Did you read the story in the New York Times – “National Enquirer Article a Fabrication?” I can’t remember what the article being referred to was about, something to do with the founding of
After that, when I read the story about Misha Defonseca admitting that her book, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was made up I was not nearly as surprised as everyone else seems to have been. I have not had a chance to read the book but in it four year old Misha’s parents are taken to a concentration camp by the Nazis and she wanders for several years in the woods until she is adopted by a pack of wolves.
OK, I guess I can understand that the temptation to believe a story like that. A few internet searches do turn up modern day Moglis. From the girl found in Cambodia after, some claim, 10 years in the jungle to a boy raised by dogs in Russia, these stories appear often (there is actually a website devoted to such children). Unlike Mogli or Tarzan though, these people do not present as well adjusted mentally healthy individuals. They are, in fact, stunted and traumatized to the point where most can never function as a member of society.
Anyone with even a little bit of common sense reading Defonseca’s book must have known it was not literal truth; the question then is whether it is literary truth. In this case the real source of distrust probably arises from the fact that her parents were not taken to a concentration camp, but underground movement members caught and executed. Does that discredit every, or most, insights into the human condition that one can get reading the book?
When James Frey’s book went through a similar turn I read it with just that question in mind. The book fascinated me, not so much because of the rich, and fabricated, storyline, but more because of the disdain it showed for the AA five step program. I have always been struck by what I perceived as a lack of dissent on that program. Frey’s book provides that dissent, but is it legitimate?
The whole question of literal and literary truth has been, and continues to be, heavily debated among writers. An article in the November issue of Harper's, “A Lie that Tells the Truth” by Joel Agee, looks at this, concluding that some license is reasonable. When you approach this question from the perspective of the reader, however, different issues are at play. First, and foremost, everybody lies. Be it a memoir, a textbook or a newspaper article expecting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth seems pretty naive.
Thus the question of legitimacy is not one for Frey, or Defonseca, or really any writer to answer, it is for the reader to decide. Literary, and most human, truths have to depend on a preponderance of evidence. In short that means you have to read more than one thing. If anyone ever tells you there is only one book you need to read on a topic, run the other way and read none, or plenty. A great writer should be loved, but never trusted. #