The Truth about Lying

Everybody does it, and perhaps they should
Tim O’Brien, the American writer and National Book Award winner, said that when his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home was published, no one even checked to see if he’d ever been to Vietnam. He made this confession on a warm day in 1999 to a class of students at Humber College in Toronto. O’Brien was the star speaker at the college’s summer creative writing workshop (where I was then director), and his audience sat in rapt attention, taking in his every word. Here was a master revealing his secrets. O’Brien then recounted the sad story of the day he received his military draft notice. He said he was working in a pig slaughterhouse, took off his bloody apron, went home, packed a few things, stole his mother’s car, and drove up toward the Canadian border. He stayed in a fishing lodge, took out a boat on the Rainy River and was within a stone’s throw of Canada’s shores when he decided to return—to do the “cowardly” thing and go to Vietnam. His tale was spellbinding and many in his audience cried.

Then he told us the story was a lie.

In fact, the day he got his draft notice he’d gone to a golf course. Yet an anecdote about playing a round of golf would not tell the truth about how he felt. He said the writing must serve a higher purpose than merely recounting events. It must be true to the experience. “You have to tell the truth in fiction,” O’Brien told us, “even if you have to lie.”

Let me amend Tim O’Brien’s wise observation: “You have to tell the truth in literature, even if you have to lie.” All great authors lie. They have to, regardless of the genre they’ve selected. There is no such thing as absolute truth in writing, whether it serves fiction, non-fiction, theatre, history, geography, or the Bible. A Palestinian will tell a different story of the last ten years from an Israeli. I once had the privilege of studying with Marshall McLuhan and, after the class had discussed one of his most celebrated observations about the effects of media on perception—that “linear man” developed a strong sense of self while the self of “electronic man” dissolves—one of the students asked McLuhan what facts he’d used to arrive at this truth. McLuhan said, “Anyone can tell the truth with the facts. It’s when you don’t have the facts and tell the truth that you’re special.”

This insight has taken on great resonance in light of the controversy that has surrounded the January 2006 revelation that American author James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, contained plenty of fabrication. He claimed, for instance, that, besides being an alcoholic and drug addict, he was a repeat criminal and had spent three months in jail. In fact, he was once held in an Ohio police station and released hours later on $733 bail. He also claimed, falsely, to have had root-canal surgery without anesthesia. (While this is possible in cases in which an abscess is so far gone an endodontist fears an injection would spread the infection dangerously—I had such a procedure performed by an eminent endodontist without anesthesia for this very reason—it is rare precisely because it is so painful.)

Almost instantly, Frey became a scapegoat and his memoir, which was a bestseller, was discredited. Though Frey had initially presented his manuscript as fiction, he was doing so at a time when the fiction market was depressed. Publishers wanted non-fiction so that was what he gave them. Frey has since lost his agent, and the new edition of his book comes with a disclaimer. His most public and powerful supporter, Oprah Winfrey, chastised and humiliated him on national television.

As its name implies, memoir depends for its accuracy on memory. Tobias Wolff, author of the grim memoir This Boy’s Life, writes, “Memory has its own story to tell. Memoirists are not writing proper history but rather what they remember of it, or, more accurately, what they can’t forget.”

So if James Frey did not tell an absolute truth but rather told his version of drug addiction and recovery, of hell and redemption, if he made up some details or embellished the facts, it was in the service of a higher truth about death and resurrection. It was his truth and therefore it was genuine. Otherwise, millions would not have believed him. After all, even after Frey was exposed, his book remained on the bestseller lists for months.

He may have been lying but he was not faking. There is a difference, and it is the salient difference. There is no trickery or fakery in the book, just the experience of a man who has endured much and lived to tell the tale—or his take on it. Before I picked up the book, I watched my daughter and wife—both discriminating readers—stay up late into the night to get through it. The book is compelling precisely because Frey knew what was required to fill out the narrative. Even the life of a drug addict must have slow bits, and Frey was smart enough to leave those bits out. Is that a form of deception

If so, Frey is not the first memoirist to massage the facts to sculpt his narrative, and the company he keeps might surprise some purists. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, pretended in his great non-fiction work Walden that he slept under the stars and cherished the universe as it was created. He didn’t. He slept in a house in Concord, often at his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s place. But he needed Walden’s non-fiction narrator to masquerade as a woodsman. Being at one with nature allowed the narrator to transcend the self more successfully than being a sleeper in a plush bed in town. William Zinsser, in his introduction to Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoirs, notes:

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