How true to life should a memoir be? Is bending the facts or changing chronology allowed? How about just making stuff up?
Many of us remember the controversy arising from James Frey’s 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces, which, after being celebrated and Oprah-fied, was found to contain exaggerations and outright fabrications. The Smoking Gun titled its Frey expose A Million Little Lies. Oprah, the media, and the publishing industry excoriated Frey, and he was cancelled. (For a while. He’s since published more than ten books.)
Other purported memoirs, stacked among the non-fiction, also tamper with the literal truth. An acquaintance of mine swore off Henry David Thoreau and Walden when she learned that Thoreau’s mother is rumored to have done his laundry during his supposedly solitary sojourn in the woods. Fiction writer Judy Blume admitted she invented parts of her 2002 memoir Breaking Clean. Bob Dylan is notorious for making stuff up about his past, including much of his memoir Chronicles.
When should we care, and how much?
About thirty years ago, I heard writer Annie Dillard address an Oberlin English class. Dillard’s 1974 memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is one of my favorite books. It recounts her sojourn, a la Thoreau, living alone for a year near Tinker Creek in Virginia. Her book explores nature, spirituality, good and evil, and the search for meaning.
The earnest Oberlin students peppered Dillard with literalistic questions. What was it like living alone? Weren’t you afraid? Did you get very lonely? How did you acquire food and other necessities? After a while, the author shocked her audience by saying, “You know, I was high most of the time I was writing that book.”
She went on to refer to the work as “a document,” something crafted, a creation, a work of art. “It’s not me,” she said. “It’s something I made.” She was telling them it wasn’t true. I could feel the confusion and disillusionment in the room, because I, in part, shared it. But I was intrigued, and I have always remembered that word “document” and the gesture that accompanied it, as though she was holding something in her hands.
In fact, Dillard wrote half of the book from her home, a regular house, with her then-husband, Richard Dillard, and the other half in the Hollins College Library. She spent many hours at Tinker Creek and kept a lengthy journal about her walks there, but she now describes herself as a suburban housewife during the writing. The book begins and ends with her cat, an “old fighting tom,” jumping through her window onto her chest, leaving bloody pawprints. This was a story she heard from someone else.
Calling Pilgrim a “memoir” is inaccurate. (1987’s An American Childhood is a memoir.) It’s a meditation on “mystery, death, beauty, (and) violence,” as the back cover of my paperback says. Did Annie Dillard have a responsibility to tell readers that her book wasn’t “true”? Should she and others who fictionalize nonfiction be held to account like James Frey? How angry or disappointed are you when you learn that dollops of fiction have been mixed into your nonfiction book?