The Value of Truth

Today on Oprah, James Frey, the author of bestseller and Oprah Book Club book A Million Little Pieces, admitted to fabricating parts of his memoir. A lot of you may have heard about the investigation The Smoking Gun did and the story it published on its website about the many discrepancies between Frey’s real life and the events depicted in his memoir. Oprah even called into Larry King Live to defend Frey when he appeared on King’s show earlier this month, saying that the investigation did not change her feelings about the book because the message of redemption is the same. However, she has since realized that her comments led people to believe she didn’t care about the truth, which is not the case, so she publicly apologized to the American public and admitted her embarrassment over the whole debacle. Oprah really deserves a lot of credit for what she did because I know it can’t have been easy to be publicly embarrassed as she was and then have to apologize for also misleading her viewers. She bluntly tells him she felt duped and betrayed, and she held nothing back in her questions of him without coming across as mean or vindictive. Apparently, she and her producers had been told by the publishers that the book was true and real, and so they believed them, as did virtually everyone else who has read the book. Oprah made it clear several times during the show that she regretted making the phone call and that the truth really does matter to her.

Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese, also appeared on the show, and when asked by Oprah if she ever doubted the truth of Frey’s story, she said no. When Oprah asked if they had done anything to verify the facts, she replied with something along the lines of, “Can you ask an author if their life is true?” Oprah (and me, sitting in my living room) said emphatically, “Yes!” Talese then talked about how it was a “memoir” and not an “autobiography” and that it’s understood that the work is a tale of the author’s memories of events. So if the author is said to remember things a certain way, that is what’s reported. Okay, Talese, point taken. BUT the thing is, several details that Frey embellished, such as the length of his stay in jail, the manner in which a woman in his life committed suicide, his visit to the dentist, etc., all could have been verified within maybe an hour’s worth of research. It’s not as though he said the shirt he wore when he left the rehab facility was blue when it was really black. The details he altered are big ones, details that affect how the reader views the work. And Frey admitted to altering these details, so it’s not just that he “remembered” them the way he told them, he blatantly lied. He tried, not very well in my opinion, to defend himself, saying that part of his alterations were to protect the people involved and also saying it was a type of “coping mechanism.” What? How is lying to yourself and other people about serious things a way of coping? It’s more like denial. Even after Oprah pressed him, he seemed to admit to lying very begrudgingly. I’m not at all trying to be insensitive, and I can imagine this whole ordeal has been difficult for Frey, but there’s a thing called personal integrity, and if you’re going to present a certain picture of yourself to millions of readers, make sure it’s the right picture.

Not only that, but this could have implications much bigger than Frey’s tainted reputation. Undoubtedly this will cause many people to question the validity of every memoir. If publishers don’t think it necessary to check facts, then who’s to say what’s true or not? And as Oprah pointed out, what’s to stop any Joe on the street from bringing in a story they claim to be their life but is actually a bunch of lies? There needs to be better accountability, more responsibility on the part of publishers to verify facts. I’ve read a couple of articles that say staffing fact-checkers is too expensive and time consuming, but what does that say about the price we put on truth? Postmodern world aside, I still believe in truth, as do millions of other people, and the pursuit of it should be priceless.

You can read about Frey’s appearance on Oprah here.

EDIT: Beth’s comment reminded me that I forgot to add that the next printing of the book will contain an author’s note explaining the fabrications but that it will still be marketed as a memoir. I agree with Beth that a book is good if it grabs your attention and keeps it, but why couldn’t Frey have just written a novel? Or just told the truth? Or even have the book say something like “based on a true story”? Sure, it’s entertaining, but should it just stop there? Couldn’t it be both entertaining and truthful?

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