March 29, 2006
In the wake of the controversy over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, let's take a moment to explore the realm of memoir vs. autobiography. The latter requires all the facts and the dates and the figures to be correct. The former is, in my way of thinking, a much looser literary form. Obviously, the "cult of Oprah" doesn't share that view. The increasingly self-righteous Ms.Winfrey didn't appreciate the loosey-goosey details swarming around Mr. Frey's who, what, where, and when. I'm a rare commodity: a gay man who doesn't worship at the shrine of Oprah. She's just so uptight these days! Was her need to reschedule Frey (and bring him to task on national TV) a call to arms for honesty in journalism or was it a need to justify her own naivety? Perhaps the Big O should be as angry with her own staff as she is with Frey. Face it, she just needs a good cheeseburger and a nice thick shake.
Anyway, many a flight of fancy has led to many an entertaining memoir. For example, the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee became the smash musical Gypsy. When the youthful Stephen Sondheim was composing the lyrics, he went to interview Miss Lee and kept quoting passages from her memoir to which she responded with a blank stare. Eventually he decided to ask her some of the basic questions he needed to pose. She nodded, smiled and giggled, but didn't give him much feedback. Finally, he asked her for a specific answer to the fundamental question, "Exactly how did you get your name?" She replied, "I've heard so many stories, I've forgotten which one is real. Just make something up!"
I mention this as a point of reference; not to call Gypsy Rose Lee a liar, but to demonstrate that the gist of her story was correct. Apparently, like many a whirlwind personality who's leading a mad dash of a life (that's worth writing about) she didn't waste a lot of time on obsessive accuracy. The ferocity and fun of her crazy stage mother, her criss-crossing the country in tacky vaudeville acts, and her hapless collision as a talentless youth with a burlesque stage made for great reading. And, ultimately, great theater.
Marcel Proust (who was gay back in the day) in Remembrance of Things Past rambles on in boxed volumes about his alienated youth. But he takes us to the same place a short story might have brought us on a much less circuitous route. Gay icon of yesteryear Mae West was in reality and short, dumpy, brunette from Brooklyn who stepped out of the shower every morning with about as much sex appeal as Tugboat Annie. She manufactured her persona as a screen siren, so you can bet the legendary sex-ploits in her memoir Come up and See Me are a bit padded (as was she in all the strategic places).
More recently, we've all been entranced by Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, first in book form and now on film. Filled with romance, splendor, and tender emotion, it evokes a wistful yearning for a time and a place no longer existent. The reality of a geisha's life was decidedly quite different: they were basically artful prostitutes trained in total subservience. Here's the saving grace: Golden's book was published as a novel.
The worst thing Frey did was to put the fear of God into other addicts who desperately need help, but might just avoid legitimate institutions of recovery because of the horror stories put forth as fact in A Million Little Pieces. Not since Marathon Man has the role of dentist as torturer been so graphically presented. Shame on you, James! To paraphrase Kafka, any memory is subjective, but authors are obliged to recreate scenes that deliver the truth as closely as possible. Otherwise you must label what you write as fiction. Except when it comes to your age, your weight, your intelligence level, your income or your adventures with plastic surgery. Memoir be damned — some things are sacred!