The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 8. Hucksters, the Deluded, and Big Fat Liars

I saw prophets tearing their false beards
I saw frauds joining sects of flagellants
executioners in sheep’s clothing
who fled the people’s wrath
playing shepherd’s pipes

Zbigniew Herbert, “What I Saw”

Maybe deceit in memoir irks me so badly because some years back I endorsed one of the biggest literary frauds in recent memory. Fake Holocaust survivor Binjamin Wilkomirski’s childhood recollection of Auschwitz, Fragments, carries praise and my name on the British edition circa 1996. But Bruno Dösseker (Wilkomirski’s birth certificate name) not only spent the war comfortably in Switzerland; he wasn’t even Jewish. He began faxing his therapist “memories”—sometimes ten or twelve pages at a time as they came to him, but the therapist knew his client couldn’t really discern between reality and fantasy. “If he’d called the piece Fragments from a Therapy he would’ve been fine,” the shrink said in Philip Gourevitch’s New Yorker exposé “The Memory Thief.”

Now the book’s falsehoods seem so glaring. Wilkomirski would’ve had to be Superman or made of rubber to endure what he alleges—one of the most unrelentingly brutal journeys ever set in ink. He claimed that at age three he hung by his teeth from a guard’s bicep. No such jaw strength exists outside the circus, plus the guard would have to be holding his arm upside down, bicep to the ground, while supporting the iron-jawed toddler. Riding on a conveyor belt headed for the ovens under naked corpses, he feels two disembodied hands appear, rescuing him from the incinerator in the last second. All of this he bounces up from, charging at the next Nazi he sees like a rabid Chihuahua.

Some part of me I stifled knew it was false, but I still got behind the book. Why? Was I just cowed by its resounding international endorsement? More driving, I think now, was the guilt I’d suffer if it were true, and I denied a camp survivor his witnessing. I just didn’t let myself trust my instincts.

I was in good company. Wilkomirski would go on to win the Prix de Mémoire de la Shoah in Paris and a National Jewish Book Award in NYC, where he beat out Elie Wiesel and Alfred Kazin. Also blurbing the book alongside me was biographer and investigative journalist Gitta Sereny, who attended the Nuremberg trials and wrote perhaps the definitive bio of Albert Speer.

Today, Wilkomirski cleaves unswerving to his story, unbudged by physical evidence. If the guy was attempting to defraud us, Gourevitch claimed, he did the worst job in history, for clues abounded. Wilkomirski sounds more deranged than like a conscious fake.

In one of my most depressing exercises in public naïveté, I’ve handed out to classes two unidentified chapters from two Holocaust memoirs—one Primo Levi’s agonizingly true Survival at Auschwitz, one Wilkomirski’s. The proven fabricator gets the vast majority of votes for veracity every time.

Here are the reasons my very smart (some Ivy-educated) grad students give for taking all this in as true.

1.He’s not trying to make himself seem like a hero. (I’d disagree: he’s making himself seem like a victim, which translates into survivor, which translates into hero.)

2.Why would he lie about this? (He seems to believe his lies, according to his shrink and Gourevitch, who interviewed him.)

3.The writing has an immediacy; its first-person present tense makes it seem as if he’s reliving it, more than Levi’s more formally written piece with its emotional circumspection.

4.Lack of exposition or rhetoric shows lack of thoughtfulness and, therefore, a lack of artificiality or deceit.

5.The writing is more conversational than Levi’s—informality equals truth to many students.

6.It’s fragmentary, like traumatic memory or a movie flashback.

7.He puts in dialogue. Whereas Levi, the real survivor, is more sparing with dialogue, Wilkomirski has long conversations.

8.Levi uses too many proper names—how could he recall them all? (I assume he’s smart, or maybe he looked some up.)

9.Levi sounds too upper-crust or smart, which makes students see him as posed; they find the informality of Wilkomirski’s writing winning. (They also have this complaint with lefty Orwell—he sounds too highbrow!)

