Friday, January 2, 2009

Who Says Memoirs Have To Be True?

Well, folks, it looks like Oprah got bit in the ass again by promoting a memoir that turned out to be false. Those of you who were paying attention three years ago probably remember the ruckus caused by James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which turned out to have, shall we say, some details that were embellished. (For example, in tracing his downward spiral into drug addiction, Mr. Frey wrote about spending several months in jail, when in reality he rivalled Paris Hilton by spending only hours in the pen.)

This time, the culprit is Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor who entered a "best love story" contest in The New York Post. His tale, a "story of meeting as children while Mr. Rosenblat was a prisoner at a subcamp of the infamous Buchenwald," is certainly moving, but it is weakened only by the fact that it isn't true. Mr. Rosenblat's memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, has been cancelled, and the second printing of children's book based on his story, Angel Girl, has been withdrawn. He has been nationally exposed as a liar, a fraud--and it all was made possible by Oprah, who had him on her show to celebrate his moving story.

This brings up several issues: first, has anyone heard of fact-checking? While I make no claim to perfection and have been guilty of mistakes on more than one occasion, I'm not Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful women in the nation. You'd think she'd be able to get an intern to check up on the stories she covers.

Secondly, this type of story shows just how voyeuristic American society is today. We want to hear gruesome, bloody stories of pain and suffering--but only if it has a happy ending. A memoir cannot be published unless its writer has overcome "amazing odds," so it is inevitable that writers should feel compelled to exaggerate certain details. Why would Mr. Frey admit that he spent a couple hours in a cell thinking about what he did when he can tell just a little bitty white lie and say that he was in there for months? The public is unimpressed by several hours in jail--several months, however? Well, that is a story worth hearing.

In Mr. Rosenblat's case, he still beat the odds. He survived the Holocaust, for God's sake, and that is no small thing. But in selling his story as true when it is, in fact, embellished, he won't be remembered for that. Take, for instance, the response to the news of Rosenblat's deception: "'We run out and buy these books and then we get kicked in the teeth,' someone using the identification 0423dee wrote Monday on Ms. Winfrey’s Web site," The fact that these people feel so betrayed by the falsehood shows just how invested they were in revelling in another's suffering. Surviving the Holocaust? Unlikely but not interesting. Surviving the Holocaust because a little girl threw apples over a fence for you and then meeting that girl again in New York years later? Nearly impossible, but interesting.

For my part, I feel sorry for the Rosenblats, a little Jewish couple who undoubtedly got swept up in a storm they didn't see coming and didn't intend to create.


Homero said...

I rarely say "Check out this Wikipedia article," but check out this wikipedia article:

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Inspa-lit, huh? Who the hell buys this stuff?

Although I love that some bookstores have a "painful lives" section, as though you can feel better about yourself by reading about how miserable other people are.

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