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When Is Lying in Memoir Acceptable? 3 Key Issues

Categories: Craft & Technique, Guest Post, Memoir, Memoir Writing & Memoir Examples.

Today’s guest post is from Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers. Visit her site, or find out more about her book.

They crop up like weeds in the literary garden, those memoirs that lie. James Frey invented some details of his life and wildly exaggerated others. Greg Mortenson and his co-writer turned two events that happened a year apart into a single, dramatic episode. They also claimed Mortenson had been imprisoned by the Taliban, which others claim never happened.

Then there are entirely fake memoirs—lies from beginning to the end. The international best-selling memoir Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, for example, told a riveting tale of the author’s escape from the Warsaw ghetto to safety among a pack of wolves. It would have made a great novel; none of it was true.

When memoir falsehoods come to light, readers feel betrayed. They expect the truth, and they should. When a memoirist writes, “This happened to me,” readers should be able to trust that it did. Lying about what happened violates that trust. It’s that simple. 

It’s also more complicated. Unlike news articles, another fact-based genre (we hope), memoirs give us more than the facts. As memoir writers, we’re crafting a literary work. We’re also relying on memory and our own interpretation of events. All three factors make truth in memoir a complex business.

Still, I often hear claims that dismiss outright falsehoods in memoir as trivial. They don’t really matter, these people say, for one of the following reasons:

  1. In a sense, all writing is fiction. Writers aim to tell a great story, and by altering facts, they’re only making it better.  
  2. Memory is always inaccurate, so memoir is never true.   
  3. It might not be factually true, but it’s emotionally true.  

All three claims are right, up to a point. But when it comes to lying in memoir, they’re also wrong. Here’s where they’re right and where they’re not.

Claim One
A Literary Work Is Always Fiction

Why It’s True
Real life is always messier than literature. It doesn’t have a tidy, narrative arc, other people are more complicated or unknowable than we depict them on the page, and many things that happen aren’t worth telling or don’t add to the point of our tale. 

Like fiction writers, we craft memoir through selecting, organizing, structuring and shaping bits and pieces from a giant pile of options. We create a meaningful through-line based on our own interpretation of events, and promote our own point of view. We create accurate but not verbatim dialogue. Some memoirists even create composite characters, change names or locations, or compress multiple incidents into one—all to create a more compelling story (and sometimes to protect others’ privacy or avoid getting sued). 

In this sense, memoir does “fictionalize” life. 

Why It’s Not
This claim confuses two kinds of invention: literary invention, and the invention of facts.

Let’s go back to that big pile of options we get to pick from while writing.  That pile should contain only things that really happened and details that pass the fact test.  I was never captured by the Taliban—so that claim doesn’t go in my pile.

In other words, inventing a story from raw data is not the same as inventing the data.  

And when we’ve significantly altered things—like compressing timelines or creating composite characters, we have an obligation to let readers know.  If Mortenson had offered a disclaimer about compressing events, he would have landed in a smaller puddle of hot water.

Claim Two
Memory Can’t Be Trusted, So Memoir Is Never True

Why It’s True
Memory works in mysterious ways. It deletes key details, shuffles timelines, rearranges or fudges the facts. It can dim or grow bolder with time.  

Different people may recall the same event in wildly different ways.  How often have you been right in the middle of telling a great story at the dinner table, only to have a friend or sibling pipe up in protest, “That’s not how it happened!” or “That’s not what I said!”  

Memory doesn’t store an exact replica of experience. It interprets and fabulates. Sometimes it even steals from other people’s stories.  My sister and I quarreled once over which of us had experienced a particular event.  We still don’t know who it really happened to.  (I can’t even remember what it was).

So a genre that relies on memory is going to tell some whoppers. And so of course, our story will be skewed by the way that memory works. But faulty memory is not the same as lying.   

Why It’s Not
We don’t know when memory is making things up. Unless we’re pathological liars, we know when we consciously choose to add falsehoods to our story.   We know when we’re making memories up.

So as memoirists, we should accurately recount the story as we remember it, even if memory itself may be wrong. 

Claim Three
But It’s Emotionally True, So Who Really Cares?

Why It’s True
When her tale of escaping from the Warsaw ghetto and living among wolves was exposed as a lie, writer Misha Defonseca admitted she’d made it all up, but then defended herself: “The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality.” Her fable embodied her emotional experience of the war and so it felt true. James Frey offered a similar defense: his exaggerations and lies created an emotionally, if not literally, true story.