10.What if it’s true, and we don’t believe him?

In 2008, of eighteen students, only three found Levi the more plausible; in 2012, of twenty-one students, three again found Levi more plausible. Which means to me that reasonable judgment is still losing ground.

In cheating the public, hucksters cheat themselves out of their real stories. James Frey must’ve fought to get sober before A Million Little Pieces; just not in the ways he alleged. No doubt he suffered like hell, but he somehow deluded himself that his real misery wasn’t bad enough—or maybe his real character wasn’t macho enough, or nice enough to warrant scrutiny. But any addict’s overhaul is a nightmare. Surely his true story would’ve been worth a read.

Truth is less set in stone now, more mutable. We know better than ever that people lie like crazy. They probably lied a lot before, too, but now cameras and a watchdog media seem way more adroit at catching out their lies. With the web, we’ve got more people trying to track down the adulterer or photograph the drunk celebrity who’s fallen off the wagon.

We also often believe all manner of horse dookey based on prevailing winds—family denial systems stay impregnable based on that tendency. Or we’re swept up in a tale we want to believe. Millions of perfectly bright readers get drawn in and duped by bullshit stories. I fell for Lillian Hellman’s self-aggrandizing tales in Pentimento, until Mary McCarthy—known as a rigorous truth seeker—told Dick Cavett’s television audience, “Every word out of her mouth is a lie, including and and the.” Nothing protects us against practiced liars and hucksters; nothing ever will.

What rankles me lately, though, is a sweeping tendency to deny even the possibility of truth. During a campus sexual harassment investigation, my department chair said, “There’s her version and his version—there is no truth.” Which infuriated me: someone either assaulted the woman in question, or not. It was binary.

Sure, there are major mistakes of interpretation. Two cops beating a black man claim he was reaching for a weapon in his pants. A video shows the victim groping, but it’s for an asthma inhaler.

In an off-kilter paradox, our strange cynicism about truth as a possibility has permitted us to accept all manner of bullshit on the page. Or maybe our appetite for the fantastic—fed by Ironman and Gravity and a phalanx of vampire- and zombie-based blockbusters—has eroded all public standards of plausibility, even among perfectly smart people. (Okay, there are some dumb bunnies. Walking out of The Last Temptation of Christ, a friend overheard someone say, “I didn’t know Jesus was so short.”) Our desire for spectacle has led many story-concocting “memoirists” into jacking up their tales, believing that the story with the most gunshots will win the biggest audience.

But it’s the busted liars who talk most volubly about the fuzzy line between nonfiction and fiction. Their anything-goes message has come to dominate the airwaves around memoir.

Reading that scammer James Frey got on a plane with a bullet hole through his cheek, I deduced that—even pre-9/11—airport security frowned on boarding the gunshot-wounded. And when he alleged that his rehab made him suffer a root canal without a non-consciousness-altering numbing agent, sober people the world over knew the torture session was fake. The bullet hole and unnumbed tooth were absolute tip-offs. Surely other readers, had they paused even for a second to consider the unlikelihood of those reports, would have dubbed the guy a bullshitter.

What I’m guessing: many just shrugged past it, because we’ve all chosen to accept that the line between fiction and nonfiction is too subtle for us to discern. That’s what Frey argued on TV, vigorously. He had no reluctance to speak for all memoirists, claiming self-righteously to both Oprah and Larry King that his form of shameless “embellishment” was customary for all memoir, since the genre’s so “new” (are you listening St. Augustine?). His self-righteous defense and total lack of apology might have tipped us off that we were dealing with a practiced dissembler.

Of course, there was no way for any of us to deduce what he flat-out lied about. He transformed his frat boy’s DUI with its $733 bail and few hours sipping coffee in an Ohio police station into a month-long jail sentence—the result of this roostering desperado’s fistfight with cops and all manner of trumped-up charges. His college-educated girlfriend became a crack whore since puberty. And he claimed “I stand by my book” partly because the lies occupied only eighteen pages, or 5 percent of it—“within the realm of what’s appropriate in memoir.”

