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Memoirs

02/16/06 12:00AM By Stephanie Montgomery
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(HOST) Commentator Stephanie Montgomery has been following the debate over truth and falsehood playing out in the media over James Frey's memoir of his life as a criminal and drug addict. She believes even one intentional misrepresentation damages the relationship between leaders and those who write memoir.

(MONTGOMERY) The recent flap over James Frey's contested memoir, A Million Little Pieces, has reminded me of the conster-
nation and disappointment readers expressed when they learned Robert James Waller's Bridges of Madison County was actually the work of fiction it claimed to be.

Tall tales of underdogs overcoming the odds have long satisfied our national passion for bold claims, and Frey's tale of victim turned criminal turned author might have taken its place along-
side Paul Bunyan except for one fact. He claimed his book was
a memoir.

This book sold because readers sympathized with Frey as a victim, reveled in his confessions, and saw redemption in his survival. They believed him. On TV Frey said, "The book is
about drug addiction and alcoholism. The emotional truth is
there."

I beg to differ.

An implicit contract connects readers with authors. If we relinquish our hold on the central idea of truthfulness in memoir, then the contract between reader and author falters and fails.

Waller structured The Bridges of Madison County on one of the oldest of literary devices in fiction: the epistolary novel. A narrator claims to have discovered an entire correspondence and, with self-effacing humility, offers these letters to the reader.

In a novel, readers expect to encounter "emotional truth" in the mirror fiction holds up to life, but James Frey was unable to sell his book as a novel. So he and Doubleday let marketing trump ethics and sold it as a memoir. In a disturbing ironic twist, hundreds of readers have asserted they really don't care if the whole story is true of not. They love it anyway. Who cares if one detail or another was fabricated as long as these details ring true?

I think we all need to care deeply because the devil here is not in the details. It's in the contract. Novelists take their material from life. Memoirists borrow their techniques from fiction. The reader expects to be told wonderful lies in a novel and, in a memoir, wonderful truths. Readers trust both novelists and memoir writers to act and write in good faith.

We know memory and imagination sometimes play us false. Memoir writers misremember just like other people, and sometimes their imagination colors events without their realizing it. Mr. Frey stated that in memoir "the writer usually takes liberties." With cavalier disregard for the principles of veracity, he substituted scale for authenticity and calculated his liberties at less than five per cent.

It's not easy being a human being. Because those who write novels construct imagined realities and those who write memoirs deconstruct memory, both literary forms have the potential to increase our understanding of our condition.

Writers of both genres explore the complex interactions of nature, nurture, choice and chance. We need to trust their voice to trust their story.

This is Stephanie Montgomery of Walpole, NH.

Stephanie Montgomery is the Director of Memoir Cafe, an online writing service for women.
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