In Stolen Suffering, an opinion piece in today's New York Times, Daniel Mendelsohn writes better on the subject of faked memoirs than anyone I've read. Mendelsohn, the author most recently of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, makes no bones about how repellent he finds the work passed off as memoir by Monique de Wahl and Margaret Seltzer:
In each case, then, a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit — a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too. Ms. Seltzer has talked about being “torn,” about wanting somehow to ventriloquize her subjects, to “put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.” Ms. De Wael has similarly referred to a longing to be part of the group to which she did not, emphatically, belong: “I felt different. It’s true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community.” (“Felt Jewish” is repellent: real Jewish children were being murdered however they may have felt.)
Lest you think, these ladies just wanted attention: such end results require the sustained habit of lying, as well as the willingness to play on people's sympathies for years on end. This became apparent to me when writing about Laura Albert, and her insistence she was merely "spreading joy and love" and allowing people to "have compassion" for someone we otherwise might not. More, that she published the books as fiction and should be judged as such, regardless of who wrote them. What she will not admit, and which she is fully smart enough to know and which I believe she well knows, is her books sold based on the biography of the author, JT LeRoy, a teenage, drug-addicted, disease-riddled homeless teen who "saved" himself via his writing, and who managed, despite his many obstacles, to reach out to the literary community for help, who gave it based on his biography. I have always thought the wisest move for Albert, post-exposure, would be to cop to the brilliance of her construct; that she might well be celebrated were she to stand up and say, "Yeah, I did this. Pretty great, huh?" But the personality it takes to build a JT LeRoy is not, apparently, the one also capable of admitting to doing so.
Mendelsohn's final concern is mine, as well: there are people, some of whom comment on this blog, who don't seem to care whether the stories we're told are real, are not.
It’s not that frauds haven’t been perpetrated before; what’s worrisome is that, maybe for the first time, the question people are raising isn’t whether the amazing story is true, but whether it matters if it’s true. Perhaps the most dismaying response to the James Frey scandal was the feeling on the part of many readers that, true or false, his book had given them the feel-good, “redemptive” experience they’d hoped for when they bought his novel — er, memoir.
But then, we all like a good story. The cruelty of the fraudulent ones is that they will inevitably make us distrustful of the true ones - a result unbearable to think about when the Holocaust itself is increasingly dismissed by deniers as just another “amazing story.”
While I was working on Albert's story, I kept thinking of a friend of mine who has MS. Sometimes he goes blind, sometimes he can't walk; the exigencies he's put through just to get care are staggering, but he's essentially a cheerful guy. If someone were to write a book, a moving book, a bestselling book, about his odyssey with MS (or cancer, or whathaveyou), and then we found out, he didn't have it; that he'd written it because he "felt he had MS" or, as is Seltzer's contention, to give people with MS "a voice," I would be pissed. Write you own damn book.
Below, a little snip of my conversation with Albert that was cut from the article, wherein she "explains" her use of speaking, for years, as JT LeRoy.
“Some people, it surprised me; their hypocrisy," says Laura. " They said, ‘we were the bastions of hip, we were the keepers of the gate; you snuck past us: how dare you?’ And now they’re pissed.”
Maybe, I suggest, they felt betrayed.
“For the people who feel betrayed or whatever, I say: For
me, JT was very real,” she says. “We didn’t make anyone do anything they didn’t
want to do. We were there, really, being of service. We were really there,
spreading joy and love. Maybe it allowed you to have compassion by proxy.”
I agree JT was a character for whom you could feel compassion, if for no reason than his troubles – diseased, drug-addicted, abused; living on the streets – trumped almost anyone else’s.
“There are lots of kids out there who are homeless – why
aren’t people out there adopting them and taking care of them?” she counters.
“There was something very, very different [about JT].”
Yes, one difference being, JT was promoted like a movie star. Every homeless teen does not have someone like Laura networking a story about him and Winona Ryder.
“But you’re missing another key point,” she says. “It was a
piece of art, and there were books.”
Right, but a lot of people write books.
“And most of them aren’t very good.”
But there are good books. Don DeLillo writes good books. I
don’t know anything about DeLillo’s personal life, probably because he doesn’t
want me to, and because it’s not important to the books themselves. He also
does not, as far as the world knows, talk for hours every night in the voices
of his characters.
"That's his thing," says Laura, as her son toddles in for a kiss goodnight. "I'm interested in family and extended family, and a big network of people. That to me feels safe."