Authenticity, Identity, Reality

I’m recovering from knee surgery, so maybe that is the reason I’m sporting a surlier view of things. Bear with me here, I’ll be ambulatory and more optimistically inclined soon enough. But until then…

Much has been written over the last week about the latest scandal regarding yet another faux memoir exposed. It is easy to view this trend (which, let’s face it, it does seem to resemble) with cynicism and blame the usual culprits–greed, mendacity, inauthenciticy, a desperate need for attention. A much more in depth and provocative response appeared this morning in the New York Times Op Ed column, Stolen Suffering, by Daniel Mendelsohn, author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a sample:

In an era obsessed with “identity,” it’s useful to remember that identity is precisely that quality in a person, or group, that cannot be appropriated by others; in a world in which theme-park-like simulacra of other places and experiences are increasingly available to anyone with the price of a ticket, the line dividing the authentic from the ersatz needs to be stressed, rather than blurred. As, indeed, Ms. De Wael has so clearly blurred it, for reasons that she has suggested were pitiably psychological. “The story is mine,” she announced. “It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.”

“My reality,” as opposed to “actual reality,” is, of course, one sign of psychosis, and given her real suffering during the war, you’re tempted to sympathize — until you read that her decision to write her memoir came at a time when her husband was out of work, or (we real Jews call this chutzpah) that she successfully sued the publisher for more than $20 million for professional malfeasance. Or until you learn about her galling manipulations of the people who believed her…

“My reality” raises even more far-reaching and dire questions about the state of our culture, one in which the very concept of “reality” seems to be in danger. Think of “reality” entertainments, which so unnervingly parallel the faux-memoirists’ appropriation of others’ authentic emotional experience: in them, real people are forced to endure painful or humiliating or extreme situations, their real emotional reactions becoming the source of the viewers’ idle gratification. Think of the Internet: an unimaginably powerful tool for education but also a Wild West of random self-expression in which anyone can say anything about anything (or anyone) and have it “published,” and which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic identities, reality and fantasy.

That pervasive blurriness, the casualness about reality that results when you can turn off entire worlds simply by unsubscribing, changing a screen name, or closing your laptop, is what ups the cultural ante just now. 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.

Strong stuff. And sobering.

6 Replies to “Authenticity, Identity, Reality”

  1. a story’s a story right? if it speaks the truth to you, does it have to be real, even if it clames to be but isn’t? I mean there’s truth in fables.

    the notion of memoir is more about the marketing and the celebrity-feting of the author.

    words are words, fact blends into narrative blends into subjective experience blends into fiction. Where are the hard lines??

  2. Elatia Harris says:

    No hard lines, wanderer7, except in the minds of people reading, who have their own troubles with distinguishing “what really happened” from the psychic realities they live painfully with but wouldn’t put over as historical fact because they know the forces that make their inner lives are not the same as the forces that shape events. And, knowing that, they feel conned by the “memoirs” of someone who doesn’t know it, or who knows it only until there’s money for not knowing it.

    Misha Defonseca/Monique De Wael, the Belgian Catholic preschooler who 50 years later wrote about doing hard time as a Jewish feral child after her parents in the resistance were executed when she was 4, may have had more reason than most to think she was raised by wolves, and to feel like her childhood was a bleak and vast landscape stretching from Flanders to the Ukraine, where the only succor came from the strangest places, as she wandered and wandered and wandered. Maybe that’s what she meant when she said, “this was my reality.” Hey, I understand — I’m just not buying. Especially not since Aharon Appelfeld really did live in the woods for four years after the end of WWII, a boy in a gang of Jewish teenagers who were nothing if not tough, but who could not trust enough to rejoin society. Aharon Appelfeld grew up to write _Badenheim 1939_ and _The Iron Tracks_, among other novels of genius. Monique De Wael became Misha Defonseca, a fiction of a different kind.

    Where’s the line? You tell me. Maybe you only cross it when you cross-dress in another’s suffering because your own has been sufficient to devastate you but not to get you noticed. And it’s the latter thing that you cannot bear.

  3. I called it in my post Trauma Envy: The Crime of Fraudulent Memoir
    Writer Reading: Trauma Envy: The Crime of Fraudulent Memoir
    Like Mendelsohn wrote, every lying word stealing the trauma of others makes true trauma tales less believable and for trauma survivors, all they have left is their stories, and to steal that from them is simply criminal and deserves jail time. I know I’m extreme but I have reason to be. Holocaust deniers love those faux memoirs as fuel for their Holocaust fabrication theories. Even in real memoirs, someone may not be clear on what they do or don’t remember, but they simply can say so. In a moral world, there should be a distinction between truth and lying, no? There should be consequences for lying, however, entertaining. Confidence men who take advantage of old ladies tell fabulous stories about their lives. So do the Nigerian 613 email scammers who have emptied bank accounts of trusting individuals including a college professor according to one New Yorker article. A lie may be very entertaining, but it is still a lie. These faux memoirs are literary perjury, a betrayal of the contract of trust with the reader and an exploitation of the suffering of genuine victims. It’s sociopathic.

  4. Authenticity is a bottom line attribute for me. Thank you for a rich commentary that inspires me to cut through–and reject–the complaisant and pervasive blurriness.

  5. Interesting post & interesting comments. Some random thoughts:

    For some reason photography comes to mind. I believe it was Susan Sontag among others who debated whether overexposure to images of atrocities deadens the viewer’s sensibility. And then came digital photography & image manipulation. What is a true representation, or an altered image, and why should it matter, if the message gets across? I’ve always disliked advertising & reality television because its not REAL and yet plays upon my emotions. I’d rather save my emotional response for real issues & not be played like a musical instrument. Nor do I like contemporary art’s emphasis on message above form & aesthetics.


  6. I’m wondering whether calling these stories “stories” would have validated them. Would these memoirs be accepted for publication if they hadn’t had that label “memoir”? I suspect not. One of the pressures of our age may be that everything has to be true or be “based upon a true story.” Okay, the people who perpetrate these frauds deserve censure. Fundamentally, they lied. But are the publishers complicit? In our demand for “reality,” are we? What happened to that old definition of fiction as “A big lie that tells the truth”? Have we lost the capacity to recognize and value the background truth of fiction—a “reality” that, in the hands of a talented writer—can be every bit as glaring and illuminating as a “true story”?

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