To follow his reasoning, an event manufactured from whole cloth is the moral equivalent of another memoirist blurring identity to disguise someone or misremembering a date.

This isn’t quite true. The line between memory and fact is blurry, between interpretation and fact. There are inadvertent mistakes of those kinds out the wazoo. But Frey didn’t “misremember” and actually believe he had a bullet wound. He didn’t really believe he was incarcerated for a stretch, when he never served a day. He set out to fool people.

So did Greg Mortenson, the skunk-posing-as-saint builder of Afghan schools in Three Cups of Tea. He didn’t hallucinate that he’d been kidnapped by Taliban when, in fact, he’d been hosted in some kind people’s homes. He cooked up events to mold his public image into that of the noble, forgiving survivor of brutal treatment. Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit details how Mortenson went on to drain massive sums from his charity for personal use, renting private jets for book-selling junkets and buying his own books at retail to stay on best-seller lists. He was forced by the Montana attorney general to repay $1,000,000 to settle the allegations. Yet as recently as January 2014, I saw Mortenson use the same smarmy, indeterminate nonconfession that once came out of James Frey’s mouth: “I made some mistakes.”

I’m not trying to make lie-sniffing bloodhounds out of memoir fans, nor to silence would-be memoirists who give up the art, fearing their minds aren’t as steadfast as computer files and video footage. I don’t yearn for some golden age of objective truth when the fact police patrolled dialogue in memoir, demanding it be excised unless the writer had recorded backup. But the popular, scoffing presumption that memory’s solely concocted by self-serving fantasy and everyone’s trying to scudge has perhaps helped to bog down our collective moral machinery.

Our reigning suspicion has extended the practiced liars’ motives to everyone, including the well-intentioned truth seeker. In so doing, we’ve let a small cadre of schemers take over. Disgraced con men have helped to author the dominant notion that a thinking person can’t possibly discern between a probable truth and a hyperembellished swindle. Based on their antics, we’ve begun to abandon all judgment, thinking instead, Oh, who knows, anything’s possible, everybody lies anyway.

My heroes in the fields of memoir and journalism don’t find the line so indeterminate. Hilary Mantel still shoots for undiluted reality: “I have an investment in accuracy. I would never say, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s history now.’” And David Carr outlined this once-simple standard in “Journalist Dancing on the Edge of Truth,” where he indicts shamed New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer for making up quotes from Bob Dylan: “Every reporter who came up in legacy media can tell you about a come-to-Jesus moment when an editor put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull: show respect for the fundamentals of the craft, or you would not soon be part of it. I once lost a job I dearly wanted because I had misspelled the name of the publisher of the publication I was about to go to work for. Not very smart, but I learned a brutal lesson that stayed with me.” (New York Times, August 19, 2012)

However often the airwaves wind up clotted with false memories and misidentified criminal culprits and folks dithering about what they recall, I still think a screw has come loose in our culture around notions of truth, a word you almost can’t set down without quotes around it anymore. Sometimes it strikes me that even when we know something’s true, it’s almost rude to say so, as if claiming a truth at all—what? threatens someone else’s experience? Most of all, no one wants to sound like some self-satisfied proselytizer everybody can pounce on and debunk.

The American religion—so far as there is one anymore—seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.

It is odd that I’ve never seen a televised minute about the simple rules of veracity the nonfiction writers I know seem to cleave to, murdering themselves in revision after revision trying to meet it.

This overlooks the reality—am I the only person left alive to believe this?—that most memoirists know the past can be a swamp. Nonetheless, most are trying to find footing on more solid ground. Some memories—often the best and worst—burn inside us for lifetimes, florid, unforgettable, demanding to be set down.