Why It’s Not
Fact and emotional truth are not mutually exclusive. A skillful artist can write an emotionally true story from verifiable fact.

In fact, that’s the beauty and reward of writing nonfiction. The real life we experience and remember gives us more than enough rich material for telling emotionally true and factually accurate stories.

Final Thoughts
Memoirists enter into an agreement with readers: I will tell you an emotionally true story in a skillful way. I will make it worth your while. And while my memory is imperfect, I haven’t invented memories. I haven’t invented facts. If I compress timelines, combine characters or conflate events, I will tell you. The other people in my book would tell the story differently; this is my own, true version.

51qNCnJDuGL._SL500_AA300_.jpgTracy Seeley will be on a 10-week book tour this summer throughout the west, and would
love to meet readers at events. Find her schedule at her
website
, and follow her journey at her blog.

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13 Responses to When Is Lying in Memoir Acceptable? 3 Key Issues

  1. Kim Kircher says:

    Tracy,
    Excellent work. The truth in memoir, while hard to define, is very real. Readers expect that. They feel betrayed when it is otherwise. And yet emotional truth is something else entirely. When Jeannette Wells recounts dialogue her mother said thirty years ago, we know she’s recreating it. She didn’t have a tape recorder as a nine year old. But, if we found out that her parents really weren’t at all like the two depicted in The Glass Castle, if it turns out they lived in a suburban neighborhood and drove a shiny station wagon, we would feel betrayed.

  2. Tracy and all the commenters: Have read Tracy’s analysis and the follow-up comments, and thoroughly agree with most. My little "Cambridge Boy" autobiography sticks as close to the truth as my earnest efforts to recall can make it. Nevertheless–and without conscious recourse to others’ use of the same device–in the Foreword I too have added a disclaimer, somewhat in this wise: "If I forget, from time to time, the exact order in which these long-stored and possibly-scrambled mental photographs were taken, be patient. I will insert as ASIDES or (1) footnotes any further thoughts on incidents overlooked on previous pages … There can be few exercises more stultifying than to be compelled to plow through a labored, day-to-day account of every blessed thing the writer ever did, said or thought, and I spare you the effort. … Finally, while I accept full responsibility for all verifiable errors of fact, anyone who catches me in a deliberate untruth may file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau."

  3. Tracy Seeley says:

    Hello, Canton–It seems as though you think I agree with the rationalizers and fuzzy thinkers…? If so, I would invite you to read my post again; my whole point was to refute them. If I’ve misunderstood your point, then we’re in accord.

  4. Canton Logan says:

    Although the intellectual jargon and self rationalization of ethical blur lines sound appealing and self aggrandizing, all we can say in our writing group is:
    DIDN’T YOU LEARN ANYTHING FROM OPRAH?

    Lying is lying. Calling a memoir a memoir clearly tells the trusting reader that it happened. The professional lines of ethical self control and respect for the art of writing and readership do nothing less than demand emotional maturity in the self respecting reverence for the art itself, and for oneself as an authentic human being, who feels diminished and compromised by taking advantage of the readers trust. All of that intellectualizing inauthenticity, lack of a moral compass for self gain, and justifying the means to the end, is nothing short of self delusion. If you are writing a memoir for readers then you are clearly saying, "This happened to me." The adolescent rationalizations of ones own poor actions in order to personally gain at the loss of others did not work as a teenager or two year old getting busted for lying, and it doesn’t work as an adult, though be it a whiter shade of pale.
    It benefits us to put it simply as this: If it is lying to a friend or family member about actions you will be exposed on or betray their trust in you in real life, so it is in writing.
    In work with teens the same attempt is made to the chagrin of their own self admonishment when emotional and moral maturity strikes.
    Lying is lying. The intellectual rationalizing didn’t work on Oprah and it did not work here. When the discussion reached the absurd point of self absorbed rationalization of ‘combining characters’ and conversations attributing it all recklessly to faulty memory, the blurry moral line became clear. There was none. If you want to go there, don’t call it a memoir. Truth is always simple

  5. Tracy Seeley says:

    Maureen–Now you’re talkin’. Though that sounds like Fantasy to me. I imagine a whole new genre: Domestic Fantasy.

  6. Thank you for this post, it is so refreshing to see a common sense approach to this debate. It seems to me odd to debate memoir vs fiction but, then again, I didn’t realize ‘my reality’ that I have created out of whole cloth from my imagination is the same as something that actually happened.

    I wonder if this power limited to the writer’s mind or is also available to other people as well? What a staggering concept…my reality is reality. Okay, in my reality the dishes are washed, my daughters always listen to every word I say and the dog really did eat my homework…

  7. Tracy Seeley says:

    Thanks for all your comments! Sue, I’m not comfortable with composite characters, either–though I understand why some writers choose that route. I do think a disclaimer should make it clear what’s what.

    As for Mortenson not writing his own book, I see your point, Prairie Mary–but he did have final say over the contents, and should have exercised his option. Even a disclaimer would have helped, as I mention in the post.

    Steven, of course memoirists leave things out, and memoir is by its nature an interpretation of things that happened. It’s the nature of writing any literary work that not everything gets included. But arguing for the "essential nature" of a memoir isn’t really any different for me from claiming that the "emotional truth" cancels out its intentional inaccuracies. Where is the line between leaving things out in the interests of shaping a story, and leaving things out that distort the story? Not always so easy a question.

  8. Hi Tracy & Jane,
    This was an interesting analysis and I generally agree. However, I would add some other points.
    Is omission a lie? I can imagine it going either way. If the omission makes a character something he’s not and this is key to the memoir, I’d be against it. That said, in a recent piece I reduced the number of women I was sleeping with by one–an omission.
    Don’t start censoring just yet. I was with three women in El Valle del Sibundoy (Sibundoy River Valley) in Colombia and el Jefe (the Chief) of the Native American tribe there was kind enough to offer the four of us a double bed in his cabin. At the high elevation the nights are very cold, so four in a bed provided warmth akin to sled dogs huddling together under the snow. Omitting one of the anthropologists seemed to be a way to emphasize the latter point in order to halt anybody’s prurient suspicions.
    Combining is similar to omission. Perhaps that’s the key: if your change of the facts doesn’t change the essential nature of the memoir, it’s OK. As a scientist who has worked with terabytes of data, one can think of the events in the memoir as the data and the memoir itself as the interpretation of the data. The latter should distill or synthesize in order to condense a blow-by-blow account into something readable and entertaining–and true to the data.
    Anyway, these are the thoughts that your interesting piece motivated. I apologize for being too wordy.
    r/Steve

  9. Nice post, Tracy. But I have one question: You say, "If I compress timelines, combine characters or conflate events, I will tell you." So many problems with truth in memoir could be solved, it seems, by a simple disclosure/disclaimer statement in the front of the book, as many memoirists provide. But I wonder how far one should take this liberty. For me, changing names and places is okay. And explaining that dialogue is in keeping with the author’s memory (especially if the events took place during childhood, or many years ago). But I’m not sure how I feel about combining characters. For me, that seems to be crossing over into the realm of fiction. I’m curious how other memoirists and readers feel about this?

  10. This is an excellent post. You tackle the complexities, but underlying black-and-white nature, very well, and I agree with you 100%. Thank you!

  11. Mary Scriver says:

    You missed the most obvious thing about Mortenson’s book: he didn’t write it. The book was actually written by David Oliver Relin. Mortenson was so hopeless a writer (by his own account) that the publisher hired Relin to "sensationalize" (your word) the story.

    When one reads a book in the "gee whiz" style of this adventure, one does not expect accuracy.

    Prairie Mary
    AKA Mary Scriver

  12. Tracy Seeley says:

    Thanks, Shirley. It was helpful to me to sort through these issues–so I’m glad it’s clear. If you want to repost, I’d check with Jane. Meanwhile, I’m grateful to be in this conversation with you.

    One thing I didn’t talk about but would like to in future is the pressure that comes from publishing to write sensational memoirs–the kind that really sell big. That doesn’t justify the choices people make to write lies–but it does explain the attractiveness of it. Sensation sells. Would that simple human stories well told got as much attention….

  13. Shirley says:

    Tracy, this is brilliant. I agree wholeheartedly. You have managed to summarize the issues related to truth and memory in ways that show both their complexity, and ultimately, their simplicity. I would love to repost at http://www.100memoirs.com, where I have been following and commenting on memoir controversies. It’s so important that readers can trust memoir writers.

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