Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Fiction of Truth Comes Out!

Well I thought this was interesting and tied in a little with my Winged Migration post a while back. So I thought I would bring it up for discussion here even though, in this case, we are talking about a book not a movie.

According to The Smoking Gun, the wildly successful, lucky SOB who's book became Oprah's most recent book club selection has been found to have fibbed a bit in his autobio A Million Little Pieces. I couldn't manage to read through all of what TSG had to say, because it was verbose and waffled. But I wonder if he really "demonstrably fabricated key parts of the book" or just embellished a little for dramatic reasons (which is what he says.)

TSG loses a bit of cred for me because they make unsubstantiated assertions all over the place and, I don't know... maybe they answer everthing at the end of their 6-page epic. But who can sift through all the crap they are saying and figure that out. I do know one thing. They suggest that he lied about having had a root canal done without anesthesia, but don't give any proof. Seems as if they are saying they don't believe anyone would or could do that. Well, my mom has. So there you go!

Anyway, I want to discuss whether it matters that the book is semi-fictionalized. It meant a lot to a lot of people. (It is a "first hand" account of the down and dirty truth of his rotted, alcohol/drug-addicted life.) On some level this is different for me than if a doc had been made and falsified. Because the video image acts as theoretically unbiased evidence in and of itself, so when it is faked, it is more like tampering with court docs to me, than like fibbing a bit in your testimony. Though I know all docs are faked to some degree. Maybe we should accept that on some level all books are as well? And the book may have been just as meaningful as fiction. Though apparently he first tried to sell the work as a piece of fiction, but couldn't get a deal, so he reworked it as an autobiography.

I mean, many people question the veracity of Chuck Barris's claims in his autobio to having been a CIA hitman while living his successful TV-show producer life, but there seems to be no outrage over his potential lies. Apparently some of Frey's facts don't check out, which means there is proof that not everything in his book is accurate. But then you also have to consider that if the man was living in a constant state of drug/alcohol-induced zombie-ism, maybe it was real to him.

I'm sure I would have been upset to find out about the fibbing after I had read the book. But now I am more intrigued by the book (knowing it is semi-false) than I was before!


Back to the full blog...


Andy said...

So, it's interesting. I finished reading his book last night. Today, I Googled his name to see if I could find any information about his life after the book ends. And I see this Smoking Gun report. I read it, and I feel there are some issues.

TSG seems to revel in bringing someone down. It almost is as if they had an agenda and were pleased to death to find any inconsistancy, however small. That being said, I think they bring up some good facts that put some of the core parts of the book in doubt. It is true, that the Ohio legal issues were a key part of the book and Frey's motivation. If that was all made up, it changes things.

But, in a bigger sense, I asked myself, if the whole book as made up, would that affect my reaction to it? And, I think the answer is yes. While I was reading it, there was a certain level of "no way!" balanced with the thought that this actually happened. That creates an interesting feeling or mood for the book. If it wasn't true, then it's still a pretty good piece of fiction, but it wouldn't have the same impact at all. You would suspend disbelief, not treat his eventual redemption as real, and it would leave no lasting emotional impact.

I've read some pretty nasty fiction, under the genre "splatterpunk." This is horror fiction that is extremely graphic and extremely, over the top violent. (There's a local Ft. Collins author, formerly of HP that writes in this genre. I met him once, and the dicotomy is surreal.) Anyway, this stuff shocks the stuffing out of you, but it's not real and doesn't pretend to me. Oh, it's written in a nice realistic style, similar to the root canal section of Frey's book, but much more sadistic and graphic. But, since it's not real, you can walk away from it. It won't change your life, it won't inspire you to emulate or copy or anything. Frey's book has done that, but only with the assumption that what he wrote was real. If it's all a lie, it's like he betrayed his readers.

I don't mind some embellishment, but the ironic part is, he makes fun of those addicts in the book that do embellish their own addictions. He laughs at Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and the character of "Bobby" the New Jersey mobster accountant who brags about his addictions and life in general. So, to have Frey himself do it to the extent TSG alleges, is dissapointing.

I don't know if TSG allegations are true, and it's hard to get past their snarky attitude. At some level, I want to believe that what Frey went through was true, because it gives me hope that no one is past redemption. If he just made up a cool, interesting story, then that's all it is and it loses all of the power that he generated.

Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. He probably exaggerated some of his stuff a bit, moved it in time to make it more interesting or relevant. But, if he really did have a seriously out of control drug and alcohol habit, and did beat it through sheer will ("Just say no"), then he'll still have my admiration and respect, but a little less of each.

Elisabeth said...

You're right, of course, it does make a difference to one's perception of the story. But now you have to wonder which bits are real, and which aren't.

