I'm not a big reader of memoirs, but lots of folks claim that, these days, the memoir has really bested the novel as a genre. Some of the best-selling books of the last decade have been memoirs--think of Angela's Ashes.
But the memoir has this aching Achilles tendon--they're seem somehow easy to make up. Just this morning I read of another: Margaret B. Jones's Love and Consequences, published just last week, is a flat-out lie. Haven't read the book, nor will I, but it has received significant praise from reviewers. But it follows in the sad footsteps of another fabrication just last week, when it was learned that a Holocaust memoir, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca, was also a fake. Most people remember the whole Oprah tale of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, another phony testimony, that one of drug addiction and recovery.
Many best-selling memoirs play on our sympathies. Ms. Jones's story was about her rough girlhood, growing up in LA gangland, running drugs. She claimed she was half-white, half-Native, and used stories and ideas she'd developed when she worked in LA ghettos.
Sadly, the plot didn't work, and yesterday it unwound and sprung embarrassment all over the place. Riverhead Books has already recalled copies from hither and yon and canceled the author's tour. The lights are out. Ms. Jones was lying from the getgo, the daughter of some privilege, in fact.
Yesterday, I heard a tale about a former student of mine, a young lady I didn't really trust because she was so very good at selling her life of horror--and she knew it. I think we're all vulnerable--I'm not saying I'm somehow immune--to cries for sympathies, especially those of us who have on hand an ample supply of guilt for use in periodic self-torture.
At the college where I teach, righteousness is much in vogue and always has been. We're in Garrison Keillor country, where, honestly, all the kids are above averange, the vast, vast majority coming from sweet Christian homes, where parents did their ever-best to bring their children up in the fear of the Lord. In other words, at a place like this, to some con-men and women, there are really a lot of chumps. This young lady--with her tales of drug use and etc.--I swear, had learned to trade on a story no one could prove right or wrong. In fact, she may have been right--maybe her family was all the things she said. But what I distrusted was the way that desperate family background got wedged into conversation most all the time.
I never told anyone about my hesitations, but recently I discovered that someone else had learned this particular student couldn't be trusted. In a way, I felt relieved.
Trust is one wonderful commodity, and even a reason to bring up your kids in a small town like the one where we live. Fear is its opposite, and sometimes I think today's younger generation--brought up post-Columbine and having heard a thousand stories about childhood seductions and rapes and murders--has lost the ability to trust in a climate of fear created by a media world where too many outlets let us engorge ourselves on ambulance-chasing.
I think it's fair to say that not all that many gang-bangers are reading New York Times best-selling memoirs. The target audience for Margaret B. Jones's Love and Consequences, I dare say, was highly-educated white suburbanites who know little or nothing about life in the 'hood. Good people trust, even their story-tellers.
And good people get conned, as did the editors at Riverhead Books.
So why didn't Margaret Jones just sell the Love and Consequences as a novel--what it was? Because testimony is jucier somehow. Riverhead would never have published it as a novel. But as a memoir, the sky was the limit. If it hadn't been a lie.
The trick in life, I guess, is finding some perilous middle ground--not trusting too much, but never trusting too little.
This morning, I'm just thankful for truth, a commodity all too frequently in short supply.