James Frey and the lies we choose to believe

There is more soul searching at the New York Times over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and how much of his claimed drug-addled life was made up.

The question seems to be whether it is ok to embellish truth as long as you’re a good writer.

I read the first page of Frey’s book then stopped (I did the same thing with Lovely Bones). It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, or that the writing was bad – I wouldn’t know, I didn’t finish the books – it was just that these were journeys I didn’t wish to go on with the writers.

As to the embellishment, well this is something that does trouble me, and I believe there is no reason to make stuff up when the truth is always so much more compelling.

In August of 2002 when the National Post published the Patricia Pearson articles I recall much debate with Post editors over the tag line to the articles which went like this:

“Pearson uncovers the story of Theresa’s death, which was almost certainly a murder by a serial killer who may still be at large.”

Editors discussed this caption with me; however they were not concerned with the statement’s veracity, but rather whether I found it upsetting. I told them to go for it; while not entirely true, I knew it would sell papers. But on the question of a serial killer, I have always been adamant that such a theory is one possibility, but equally possible (and more frightening to me) is that three different murderers killed three girls in the Eastern Townships and got away with it. Somehow this caveat never makes it in the media (check W-Five, the French and English papers… you’ll never see it, though I have made that statement on every occasion I have had press time.)

It’s no mystery what’s going on here. The lesson is as old as yellow journalism and had to be re-taught to me by Debbie Mahaffy who commented to me once at a conference with an expression tired from ten years of fighting with these people:

“If it bleeds it leads”

Now, like James Frey, I wrote a memoir. This was in the winter of 2003. I sat down and chronicled everything I had learned from my families experience in 78-79 and my own experience the year prior. This was more to preserve what had happened; I didn’t want anyone in my family to ever forget it.

But soon I was having meetings with publishers in Canada and the U.S.. They loved the whole concept; the pain, the suffering, the haunting, bla-bla-bla… There was just one problem in their opinion (and this was the case with all of them): The book didn’t have an ending.

Come back when the serial killer is captured, then we’ll talk.

I’m not kidding. You can’t make this stuff up. And what I tried to tell these publishing geniuses was that the truth is more interesting; some crimes aren’t solved, some pain never goes away, and some murders most certainly are random acts that don’t comply with our desire for a patterned, ordered and causal environment.

So am I surprised by the controversy over James Frey? No, people love to debate these sort of things. Am I surprised that his memoir isn’t entirely forthright? No, I believe there are enormous pressures to do something like that. (it was great watching Gay Talese on Larry King basically contradict every word his publishing wife had to say) Do I think I know who put him up to it? Sure, directly or indirectly, the publishing industry.

And I’m disappointed. Because the truth is so fascinating and unpredictable, why not tell a story based on facts; that’s always more enjoyable.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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