And I still keep thinking about how I know that it isn't really possible to have a documentary be entirely real, and maybe the same can be said for bios, in which case, maybe we just shouldn't have been told?

Elisabeth said...

UGH! Stupid me. By "bios" I of course meant biographical books, since there are naturally biographical films as well.

Erica said...

While i was making dinner last night, the abc news @ 5:30 had a report on the same story as well. And according to them the two parts he embellished are the jail sentence, which was only 3 days instead of 3 months, and the indicdent with the cops i believe in Ohio / Iowa.. or something like that. And they did have evidence to back up those two indicents. So who knows. Do i like the book less? Nope. I thought it was a good read. Would i still recommend the book. Everytime.

Andy said...

Well, that's the question for me then. If he embellished the jail term and the amount of trouble he had with the law, who's to say if he changed the non-verifiable parts as well? Maybe he's never smoked crack. Maybe he didn't start drinking at age 10. Who can say? Once you start to question stuff like that, the whole point of the book goes out the window.

I feel like I should tie this back to film documentaries (because it is Elisabeth's blog after all). Somehow I feel there's a difference between making a doc and making *up* a doc. If you have to use certain techniques of filmaking to accurately tell your story, I'm ok with that. If you change the story, to make it a "better" story, then I feel it loses some truth.

Have you seen "The Thin Blue Line?" That's a good example of what I'm talking about. Error Morris filmed re-creations and added stock footage and an interesting soundtrack to what is a true story. What you see on the film didn't actually happen (he didn't have camera ready when the cop was killed), but he still accurately told the story. (As far as I know, anyway). That's different than making parts of the story up and passing them off as truth.

Elisabeth said...

My very literary cousin Colleen is writing on this topic as well.

She makes some good points.

1. That it would have been impossible for the guy to have been able to recount his life in such great detail with such specificity since that is impossible for anyone to do and inconceivable for someone who's mind is constantly in an altered state.

2. That (for her) a preferable way of retelling your life is by remembering how things happened in more general terms. My grandma used to serve us tea instead of she served us tea on April 16th, 1975.

She suggests that the reader carefully pick the memoirs they read so as not to be led to believe impossible facts.

For me, her points works compellingly toward her recommendation, but... I like to think in other directions than most people (maybe you've noticed), so I started once again thinking that he didn't really do anything terribly objectionable. Ok, I think he should have put a disclaimer at the beginning of the book that would have let the reader in on the fact that he was extra specific about events that are foggy in his brain to lend a higher realism to his essentially true story. I mean fictional story-telling does this all the time (attach dates and places to events that never occurred to make them seem more real). Couldn't what he did be considered a style of story-telling?

I hate to tell you this, but I think any writer who writes about their own lives are filling in the details of their life that are a little foggy, so that you will have something worth reading. If I were to tell you stories about my childhood, they would seem pretty lame unless I gave you details of the world in which it occurred (details I couldn't possibly remember.) And maybe that offense wouldn't be as egregious as getting a the length of a jail sentence sooooo wrong. (And apparently he also made himself a victim of a train accident he wasn't really in?) But it still isn't true. And maybe in his addled mind he thought he had been in jail much longer than he actually had. The editors really should have had a fact checker!

I like your point about making versus making up a doc. But I think (like my Winged Migration post discusses) that line is very blurred.

Elisabeth said...

ggrrr... I hate that I can't fix typos/mistakes after the fact on comments.

That should, of course, have been "is" in the first sentence of the 2nd-to-last paragraph instead of "are."

Gonna bang my head on the wall now.
Stupid, stupid, stupid...

Erica said...

On cnn.com today, oprah makes a statement.. Check it out.

Erica said...

Sorry i posted too soon. There is a video and an article. the article can be found at http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/books/01/11/frey.lkl/index.html

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Erica!
Too bad, for some reason I can't view the video. But the article was good.

I still think he should have put a disclaimer at the front of the book. And I definitely think someone should have been checking the easily-verifiable facts of the book. But I also think (going off of what Colleen said in her blog) the reader out there has to be aware that if an author is remembering his life over several hundred pages that include conversations, he has to be making some of it up and just basing it on his memory. No one can remember conversations like that. And I agree with what the author says... that a memoir is a subjective retelling of one's life.

Ultimately I, like Oprah, place blame on the publishers. I mean isn't this guy a first-time author? Would you know what you should and shouldn't do when telling your own story if it was your first time? Would you check all your own facts? Would you think to put disclaimers?

We can't know if the author did this intentionally (though TSG does say that he tried to get the book published first as fiction and then autobio with some revisions.)


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