"'I figured he was taking license... he's a writer, you know, they don't tell everything that's factual and true.'"
Thus waxes philosophical the mother of one of author James Frey's classmates who were killed by a train. In stark contrast stands Frey's fatuous "memoir," A Million Little Pieces (Nan Talese, 2003), in which he thoughtlessly placed himself at the scene of the accident as a third victim.
-- The Smoking Gun
About fifteen years ago, the memoir form emerged as the genre du jour. However, the new memoirists, unlike those of yore, usually journalists or established figures from the arts, were often aspiring fiction writers. Instinctively, and perhaps because their lives were too short to fill a book, they embellished them. Dizzied by the sales figures, editors looked the other way.
But Frey spoiled it for the new memoirists. First, he wrote an artless book (see James Dolan's eye-opening review in The eXile) that couldn't help but drag down the entire form. Second, he forgot how fame attracts a spotlight that's programmed to train itself on the invented history.
You know the jig is up when St. Martin's Press saw fit to preface the pre-publication galleys of memoir prince Augusten Burroughs's new book with a disclaimer. "Some of the events described happened as related, others were expanded and changed," it reads. "Some of the individuals portrayed are composites... and many names and identifying characteristics have been changed as well."
What better occasion to weigh in on the state of lying in America? How exactly do we lie -- and why?
The Great American Untruth comes in two main varieties: offensive and defensive. The first, which Frey perpetrated -- and which abounds in the land of opportunity -- is an unsolicited statement intended to advance one's interests. The defensive lie, however, not mapped-out like the offensive, is usually just an improvised survival tactic.
When an accusatory finger is pointed at us, we reflexively deny any wrongdoing. What's more, we inwardly question our inquisitor's right to interrogate us. But since he's often in a position of authority, we refrain from voicing our reservations.
Besides, as we know, if we 'fessed up, our interrogator would likely rain down his wrath on us. Whereas, spoken with in a non-threatening tone, we might have owned up to the offense. By all rights, grilling is the province of the police, courts, and federal commissions. Otherwise, it's abuse and probably more serious than what we're being called on the carpet for.
Self-protective lying, then, is an assertion of our rights. Also, from a practical point of view, it's an opportunity to find out what our inquisitor knows about us, why he's unhappy with us, and what he wants from us.
There exists another instance in which he or she who responds with a lie is in the clear. Think of questions like "Do I look fat?" As with the inquisitor, any truth such questioning reveals is about the questioner. In other words, the insecurity implicit in the question tips us off that the questioner's self-esteem is too fragile for the truth. Thus, whitely, we lie.
Besides those unable to accept it, truth has yet another enemy: the imagination -- as in the failure of. Endemic to much of America, it prevents us, for example, from envisioning the truth about a future in which the president continues to accrue more and more power.
Meanwhile the outrage directed at Frey (in part, for sullying our lady of magnanimousness, Oprah) is primarily because he holds up a mirror to us and reflects how we've let lying go legit in recent years. Journalists sell their services to lobbyists -- or their souls to the corporate media -- while our current administration cringes from full disclosure like a vampire from a cross.
Arguably, the lie's newfound legitimacy can be traced back to the shameless disavowals with which Ronald Reagan graced the Iran-Contra commission. Never mind that not knowing what's going on in your own backyard is at least as pathetic as the actual crime. "I don't know" and "I can't remember" have since been cited by indicted government officials and business executives as if they were passages of Scripture.
How then are those unafraid of the truth to divine it? In the media, truth, as if respectful of the public's delicate sensibilities, no longer seeks us out. Our only recourse is for the responsible citizen to become a junior investigative journalist and dive headfirst into print publications and the Internet. On an interpersonal level as well, less and less able to trust what comes out of each other's mouths, we're forced to flush out the truth.
Before we despair, however, consider how kids, to the consternation of educators and learned folk in general, are turning their backs on reading in favor of video games, music videos, and picture phones. Thanks to the inadequacies of American schools, they may be ill-educated and even less informed about the world than the rest of us.
Instead of criticizing kids for being ignorant, which they patently aren't, we ought to give them credit for evolving from the verbal as their primary mode of apprehending the world to the visual. With little spelled out for them, they're learning instead to decipher how the world works through visual clues.
The rest of us need to learn from their example and develop alternate modes of verification to determine another's probity. Turning a deaf ear to a language that's been devalued, we must attune ourselves to body language instead, as well as eyes and fleeting facial expressions. Let that deeper knowing called intuition be our sincerity sensor.
A hundred millennia spent honing advanced forms of perception will make our minds open books to each other; hiding the truth will be futile in the future. While the prospect of total transparency might be frightening, at least we won't have to put up with people lying to our faces anymore.
The false memoir, however, is of no help in expediting a falsehood-free future. To the contrary, intentionally obliterating the boundary between truth and fiction is, instead, a regression to an earlier time when man, unable to differentiate between true and false, relied on oracles and omens. Or, as the intermittently credible Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen -- a guest of the "Oprah" show on which she finally held Frey's hand to the fire -- said, "There is a kind of corruption in the publishing industry."
Until its rooted out, authors, who once aspired to make of their work -- fiction and nonfiction, each in its own way -- repositories of truth, will be no less trustworthy than the opportunists who inhabit the elected offices and boardrooms of this land.