoirists I believe what matters is what Anais Nin called “the donee,” the writer’s contract with the reader. Are you writing an autobiographical novel or a single slice memoir capturing a particular place and moment in history?  The expectations for each in terms of verifiable facts are different. (You will find a full list of the subgenres of memoir with examples of each in Your Life as Story and a partial list on this website.)

Once you understand the expectations of your genre and subgenre, and you have been honest with yourself about how factual you have been, and communicated that to your reader in a “note to the reader” or within the work, I think you will have addressed the ethical concerns of memoir. There are readers who will choose not to read a memoir that is not completely factual; there are other readers who want the authenticity of a story that is as true as you can make it, while serving the demands of dramatic interest.  An informed reader can make a choice and will not feel conned.


Continuing the theme of How are you different after completing a memoir? author Emma Stephens offers a powerful guest blog:

Until a few years ago, reading memoir was about as appealing as sitting next to that uncle at a family reunion who wants to tell you all about his latest trip to the podiatrist.  “And there was an accident on the highway, and then they didn’t have me in the computer, and then…”  (You get the drift.)  Of the memoirs that hit the bestseller list, I assumed the protagonist was an extraordinary survivor of life’s injustice whose story was merely stumbled upon by a ghostwriter.  Realistically, who’d have thought girls like “Precious” would live to tell the tale.  The idea of writing a memoir myself was even more alien.  What did I really have to say?

The seed was planted when I embarked on a personal photo album project.  I began phoning relatives for additional pictures, accompanied by their memory of the occasion; most featuring my sister as the main character and I, her shadow.  This would become very relevant later.  I had never really detached from her in adulthood as I tried to pretend, subconsciously avoiding inspection of how significantly our paths had diverged.  As I scrapbooked my childhood (ours, really), I thought constantly of how different her version of the story would be.  There were so many unanswered questions; so much confusion.  I wanted to write it all down – at least how I experienced it – but it was like staring up the side of a steep mountain.  And I didn’t have a happily ever after.  Thus, it seemed to belong only in my head.  While my jumble of dysfunctional family rants always cracked people up, I longed for a true journey’s end.  One day I’ll write my story… I told myself.  …when I reach the proverbial finish line.  Of course, that would be at my death, but I was still looking for some kind of justification – that culminating event that causes everything before it to make sense.

And I was completely missing the point.

Many years later, during a period of obsessive spring cleaning, I dusted off my CD’s and vowed to listen to everything that, at least at one time, I loved enough to own.  Music is a powerful mood-inducer and often a time warp.  “Neil Young Unplugged” was my favorite album when I first moved into that snowy Rocky Mountain cabin with no plumbing at the age of seventeen.  The collection of tunes summoned ghosts of old lovers or the thrill of driving for the first time.  I could even smell my grandparents’ kitchen on Maple Street when I played bluegrass music.  The fleeting recollections were not enough; I sought out a pencil and notebook, lest these musical triggers fail me one day.  Being unemployed forced upon me the spare time to keep up with this seemingly useless new hobby of writing.  Inadvertently, I had tackled the daunting task.

Each little slice of the story inspired another, as though I was being lured by a romance that I hoped would never end.  I created a list of all my previous addresses (there were a lot); each one sparking a dominant memory and chain reaction.  My thoughts flowed in ink, not out of relevance to the big picture but rather the joy of remembering and retelling.  However, when I arranged the separate stories chronologically, so much about my life didn’t make sense.  There were huge gaps.  Dots that just didn’t connect.  I decided it would have to remain a collection of essays since it was becoming disturbingly clear that my life had no intentional path.  I was just a pinball in a machine.  This is where the personal transformation began to take root.  I tried to think of how to explain to a reader, for example, how I went from being a pre-medical student to a wanna-be Hollywood actress, but I couldn’t come up with a reasonable excuse.  Finally I resolved, since it would never be read, there was no sense in applying a sugar-coating.  The truth is, there was nothing logical or noble about many of my choices, and the pattern revealed itself that my life’s woes were mostly self-inflicted.  Fear had always been my biggest motivation for perseverance but also repeatedly kept me from allowing myself to succeed.  This was a painful conclusion in itself, and at times I had to stop typing because the honest reflection on my own mistakes was too much.

Once I even convinced myself that writing was bad for me.  Uh-huh.  I was certain it was causing too much emotional distress and must be stopped.  I refer to this struggle in the book as a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it led to the acknowledgement that I had even withheld truths from my own therapist.  But somehow I knew, if I could be honest with myself, I’d find cleansing in the murky waters.  The self-criticism was powerful, but I found solace in knowing that the finished product was for my eyes only.  It would not be a display of my degrees and trophies and ribbons or, for that matter, a heroic account of survival – rather, a true story of life’s adventure and a search for meaning from a real girl.  If necessary, I would find a quiet place by the river and dispose of it page by page downstream.  Unexpectedly, it was in that story that I found the acceptance I never got from my mother, the closure I needed with my sister, and the self-love that I had futilely sought from others.

Miraculous is the only word I can think of to describe the evolution that took place within.  This did not happen suddenly upon its completion.  In fact, the first time I read the book straight through, I became ill.  Sharing it with others was even more difficult, but in the end, I recognized it as part of the healing process.  After decades of chasing redemption, it was in the abyss that I found my true self.  Giving a shape to my life will forever remain the oasis I had been crawling toward.

By Emma J. Stephens