The data (and narrative) behind a good lie.

In 2003 James Frey, a twenty-something American and recovering alcoholic and drug addict, published his memoir A Million Little Pieces. The memoir recounts his experience of addiction and rehabilitation, often in brutalist and unsparingly graphic detail. Two scenes in particular have stayed with me to this day, one involving a trip to the dentist for un-anaesthetised root-canal treatment (the horror), the other something altogether worse involving a woman and the things people in the grips of an addiction will do for drugs.

In 2005 Frey hit the big-time and A Million Little Pieces was selected for the Holy-Grail of Book Clubs, Oprah’s Book Club, an act that virtually guaranteed massive sales. Not long after the book topped the New York Times’s best sellers list, as Oprah’s Book Club choices tend to do, and there it remained for some 15 weeks, selling close to four million copies. Not bad for a former addict, eh?

Except Frey wasn’t all he claimed to be. And his memoir wasn’t entirely factual. To give but one example. Instead of being in jail for a respectable 87 days, Frey was in jail for just a few hours. The Smoking Gun published an article titled “A Million Little Lies” that opened with the amusingly melodramatic statement “Oprah Winfrey’s been had” (gasp!) and proceeded with an article outlining how Frey’s book had circumvented the truth and taken Winfrey along for the ride:

Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey’s book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw “wanted in three states.”

In an odd reversal, Frey’s lack of jail time and status as a not-so-delinquent former delinquent led to outrage and culminated in a massively dramatic face-off with Winfrey that is referred to by Winfrey herself as among her most controversial interviews:

Oprah: James Frey is here and I have to say it is difficult for me to talk to you because I feel really duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers. I think it’s such a gift to have millions of people to read your work and that bothers me greatly. So now, as I sit here today I don’t know what is true and I don’t know what isn’t. So first of all, I wanted to start with The Smoking Gun report titled, “The Man Who Conned Oprah” and I want to know—were they right?

So Frey’s memoir was fictional, or if we are being very (very) generous, semi-autobiographical. He lied and blurred the lines between autobiography and real-life; using narrative to distort not only his personal data, but to distort the lives of others. It made for a pretty interesting (if graphic) novel, but this additional layer and awareness that, in addition to struggling with their own addictions, the figures in this novel (many of whom were now dead) had, on top of everything else, now been chewed up and spat out by Frey, was abhorrent. In particular I have always been repulsed by his crude appropriation and exploitation of the altogether dire narrative of a vulnerable female companion and love interest called Lilly, whose eventual suicide Frey “tweaks” both in terms of how and when it was enacted, presenting himself as a proto-saviour for Lilly, one who tragically arrives a few hours two late (this didn’t happen, Lilly’s suicide did not coincide with the day Frey arrived to “save her”).

What was marketed as a memoir narrative, that is to say a narrative wherein the data correlates with and can be backed up by real-world events, was in fact a fictional narrative, that is a narrative wherein the data is used to intimate real-world events. As Jesse Rosenthal points out in “Narrative Against Data” (2017), in these situations data is exploited to give the impression of truth or believability, and “the narrative relies for its coherence on our unexamined belief that a pre-existing series of events underlies it.” Frey’s manipulation of the rules of genre then, together with his exploitation of the co-dependence of data and narrative, was what was so unforgivable to Oprah and her readers. A Million Little Pieces would have been fine as fiction, but as a memoir, it was manipulative, rhetorical with the truth, and deeply exploitative. It was not the narrative that undid Frey’s web of manipulations, then, but the data that should have worked as their foundations, that should have been there to back his story up.

Frey’s hardly the first to do this. Philip Roth’s been skirting the lines that separate fiction and autobiography for decades. Dave Eggers’s 2000 work A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius set the marker for contemporary US “good-guy” memoir-lit. More recently, Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-part “fictional” novel series provocatively titled My Struggle (in Norweigan: Min kamp) establishes the same tenuous, flirtatious relationship with the fictions and facts surrounding the life of its author. But while Knausgård’s work has certainly caused controversy in Sweden and his native Norway for the way it exposes the lives of his friends and family, this geographically localised controversy has served rather to fuel ongoing international interest and fascination with the novel series and its apparent real-life subject, Karl Ove himself, and his relentless mining of his autobiography to fuel these supposedly fictional narratives.

But the reaction to Frey’s twisting of the truth was altogether different. Why?

It seems you can alter facets of your memoirs if you label them as fictional to begin with (as Knausgård has done, an act that in itself is no doubt infuriating to the so-called “fictional” peoples exposed by his writings),  or if your modifications are relatively benign and done for stylistic reasons or dramatic effect (as Eggers has admitted to doing, and indeed as Barack Obama has done in his autobiographies).  But certain narratives, if declared truthful, must be verifiable by facts, evidence, and data. This extends beyond the realm of memoir and into present-day assertions of self. The intense push for President Trump to testify before Congress, for example, the implicit understanding (or hope, this is Trump after all) being that, much like in an autobiographical account of self, a narrative under oath must correlate to something tangible, to something real. It cannot simply turn out to be fictional scaffolding designed to dupe and distort the relationship between fact, fiction, narrative, and data.

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