James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces became one of the best-selling books of last year after being picked for the Oprah Winfrey television book club; now it has also become one of the most scrutinized. When a January 8th article on The Smoking Gun website charged that portions of the book were fabricated, Mr. Frey found himself defending his memoir of drug addiction and recovery, and eventually admitting it contained major falsehoods. The controversy provoked by those admissions is raising bigger questions about how much invention - if any - is allowed in memoirs.
When suspicions about James Frey's memoir first began capturing news headlines, the author appeared on the cable TV program "Larry King Live" to talk about the charges. "I've acknowledged that there were embellishments in the book," the author told Mr. King, "that I've changed things, that in certain cases things were toned up, in certain cases things were toned down, that names were changed, that identifying characteristics were changed. A lot of the events I was writing about took place between 15 and 25 years ago. A lot of the events took place while I was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I still stand by the book."
Oprah Winfrey called in to the live program that night to voice her support for A Million Little Pieces, saying its "underlying message of redemption" still resonated with her. But two weeks later, on January 26, she apologized for that call on her own show. "I left the impression that the truth does not matter," Ms. Winfrey said. "And I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not what I believe."
Joining Oprah Winfrey on that program, James Frey admitted that many of The Smoking Gun charges were true. Among other falsehoods, he'd spent just hours in jail, not 87 days as he'd claimed.
So is there room for invention in memoirs? Jabari Asim, Deputy Editor of The Washington Post Book World, believes there is, but within limitations. "As far back as 1941," Mr. Asim notes, "Langston Hughes published The Big Sea. That's the first volume of his autobiography. He published another volume 15 years later, more terrific stuff. But his biographers have shown that neither book is entirely truthful."
Jabari Asim believes those lapses reflect what he calls "a normal human tendency. It's not always intentional misdirection, and it's not so much fictionalizing all the time, which is what Frey did, but it's an evasion -- what we leave out. I'm not going to tell you about something I did that was dishonorable, and I think in most cases that's what is motivating the memoirist, not the idea of practicing outright deception."
The irony is that James Frey invented stories that put him in a less favorable light. "And there I found a very curious analogy between James Frey and gangsta rap," Jabari Asim says, "because gangsta rap is full of these tales of how 'I fought the law, I broke the law,' and in many cases, these are raps created by middle class kids who have never seen the inside of a jail cell. But there's a certain kind of street credibility you get by saying 'I've been in the gutter, and I've done these horrible things.'"
Sharon O'Brien has experienced first hand the challenges of balancing fact and fiction in memoir writing. The Dickinson College professor is the author of The Family Silver, an account of her long battle with depression. "I think when you write a memoir," she says, "you have what I call a contract with the reader that you are trying as hard as possible to tell the emotional truth about your life. Now, having said that, a memoir isn't a diary or journal. You are trying to turn your life into a story."
To bring those stories to life, Ms. O'Brien says she and other memoir writers draw on devices usually associated with fiction. "Particularly if it's a memoir of childhood, you don't remember exactly what was said in a particular moment, but you remember the emotional impact or the emotional truth. So I created some dialogue, because you've got to create scenes for the reader."
Sharon O'Brien points to other examples of what she calls memoirs as "shaped narratives." These include Henry David Thoreau's 1854 classic Walden, based on the two years he spent living alone in the woods. "He decided when he was shaping it artistically that the natural cycles of a year, from spring and summer into spring again, helped him tell the story of a kind of a death and rebirth," Ms. O'Brien explains. "So he made it a year."
As memoirs have become more popular in recent years, Sharon O'Brien says authors may feel increasingly pressured to outdo what has already been published, and produce even more compelling and outrageous accounts of their past. But she adds that readers of books like A Million Little Pieces might also feel especially betrayed if those memoirs turn out to be dishonest. "Whether it's addiction or depression or mental illness, there can be this sense of community, someone's telling my story, and I feel less alone. The kind of readers he was attracting could have been counting on the truthfulness, because these are often subjects that could be difficult to discuss."
Book critic Jabari Asim suggests that James Frey's link to Oprah Winfrey could also help account for the current media frenzy. But he says the cynic in him doubts the high profile scandal will bring about changes in the way publishers select and edit memoirs. "One reason is because publishers really don't have the resources to fact-check the way we might expect a newspaper or The New Yorker to do. They have to rely on the integrity of the author."
A Million Little Pieces has continued to sell well, despite growing doubts about its truthfulness. That could be because of public curiosity about the story, suggests Jabari Asim. But he adds that whatever the ultimate consequences for James Frey, the revelations surrounding the book have far-reaching implications for others who write memoirs. When one author violates his contract to be truthful with readers, Mr. Asim says all writers become suspect, even those who strive hard to be honest.