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What “Based on a True Story” Means

Categories: Creative Nonfiction Writing, How to Improve Writing Skills Tags: James Frey, life stories, memoir.

“See that guy?” I said to my husband, Ron. “That’s James Frey.”

My parents were in Los Angeles, visiting. Heading to the hotel pool to meet them, I had with me a copy of Frey’s My Friend Leonard because I thought my mom would like it. And then I saw a man with curly hair and a beard sitting on the terrace eating lunch.

“You sure?” Ron asked. Ron hadn’t read his books, but knew I enjoyed Frey’s writing style. (Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces was in bookstores, but he hadn’t yet appeared on Oprah.)

I studied the dust-jacket photo, glanced at the man, back at the book, over to the table again. I wandered by and smiled.

“Is your name James Frey?”

“Yes,” he said, reclining in his chair.

“You’re my new favorite writer,” I said.

He was sitting with his wife, baby girl and another woman. He signed the book and asked what I did for a living. I said I’d recently quit my job as a lawyer to write. At this, he gave me his e-mail address and told me to send him pages. Pages? Wow. I didn’t exactly have pages, but within days I revised an abandoned scene I’d drafted in a writing workshop and sent it off. His reply was gracious: “Keep going, write a book, if I can do it, you can do it.” Filled with joy, I decided he was a truly great person.

A few months later The Smoking Gun broke a story headlined, “The Man Who Conned Oprah!” Watching the talk shows, I was appalled—but not at Frey’s exaggerations. I was floored by everyone else’s. I thought Oprah was ridiculous for accusing Frey of being overdramatic when she’d proclaimed in her earlier broadcast that he was “the child you pray you never have to raise,” as her cameras panned liquor and beer bottles and empty glasses. When she berated him on that follow-up program, I seethed. The whole thing was so cruel. (She later apologized.)

Repetitive claims that he’d embellished “key sections” of the book disturbed me. In my opinion, the altered details weren’t crucial to the heart and moral of Frey’s story. And in a genre often known for blurring the line between fact and fiction in the quest for novel-like portrayals of real events, Frey was being tarred and feathered for a common offense.

Other memoirists clammed up. Some said, “I never embellish!” (as they scrambled to secure disclaimers).

“Would you feel differently if you’d never met him?” Ron asked me.

I don’t know. As not only an aspiring writer, but a reader, I didn’t feel differently when Frank McCourt reportedly invented a character in Angela’s Ashes, or when the family of bestselling author (and O magazine columnist) Martha Beck sued her for alleged fabrications in her memoir. I simply wondered why these writers weren’t on Oprah’s couch, hashing out the notion of factual truth versus emotional truth.

Four years have passed since Frey was fried, but as the poster boy for stretching the truth in the genre, his name is still the one that comes up during such discussions. Yet other books—before and after his—have crossed much more defined lines. Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir Angel at the Fence, Margaret Seltzer’s gang memoir Love and Consequences and Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years all included falsifications, yet they’ve been so ignored I had to look up the authors’ names to cite them here. At home, the memoirs on my bookshelves contain all sorts of suspicious claims: telepathic gifts, visions of angels, detailed memories about life at age 3, and even a writer’s descriptions of himself as a fabulous lover (it would be fun to ask the women for their versions). Read Augusten Burroughs’ and John Elder Robison’s memoirs. If you didn’t know they were brothers, you’d never believe they had the same parents.

For me, the very nature of memoir raises questions. Are labels necessary? Does genre matter? How many details can change? Are novels based on the lives of their authors really all that different? Why do memoirists say truth is stranger than fiction, while novelists say fiction brings out greater truths? What do we want from stories? Oprah never asked.

At first I couldn’t figure out why Frey’s embellishments didn’t bother me when others were so upset. One night a friend helped me clarify the issue: “You don’t view memoir as an accurate portrayal of things. I do,” she said. Bingo. My definition of a lie is perhaps more forgiving than others’. An embellishment is a type of lie, yes, but so are composite characters, created dialogue and the rendering of details impossible to recall. Memoirists play with time and fudge facts to protect others’ privacy. Omissions can be hugely deceptive, yet all memoirists forgo some details. I once read a memoir by a writer who led readers to believe she had a terrific relationship with her husband; I later learned she had been having an affair. “There’s truth,” said my writing teacher, “and then there’s as much truth as a writer is willing to tell.”

I understand some memoirists go to great lengths to fact check, refusing to embellish or employ any number of storytelling tools. And I understand that those writers fear their work may lose credibility based on what others have done in this often muddy mix of a genre. Memoir writing can be hard, painful work, and if those who are trying to stick strictly to literal truth want to avoid the kinds of questions other memoirs can raise, perhaps there should be a way to differentiate them. As the debate rages on, my perspective of memoir may change, but I’ll always remain sorry that the generous man I met became a scapegoat. And I want to thank him—not many could’ve handled the burden, and he took it well.

I’m also glad I’ve had the opportunity to ponder these issues before writing a memoir of my own. When I do, you can bet I’ll share my approach in an author’s note.
Turn your most important personal stories into compelling and meaningful reading experiences for others by considering:
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One Response to What “Based on a True Story” Means

  1. rontocknell says:

    There is a degree of responsibility with memoir writing in that you are portraying actual people. They have to be portrayed accurately and fairly. This doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to be portrayed in a positive light but a negative portrayal must be a fair assessment based on scrupulously accurate facts to avoid litigation. Inventing characters is fine as this harms no one as long as the invented character is not so central as to distort the reality too much. Most of the dialogue has to be invented unless one has actually recorded every conversation, which would require remarkable foresight. Advisable to check with the people to which dialogue is attributed for their consent to artistic license. Taking all this into consideration, however, embellishment can enhance a memoir without turning into total fiction. A memoir without any embellishment at all would have to read like a news report (and, judging by the Daily Mail and the National Enquirer, even news reports can be embellished beyond recognition).
    I’m not a fan of Oprah so it would be unfair for me to comment on her treatment of Frey. But it is a little pedantic to pick up on every diversion from fact. We read memoirs to be entertained with an enjoyable read perhaps more than to be enlightened with facts.

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