The “Reality” of Memoir: Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story

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Once a reader asked the late writer Lucy Grealy how she recalled so many details of her past for her memoir, Autobiography of a Face. She replied wryly, “I didn’t remember it, I wrote it. I’m a writer.”

Memoirists are not transcriptionists of their pasts, recalling conversations verbatim. They are artists, whose job is to interpret the lived history through an artistic lens. But we continue to rehash a cultural debate over what is and isn’t “real” in memoirs.

This is the problem that plagued Delphine de Vigan after the publication of her novel-cum-memoir-cum-autofiction-cum-(aren’t these labels becoming tiresome), Nothing Holds Back the Night. Though she admitted that much of the book was based on her family history, she also fictionalized aspects of their lives. She did not provide a side by side guide, a Nothing Holds Back the Night: Annotated, to confirm which aspects were true and which were created by her imagination. The book became a wild success, and in the maelstrom of the literary hype cycle, de Vigan was constantly asked: What was true? What was fabrication?

Readers ask these questions of memoirists constantly, and everyone takes a different approach in answering. Chris Kraus, on I Love Dick: “It all happened. There would be no book if it hadn’t happened.” Dani Shapiro: “When I write a book, I have no interest in telling all, the way I absolutely do long to while talking to a close friend.” De Vigan’s answer was to pen an entire volume that plays with the nature of the question.

Thus begins Based on a True Story (translated into English by George Miller), which, as the title implies, is somewhat based on the concurrent events in de Vigan’s life after the publication of Nothing Holds Back the Night, though to what degree the reader can only speculate. When the book begins, the narrator (also named Delphine) is on unsteady footing following her unprecedented success. Having her emotional innards on public display proved exhausting. Amid book tours, parties, signings, and speaking engagements, where the readers talk to Delphine as though her story is a mirror for their own, threatening letters begin to arrive from someone who claims to be a member of her family.

You probably think you’ve got away with it. Perhaps you think you’ve got away with it scot free, because your book is a so-called novel and you’ve changed some names. You may even think you can just pick up your miserable little life again. But it’s too late. You’ve sown hatred and you’ll reap your reward.

The pressure of the book tour, the sudden fame, and the threatening letters leave the narrator unable to start writing her next book. These difficulties are exacerbated by a relationship she begins with a woman we know only as L.

The book utilizes conventional memoir structure, and it is revealed within the prologue that L. will come to have a devastating effect on Delphine’s life: “I’d like to describe how L. came into my life, and in what circumstance. I’d like to describe precisely the context that enabled L. to invade my private sphere and patiently take possession of it.” Subsequent chapters narrate in painstaking, at times exhausting detail, just how L., who claims to be a ghostwriter for the French elite, took root in the narrator’s life.

The relationship evolves quickly from acquaintanceship to enamored friendship to codependency. Delphine frames this with guilt—“even now I find it hard to explain how our relationship developed so quickly and how, within a few months, L. came to occupy such a place in my life,” as though it were somehow illicit or perverse for her to develop an intimate friendship so quickly. But to me, it wasn’t particularly shocking.

Nobody bats an eye when a romantic relationship develops with alarming acceleration. Why don’t we offer the same generosity to friendship? I thought of the movie Bridesmaids, how quickly Rose Byrne’s character inserts herself into Maya Rudolph’s life, to the point of comic relief. There’s no explanation for these incendiary friendships—the chemistry just explodes. We try to impress new friend the exact same way we try to impress new lovers. We use the same tricks, the same flattery. We are full of the same fears.

The narrator knows that intimate friendship does not fall far from the tree of sexual intimacy. “A bit later, L. got up and started dancing again among the dozen or so people, slipping among them to face me. Today, and in the light of what happened, I do not doubt that this scene could be read as a seduction display and indeed that’s how it strikes me.” L. binds herself to the narrator from the instant they meet, and the narrator falls for the age-old trick of loving the person who puts you on a pedestal. But soon after the book illustrates how a friendship like this can develop, it exposes a dark underbelly.

L.’s behavior grows increasingly possessive and, well, creepy. Again, de Vigan notes the parallels to a romantic relationship: “If a man had said these things to me, I would instantly have thought it was an access of jealousy and brought it to a halt without further discussion.” When you get too close to someone poisonous, the lines between ‘friend’ and ‘lover’ become meaningless. Obsession is a disturbingly easy trap to fall into.

L. is like a creepy man who purposefully gets into relationships with women when they’re at their most vulnerable. She cuts off Delphine’s access to the world, she tries to erode Delphine’s trust in her friends and colleagues. L. reveals that she’s read everything that the narrator has ever written, offhandedly mentions texts that were seminal to Delphine’s artistic upbringing, offers to complete the narrator’s menial writing tasks, and unearths eerie ‘coincidences’ from their pasts.

The narrator was not lying when she said she would try to record the events as they happened. At times Based on a True Story reads more like a policeman’s logbook than a novel—its painstaking detail can grow laborious. It’s as though de Vigan is saying to readers who wanted more of the truth, “here, take the truth, in all its methodical detail,” a punishment for their obsessive curiosity. More fascinating than the minute-by-minute reporting of the escalating relationship with L. is the narrator’s riffing on her frustrations with her readers’ obsession with truth.

So it was true then; that was what people expected: the real, guaranteed by a label stamped on films and books like the red or organic label on food products, a certificate of authenticity. I thought that people only needed stories to interest them, overwhelm them, sweep them along. But I’d go it wrong. People wanted it to have happened somewhere; they wanted it to be verifiable. They wanted lived experience. People wanted to be able to identify, to empathise, and for that to happen, they needed reassurance about the goods; they demanded a basic level of traceability.

The narrator’s publisher, presumably responding to market pressures, pushes her to include more reality in her books. Audiences pester her by asking who was real, how conversations transpired. It’s maddening, and this book is the response.

As it turns out, what is real and not real is hard to verify. There’s no database of French ghostwriters against which to match the traits of L. (Don’t worry, I checked.) De Vigan took the frustrating responses to her work and produced a work that defies the ability to double-check its events.

Is L. a personification of the writer, her ballsier alter ego? Is it all a “narcissistic fantasy, an interpretive hallucination”? Is L. an allegory? Or is L. based on a flesh-and-blood human, and everything happened as it is laid out?

Based on a True Story elicits the very response that it claims to abhor—it makes its readers obsessed with what is true and what is made up in a literary work. It’s maddening—and I began to think that that was de Vigan’s goal. Readers may want to imagine the author as an exact copy of the narrator, but the author is a real person with a life outside the persona they’ve exposed to the public. Memoirists make the choice to turn their lives into a public document, but that isn’t an invitation to interrogate them about their livelihood and relationships. This book is a commentary on fiction, nonfiction, the ever-expanding space between the two, and how we approach that space, as writers and readers. It’s a literary thriller, and it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting life and literature become too entwined. It’s clear that Delphine has spent so much time writing, talking about writing, thinking about writing, and immersed in world of writing—this, as much as the influence of L., drives her to the perilous state in which she couldn’t put pen to paper.

Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by men on Twitter positing theories about the ‘deep state,’ but the narrator’s intense attachments to literature made me think of a ‘deep literature’ in our minds, the stories that shape us and our world views and how we interact with others. When, late in the novel, L. exploits Delphine through her work, she’s getting at the deepest part of her—who is an artist without her work? When Ke$ha was in a legal battle with her former manager and abuser, Dr. Luke, over the rights to her songs, I kept thinking: This isn’t just about her rights to her songs. This is about her right to her ability to live. Ke$ha can’t just go get a temp job to pay the bills; her art is her livelihood. When someone takes away that ability, especially for an artist who makes a living off of their creativity, they’re endangering the artist’s ability to live.

Early in the book, Delphine tells of a text exchange from early in her relationship with L.: “One evening in June, L. sent me a photo of a huge piece of graffiti in black and red, which she’d noticed on a grubby wall in the 13th Arrondissement. Someone had daubed at eye level: write yourself, you will survive.” Based on a True Story adds a caveat to that sentiment: you will survive, but you may be overwhelmed, scarred, irrevocably changed.

Becca Schuh is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts and literary criticism has recently been published in Bookforum, Electric Literature, 3:AM Magazine, and the Village Voice. She is working on a book about alternative education and identity, based on her time at the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies. Follow her on Twitter @tamingofdeschuh. More from this author →