Just how true must truth be?

Published February 12, 2006

When author Walt Harrington wrote his critically acclaimed memoir, The Everlasting Stream, his passion to honestly tell his family's stories meant fact-checking his own life.

Harrington wanted to describe a scene from his childhood riding home in a car one evening with his father, singing Red River Valley. He remembered a dip in the road. But was his memory accurate? So more than four decades later, he drove two hours to the same stretch of road. The dip was still there.

"My view is you have a contract with the reader,'' he says. "Art has to come second to truth.''

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Harrington's fidelity to detail, even for a bump in the road, reflects his values as a writer and as head of the journalism department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yet recent revelations have illuminated a startling lack of agreement among writers, agents and publishers about just how true a nonfiction book should be.

Readers often seek inspiration in another's real-life story. But over the past month, several high-profile memoirs have been challenged on their truthfulness and even their authors' identities. A writer claiming to be a Navajo handicapped by fetal alcohol syndrome was revealed by the media to be a white man involved in gay erotica. Another author, describing how his mother prostituted him as a boy, was apparently invented by celebrity-seeking hucksters. One who chronicled experiences in a concentration camp was in fact never there.

The most sensational headlines have followed James Frey and his memoir on addiction, A Million Little Pieces. Frey was outed on the Smoking Gun Web site when its editors sought to add his jail mug to their collection of celebrities and couldn't find any record of him being behind bars. Frey has since acknowledged that the three months in jail he wrote about in his memoir were actually a couple of hours. His run-ins with the law, including bumping a police officer with his car while high on crack, were exaggerated, he now says His part in the death of two high school students in a train crash was a distortion. Oprah Winfrey, who pumped sales of the 2003 memoir to almost 4-million when she made it a book club pick, grilled Frey on his liberties with the truth.

"I feel duped,'' Oprah said on her talk show.

Memoirs have been challenged as long as they have been written. Lillian Hellman's 1973 Pentimento was denounced as a pack of lies on The Dick Cavett Show. In the past, authors fibbed to make themselves look better. Now they lie to make themselves look worse, inflating their drug abuse or childhood victimization or even swapping white privilege to pose as a member of an angst-ridden minority - all to make for more marketable demons.

"Interest in reading memoirs is universal. What has happened is that people are writing about more and more outrageous things,'' Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson says. "Our threshold for weirdness - you can't have just a normal childhood - has gone way up.''

To Nelson, it's not surprising that some authors stray from the facts when writing ?about their own lives.

"Memoirs are always going to be a remembrance. They will always be embellished and skewed from a certain vantage point,'' Nelson says.

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As the Frey story ignited, many in the publishing business expressed reluctance to question writers about searingly personal stories.

Publishers' attorneys review books for libel, but memoirs are rarely fact-checked. A book may contain an author's note stating that names and events were changed to protect identities. Augusten Burroughs, in his memoir about addiction titled Dry, says in a note that "certain episodes are imaginative recreations and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.''

"Certainly, after this experience, I have to wonder if there is such a thing as a 'nonfiction memoir,' " Frey's former literary agent, Kassie Evashevski, said in an interview with Publishers Weekly.

Frey says the book is "emotionally true.'' Disgruntled readers have filed lawsuits against Frey and his publisher, Random House, alleging consumer fraud.

"To defend the book as telling the, quote, emotional truth, is just crap,'' Thomas Pakenas, a Chicago attorney representing one of the angry readers, told the Wall Street Journal.

Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club, one of the most celebrated memoirs of recent decades, does not buy that there's any great debate about fact and fiction in memoirs.

"It's not really that hard; you just don't make stuff up,'' Karr told the Associated Press. In a Jan. 15 New York Times column, she wrote that she fell in love with memoir when she read Helen Keller's story in the fourth grade. "Had it turned out she was merely nearsighted, not deaf, blind and mute, my bubble might have popped.''

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Memoirs are inherently suspect, many insist, because memory is inherently faulty. Frank McCourt's beloved account of dire poverty in Angela's Ashes stretches memory's limits in describing scenes he observed as a 4-year-old. What does any 4-year-old recall?

Vivian Gornick, author of the acclaimed memoir Fierce Attachments, surprised an audience at Goucher College a few years ago when she volunteered that she had embellished some scenes and conversations between her and her mother. Why hadn't she simply informed readers in an author's note, asked an audience member.

Gornick dismissed the suggestion. The reader, she said, is "willfully ignorant.''

One has to wonder if the readers know they've signed on for creative deception, or to be skeptical when promised truth.

There is a line a writer does not cross, counters literary agent Joy Harris. She says nonfiction's power comes in how an author "interprets the facts of their life. (This) is where creativity and talent and style come into play. But if you're not going to give the facts, then it's fiction.''

They have a bookstore shelf for that, too.

Lying is the "antithesis of everything that literature is supposed to be. Literature is about writers as truth tellers,'' says author Connie May Fowler, who is represented by Harris and has written a memoir about her experiences with domestic abuse.

Fowler says that publisher Doubleday performed "extremely excruciating'' checks, questioning people 15 years' in her past and talking to her doctors before When Katie Wakes was published in 2002.

"My concern (with Frey),'' she says, "is that we have broken a public trust.''

Karr once rejected a strong suggestion from a publishing executive to include a touching goodbye scene with her mother in her memoir. "But I don't remember it,'' she told him. Harrington says he was asked to be more narrative in The Everlasting Stream, to "trust his memory.'' He believes it was code for make it up, and found another publisher.

The debate sparked by A Million Little Pieces has forced some in the book business to "circle the wagons,'' Harrington says. They would argue we live in times when nothing is trustworthy, so we are not at fault, he says. A book like Frey's, he asserts, has not earned the right to be called nonfiction.

"It undermines the credibility,'' Harrington says, "of people who stick to the truth.''

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Future printings of A Million Little Pieces will include a three-page author's note. Frey writes:

"I made other alterations in my portrayal of myself, most of which portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am.''

Despite its fall from grace, A Million Little Pieces was No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list this past Sunday. It is still classified as nonfiction.