One after another these days we are seeing high profile memoirs proven to be falsified. The first in this latest series was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces which was exposed shortly after I published the first edition of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. I was angry. I had gone to a lot of trouble to make sure everything in my mother’s WWII memoir was true to the best of our knowledge, both personal and historical. Here was a man who seemed to have no qualms about passing off fabrications as the truth, looking Oprah (and her millions of viewers) in the eye and saying it was all real. Now we have Angel at the Fence by the Rosenblats who lied TWICE to Oprah, first in 1996 and then in 2008. Misha Defonseca can now write a memoir about how she faked her memoir about being raised by wolves (and who believed that in the first place?) and the lawsuits and the ridiculous circus of accusations ensuing. Other fakes include Love and Consequences (rich girl fakes being foster child running in gangs) by Margaret Jones, Augustin Burrough’s Running With Scissors (overactive imagination say the brother and mother), and UK lawyer Constance Briscoe’s Ugly which caused her mother to sue her for libel.
Of course, fake memoirs are not new. Go Ask Alice (1971) was said to be based on a real diary, The Education of Little Tree (1976) written not by an Indian but a white supremacist, A Child Called It (1993) by David Pelzer, called a “professional victim.” Why do they do it? Mostly for money and fame. A sensational true story sells better than sensational fiction. The Rosenblats wanted to “bring happiness to people” with their story and one might argue some of the others wanted to get a message out. The end result, however, is that all memoirs suffer from those who embellish too much in order to get published. All become tainted as readers wonder, “Is this one really true?” No one likes to be fooled into crying or empathizing over a fake. In the Rosenblat’s case they have provided fodder for Holocaust deniers.
While truth can be a difficult thing to pin down, there is a line in the sand which we should not cross. Is it the truth as you know it, as you have researched it, or are you being lazy in looking up the facts, or do you know in your heart that you are making something up. Life writing maven Sharon Lippincott explains this further in her blog post of January 11, discussing an Isabel Allende interview where she says that her memoirs “will always be somehow fictionalized.” In the end a memoir is how you remembered it to the best of your knowledge, hence the term “creative nonfiction.” Small details are not so important, like what you ate or the color of a room, and if you’re not sure about something bigger, simply write “As I remember,” or “I think,” or “I believe,” but please, don’t play us for fools. If you lie, someone will catch you.