- Proof of Life:Memoir, Truth, and Documentary Evidence
"Does it matter if it's true?" a young woman in the audience raised her hand to ask. I hesitated. I was in Los Angeles, speaking at an academic conference on literary nonfiction. The subject had veered from the general case of nonfiction to memoir, the nonfiction subgenre in which I'd been working. My current project was the resurrection of a long-neglected book-length manuscript initially based on the life of my father, whom I'd scarcely known—though ultimately the book would encompass as well the fate of my grandmother, who had died before I was born in an obscure Holocaust death camp in a shrouded corner of the world. The story was peculiar, contradictory, and based more on impressions than on concrete information, observation, or even memory. In its early stages, I'd lacked even the reassurance of legal documents—like birth or death or marriage records—that might have lent my story credibility and anchored it in the physical world. Yet at the memoir's core was an illegitimate child's heartfelt yearning to establish material connections to her past, "true" connections that could not be repudiated, dreamed up, or eradicated. To me, it mattered immensely that my story be true.
Just a week before the conference I had hauled out a fragment of my neglected memoir and re-read my reconstruction of an encounter with my father, whom I'd met only twice since I was a toddler. He was "a slight, bent man wearing enormous purple-striped running shoes and walking through an alley in the rain," I'd written. "With one hand he pushed a grocery cart heaped high with old clothes. In his other hand, he held a copy of Tolstoy's On the Meaning of Life, and he studied it, his head bent low." The big feet are clear in my memory, but I can't swear it was raining, or that my father wore running shoes, or that the book was Tolstoy, though I know he was fond of Tolstoy. It had been depressing to discover my eighty-six-year-old father scavenging among the dumpsters of Los Angeles. Maybe that's why the sky is overcast in [End Page 245] my memory, and it might as well have been raining. My manuscript included memory-filtered accounts of long-vanished events. It was crammed with recollected and invented dialogue. Many details were based on impressions. For all that, the memoir was decidedly not fiction. This point mattered to me.
I glanced around the conference room. Most of my audience was older than the earnest young woman who'd asked me whether truth mattered. Perhaps her question could only be answered definitively by those who'd never slogged through the muddy realities of memoir writing. Some of my listeners must have considered this question and arrived at answers of their own, which made it still harder to answer. I might have cited the realities that qualify memoir's truth: the spotty, evolutionary nature of memory, the near-impossibility of retrieving more than scraps of dialogue, and the failure of most lives to serve up a narrative line. I might have mentioned the inevitable refining and coloring in of the line drawings that memory provides.
But now wasn't the moment to step into the confessional. The conference was taking place in 2006, mere months after documents posted on an Internet website had exposed James Frey's fraudulent memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and amidst the subsequent flurry of public indignation and defensive posturing by nonfiction writers and journalists, some of whom, undoubtedly, were now sitting in my audience. Despite the seemingly obvious dissimilarity between Frey's fabrications and the kind of difficulties that arise from faulty memory, at that awkward moment I was certain that a definitive "yes" answer to the young woman's question was called for. By passing off deliberate lies as nonfiction, Mr. Frey had poisoned the air for all memoir writers. If I answered the question frankly, I might be misinterpreted as defending Frey, who in writers' circles was now tagged "the F word."