The Heroic Lie: A Brief Inquiry into the Fake Memoir

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When I was about ten years old, I hit my older brother in the mouth with a baseball bat. We were standing around in a field, hitting pebbles with the bat, and I got him on my backswing. There was a lot of blood.

Although the blow was technically a mistake, I’ve always felt that I was seeking revenge for his bullying. My brother remembers it differently. He was told not to step into the path of my swing, but ignored the warnings.

Memory is not a recording device. It’s the past as filtered through the emotional needs of the present. In this sense, memory can be thought of as a creative act, though, crucially, an unconscious one.

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You will have heard, by now, of the curious case of Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea. As documented by the author Jon Krakauer, among others, Mortenson appears to have falsified vast swaths of his best-selling memoir, including a dramatic abduction by the Taliban.

Over the past decade, the fake memoir has become a genre unto itself. A few years ago, an Oregon writer named Margaret Seltzer wrote a fake memoir called Love and Consequences, about her years running drugs in South Central Los Angeles. Around the same time, Misha Defonseca wrote Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, in which she claimed to have lived with a pack of wolves, while wandering Europe in search of her parents. Defonseca was not even Jewish.

The list goes on.

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Every time one of these memoirs gets debunked, writers and critics debate what constitutes non-fiction. Often, there’s an argument put forward about something called “emotional truth,” which is supposed to provide moral cover for lying.

My definition of creative non-fiction is simple. It is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place.

The moment you start making up events that you know did not take place, you’re doing another sort of work. It’s called fiction.

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Fake memoirs are a symptom of the basic insecurity that plagues all writers: is my story worth telling?

It wasn’t enough for Mortenson that he tried and failed to climb a tall mountain, then met some villagers and decided to help build some schools for the local children. He had to gin up the truth.

I suspect he set about consciously refurbishing his story, and told himself he was doing so because a better story would bring in more donations for the kids. I’m willing grant that his motives for lying were, in part, noble.

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Here’s what Margaret Seltzer told The New York Times, when she was confronted about her lies: “…I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

The italics are mine.

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Is she making an excuse for lying? Yeah.

Is she also right? Probably.

Publishers have responded to declining readership by seeking books that include “author survivors,” inspirational figures the marketing people can dangle as interview bait. It’s not enough anymore to offer publishers a nuanced work of imagination. They’re looking for a pitch dramatic enough to resonate within the frantic metabolism of our news cycle.

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Years ago, when I worked for a newspaper in El Paso, I wrote a story about the press in Juarez, Mexico. I spoke very little Spanish and had no business working on such a story in the first place.

The guy who translated for me worked for a leftist weekly. He told me that one of the biggest papers in Juarez was funded, in part, by drug money, an allegation I included in my story.

It was an inexcusable moral breach, and my paper was nearly sued.

We’re all subject to this impulse. We’re all constantly exaggerating, amending, confabulating – trying to make our given story more worthy of being heard. But we also know when we’re lying.

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I’m pretty sure Senator Scott Brown, of Massachusetts, knows he’s lying in his new memoir, Against All Odds.

Time and again, Brown portrays himself vanquishing the violent, sexual predators who terrorized him during his youth. Here he is doing battle with a knife-wielding thirteen-year-old:

“As he closed his eyes, I raised the rock high over my head, drove it down into his face and head, and took off … I heard him howl in pain but I never looked back.” When the kid shows up on his doorstep, Brown stares him down.

The future Senator was seven years old at the time of this alleged heroism.

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There’s this funny thing that happens when we read a book, even one that bills itself as non-fiction. We suspend disbelief. We make this choice because we want from our stories a brand of heroism, of exalted possibility, that we don’t encounter in our actual lives.

What depresses me are the brands of heroism we choose to privilege. In all of these memoirs, the fake stuff is utterly, almost comically, cliché. It always involves lurid violence, which the protagonist valiantly withstands or transcends.

There’s a poverty of imagination in these works that reminds me of reality television, those contrived biospheres in which real people wind up assuming roles – the vixen, the cad, etc. – cribbed from a million yellowed scripts.

***

What about weakness? What about doubt and terror? Isn’t that where most of us spend our given hours? If we’re honest, I mean. What makes fake memoirs offensive isn’t that someone has lied to us, but that we consent to being lied to. We lie to ourselves.

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Some view the Mortenson affair as another overblown literary scandal, one of those rituals by which the Fourth Estate both makes hay and cleanses its conscience.

I’ll buy that. But it’s part of something larger, too: a radical shift in our relationship to the truth.

Leaders have always lied to their people. The ones who tell the most extravagant lies tend to do the best. What’s changed is our access to the truth, and our corresponding capacity for denial. The case for war in Iraq was built on lies. We all knew this. We all went along.

Politicians think nothing of lying, because there is no real political consequence to lying. Oh sure, the late night comics might kick you around for a few minutes. But that’s about it. Nobody investigates you. Nobody even tries to impeach you, unless you’re a Democratic president and you lie about an extra-marital affair.

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In a sense, the internet has made us all memoirists. We spend more and more time in front of screens, constructing our identities. Rather than building small communities of friendship in the real world, we seek the adulation – or at least the attention – of a million strangers.

We tell the stories that make us seem heroic, and suppress the ones that reveal our cowardice and cruelty. Our rhetoric becomes more provocative, dismissive. We type things that common decency would forbid us from saying in person.

Our cultural habits of thought and feeling have begun to ape the tabloid news in which we marinade. Mankind has always needed myths. We invent beliefs to protect ourselves from unbearable truths. But I can’t think of an era in which clearly demonstrable lies of self-interest have been so richly rewarded.

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I have no problem with David Sedaris goosing up his dialogue with a bit of drollery, as long as he’s making a good faith effort to reconstruct an exchange that actually took place. That’s his license as a humorist.

But writers who purport to be telling painful truths – like politicians speaking on the floor of the Senate – shouldn’t lie. And when they do, they should be held to account.

The problem isn’t that the truth is a slippery concept. The problem is that our cultural reverence for truth has eroded. It’s this erosion that has led us to ignore the scientific evidence of our own peril. It’s what allows an entire political party to subsist on innuendo and lies. And it’s what sends ambitious, insecure people such as Mortenson zooming into self-mythification.

He wanted to be heard. That meant turning away from the quieter, more terrifying province of truth.

***

When I was ten years old, I smashed my older brother in the mouth with a baseball bat. His memory says it was a mistake. My memory isn’t so sure. I was angry enough to want him dead. But I also worshipped him like a God. The truth isn’t one way or another. It’s not accidental or premeditated. It’s not evil or noble. The truth is I loved Dave but couldn’t make him love me back. That feeling never goes away. The truth is the blood.

***

“You Lie” rat by Banksy.


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →