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Can Memoir Be Trusted?

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The best memoir disclaimer I've read comes from J. Marteen Troost, who begins Getting Stoned with Savages with the following:

Disclaimer: The author acknowledges that he is not Bob Woodward. Mr. Woodward is scrupulous with names and dates. This author is not. Mr. Woodward would never suggest that something happened in October when, in fact, it occurred in April. This author would. Mr. Woodward recounts conversations as they actually occurred. This author would like to do that, but alas, he does not excel at penmanship and he cannot read his notes. However, the author has an excellent memory. You can trust him.

Troost is one of my favorite writers. His memoirs are hilarious, self-effacing, and unique. What they are not, however, is entirely true. His disclaimer humorously and none-too-subtly reminds readers that memoir is not a genre of history. It is not -- like its fraternal twin, autobiography -- an attempt at offering a grand narrative truth. Memoir does not typically require research, and editors of memoir do not engage in extensive fact-checking. Memoir, as its Latin root indicates, is a selection of subjective, often partially forgotten, memories.

It is, in other words, a genre of storytelling. Memoirists are seeking to entertain as much as they are seeking to enlighten. Troost's fudging is par for the course, and readers seem to know that in memoir, narrative is given priority. Readers do not expect memoirists to be journalists, scrupulously keeping track of quotes, adhering strictly to timelines, or noting each and every detail. What matters, as Troost acknowledges, is trust.

This, of course, is no small matter. The scandals involving Margaret Seltzer, James Frey, Augusten Burroughs, and -- more recently -- Greg Mortenson remind us that while memoir is not history, it should not be fiction. Memoir lies somewhere in between.

This gray area, however, can be surprisingly tricky to define.

Some authors don't even make an effort to stay in the gray. Seltzer wrote that she was half a Native-American foster child who grew up running drugs for gangs in South Central. She's actually a rich white girl who grew up with her parents in the suburbs. Her only defense was that the experiences she wrote about in the first person were true for what the Times called some "close friends." (Self-serving and dishonest, yes. But for the truly despicable, the gold medal is reserved for fabricated Holocaust memoirs.)

Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is more subtle in its blurring of fact and fiction. Frey wrote, for example, that he spent 87 days in jail. He actually spent a few hours. At first, he defended the exaggeration as mere artistic embellishment. Was he safely in the gray? Ultimately, Frey was (rightly) eviscerated for his prevarication.

For Augusten Burroughs, the gray zone nearly required definition by a judge. Burroughs was sued for defamation by his foster family, whom he portrayed unflatteringly in Running With Scissors. Burroughs insists that he "did not embellish or invent elements" of his memoir. Nevertheless, he settled the lawsuit out of court. In addition, his Author's Note was changed to call the work a "book," rather than a "memoir."

(An interesting aside comes in the reaction of Burroughs's publisher, St. Martin's. Soon after the court settlement, they released Robert Leleux's The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. His disclaimer makes clear that Leleux is operating the gray zone: "This is the story of my Texas life. And while (essentially) true to my experience, I must warn that it often reads better (as in funnier, or happier) than it was lived. This service I've performed not merely for the sake of your sensibilities, but also for my art.")

So when does embellishment turn truth into a lie? How much does artistic license allow a writer to adjust a memory?

When, exactly, does memoir turn into fiction?

The answer to these questions turns, I think, on the purpose of each individual memoir. Troost is a comedy writer. The importance of dates is entirely beside the purpose of his writing. We read his books in part to learn about his travels, but mostly to laugh. I put him in the same category as David Sedaris. If Sedaris adjusts a line his mother mutters to him when he is wearing a fat suit and it makes me laugh, I don't feel deceived or cheated.

But if Barack Obama embellished parts of Dreams From My Father... well, this would be tragic. Politicians should be held completely accountable for every bit of their memoir because the stakes are too high to allow them any wiggle room.

Turn to another sort of memoir: if we discovered that Thoreau didn't live as "Spartan-like" as he portrays it in Walden, would we dismiss his book? I think not. We read Thoreau for his philosophy and the poetry of his writing. I have a similar reaction to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Manning Marable has recently shown to be full of embellishment.

This brings us to Greg Mortenson. As Pete Hessler pointed out recently in a provocative post for the New Yorker, Mortenson's memoir may be less a case of dishonesty, and more a case of arrogance, ignorance, or even sociopathic narcissism. He bluntly puts it this way: "It's clear that Mortenson is a deeply troubled individual."

As a memoirist myself, this drumbeat of scandal fills me with frustration. I worked for two years to craft the story for Kosher Chinese, and I think I ended up telling a great story without sacrificing any honesty.

But along with frustration, I feel empathy for the embattled memoirist. Writing Kosher Chinese required careful selection of the details I would explore, and the details I would ignore. I dive into themes of identity, food, and religion. I fill pages and pages with stories of my basketball team. But there's nothing in my memoir about the week my mom and dad visited China, or my trip with two friends to the Tibetan plateau. I've entirely omitted two of my major memories of my time in China.

Three years of my life was necessarily reduced to a few hundred pages, a few strands of the true three-dimensions that I actually lived.

Is it honest? Yes. Is it history? No. Ultimately, the memoirist must both entertain and keep the readers trust. Those who fail in either of these categories deserve criticism.