Truth Will Tell

Truth Be Told

By now, we’re all familiar with Oprah’s public flogging of James Frey. It’s been covered ad nauseum in the press. Certainly, for many people it has awakened a wicked sense of schadenfreude, that someone who was literally elevated to millionairehood by the accident of Oprah’s taking a liking to the story being told, has been brought so low. Whether Frey deserves the kind of praise for his writing that she initially bestowed on him is ultimately not for me to say. I know what I like, and I have accepted that the < ahref="">books that I find deserving of praise are not the stuff of New York Times bestseller lists. It’s doubtful you’ll ever find a book that set me on fire listed at 30 percent off at Target.

But I’ve found the Frey saga fascinating. I don’t feel duped: I never read the book. Oprah’s choices have been fairly predictable. She is someone who likes a redemption narrative. Redemption narratives are great—who doesn’t like a protagonist who gets to rise from the dead—but life is seldom like that. The people I know who have come back from the pit tell amazing tales of suffering, but I have yet to meet a single one whose post-horror life has been all sweetness and joy. No pretty packages. No neatly tied up endings. Life simply goes on. And on. But as a consequence, I tend to prefer novels or creative non-fiction where it’s not clear what lies in store for the main character other than more mess. Mess, like everything else, is cyclic.

I have found myself wondering at the vitriol behind Oprah’s response. A lot of commentators have speculated that Oprah felt her reputation was damaged, that her public castigation of Frey—calling him a liar to his face—were the remarks of a woman who felt it necessary to assert that none of this was her fault, that she had been “duped

Lorraine's picture

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JJ Ross's picture

AMEN, she said

AMEN, she said without irony (well, okay, sincerely AND with irony) . . . my view is here. Reading yours was joyful:

And I’ve been bummed that there hasn’t been more analysis of Frey’s memoir from the point of how memory is itself, largely made up. The discussion that has taken place has facetiously suggested a rating system to indicate when a memoir is veering into fiction, but there hasn’t been much discussion of how none of us, even the ones with sterling integrity, do not have unmitigated access to the reality of our experiences.

Which is not to say that the events that are recounted never happened. But our understanding of what happened, the way we tell others of our experience, is an act of construction. . .


Lorraine's picture

it's funny

That we both decided to post on this within a few minutes of one another. Must be something in the zeitgeist.

NanceConfer's picture

Truth Will Tell

I'm very glad I followed the link here -- two of many things that made me think --

No pretty packages. No neatly tied up endings. Life simply goes on. And on. But as a consequence, I tend to prefer novels or creative non-fiction where it’s not clear what lies in store for the main character other than more mess. Mess, like everything else, is cyclic.

Cyclic? Not a regular kind of cycle, certainly. Just a constant possibility.

But it does seem that that search for "the right answer" -- the answer that will put all of life's normal ups and downs -- cyclic or not Smiling -- to an end . . . if only I take the right course, have the right job, worship at the right pew, send the kids to the right school . . . all this searching for the talisman that will make everything safe and easy . . . that's where we stop thinking and start wishing/believing and stop having any room to make right choices.

But I do not read memoir expecting to be able to know exactly what happened. I accept that I’m being told a story—a story that is shaped by the storyteller in response to the limits of language, the influence of ideology, the desire to make meaning out of events.

Brava! Yes! Getting what we can out of a story is so much more valuable that tossing it aside because it may not be historically accurate. Especially if it's a "message" sort of story.

Or just see the way a "white woman" of a certain era presents herself -- even in her own diary. That tells us about her as mush as her words do.


JJ Ross's picture

Constructing Meaning As We Go

As moms, we know children construct meaning from events as they go along, in ways that depend on who they are talking to - just ask a child who ate the last cookie, or why his dog suddenly has a bald patch and where are the scissors?! The answers will depend (most passionately!) on what the child believes you may believe, and what he or she WANTS to believe, and not much on evidence, objectivity or looming jurisprudence.

Men -- well, husbands at least -- are like this. They quite truly believe we'd rather have a lie we can believe, than a truth we (and they) would all prefer to downplay. (Ah, there's a thread for more thought - downplaying and playing up truth.) Our girlfriends are like this too. They temper their truths and calibrate their lies with astonishing sensitivity and responsiveness to their surroundings and relationships. I have been told lies with far more true love and uplifting beauty in them than the clearest, most factual honesty for my own good -- haven't you?

Which gets me thinking: whenever some purist or literalist rejects the relevance of interdependent environments, circumstance, backstory and relationships, how much actual meaning can any "truth" they muster possibly claim, and where would it come from?

C.ReidSmith's picture

Winfrey, Losefrey

I'm not going to lie — I only read half of your post. But the first part is the most important part (to me at least) because, well, it's exactly what we studied in class. Hurrah! I think the only real tragedy of this whole matter is the fact that people actually pay such attention to fucking Opera. But that's another story (and what a laughable one it is). Anyhoot, yeah, it's like I used to say in class, there's a LIMIT when it comes to making stuff up....And, personally, I think you can make up a lot in a memoir. Just don't get caught, buttmunch! Oh, and the fact that Oprah followed up Jame's Frey's folly with Night is just bad business. I mean, obviously, now you will have certain people who will try and question the integrity of Night. And, to be honest with you, Elie Weisel is just too fucking old and too fucking accomplished to have to deal with that.

Though here's a question for you: do you think that any part of Night was fictionalized? I'm not trying to say that it was, I'm simply trying to play devil's advocate. Regardless, what do you think?

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