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How can you ensure a memoir’s truth?

by on November 15, 2016

The memoir, to me, is a fancy french was of saying auto-biography.  There is more of a serious air however.  Authors write auto-biographies, journalists and lawyers right memoirs of their exploits.  Journalists write memoirs of their lives, their times spent abroad.  Memoirs can serve to be lengthy articles with self involvement, and in fact are taken as such.  A memoir is assumed to be true.  While articles are meant to be informative of current events, people look at memoirs to provide insights to past lives that helped shape the culture of today.  This raises concerns with the truth behind a memoir however.  It’s much harder to fact-check a memoir that is based on personal accounts.  It is even harder to fact-check memoirs that are based on accounts so personal, that perhaps there was only one person there at the time (memoirs concerning isolated people, hikers, mountain climbers, etc.).  So, memoirs go published, and until a whistleblower appears the book is perceived as truth and journalism.  A memoir, taken for truth, poses a threat to some people.  The dead cannot defend themselves, and every day people accused of something do not have the capacity, typically, to write a counter memoir.

Running with Scissors depicts a young Augusten Burroughs, taken in by a family in Amherst Massachusetts.  While accounts depict the family as odd, nobody believes the family to be vile in any sense.  However, Burroughs depicted the family as vile, writing about them with such malice.  Most likely, this was to enhance his book and increase sales.  Countless people took this story in as truth however, until people including the family came out to argue that the book were exaggerated and contained false information.  There are many other exampled of memoirs having fake components or being entirely false, a quick google search provides you with ten at the very top of the page.  I understand that memoirs are a different realm than the traditional article, but when a memoir is taken as truth and a part of journalism, what steps should be taken in insuring truth if possible at all?  Even as a publisher, a phony can cause you to have to rebrand every print of the book, and pay out those who file lawsuits on you.  How do you protect yourself as a publisher?


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  1. aoates1995 permalink

    This is a very interesting point to consider. The hard truths in memiors are pratically impossible to pin down. Thus, I am not sure it is appropriate to deem memiors as journalistic. The main purpose of journalism is seeking truth, most preferably from a variety of sources who can provide their own perspectives. With such a limited point of view, memoirs are often unable to do this.

  2. Having dealt personally with both memoir and journalistic writing, I can see the discrepancy between the two concerning truth. It’s true that a memoir is typically based off of one person’s account and that it can be hard to place complete trust in a story told entirely by one party. However there are memoirs which take a more journalistic worthiness, like Sarah Tillman’s “The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts.” The author describes her journey in investigating a murder’s effect on a remote town in Texas, but does so through a series of interviews with multiple sources. She is able to form a complete image of the murder’s scene without injecting herself entirely into the narrative. Another example is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. So while I agree that memoir can be a hard topic to consider completely journalistic, there are definitely ways in which it can be done.

    • I would like to clarify that I do view memoirs as journalistic, my point is while being journalistic it can be more damaging than a false article (longer, more detailed, harder to redact) and harder to ensure the truth

  3. I deem memoirs to be journalistic as well, for they are the chronicling of events; telling of a story (or stories; recording of a personal history. Indeed I think they also serves as journalism through what they provide for the reader, that is, insight into another person’s life with countless points and plots that one can relate to. When it comes to figuring the truth, I feel it is the public’s imperative to take a story at face value, so long as what can be fact-checked is. Skepticism is certainly the mark of a thinking person in my opinion, but to cynically view one’s writing without real cause other than suspicion, would be a disservice to one’s self. I understand how this could be seen as problematic, but one should in my opinion never really place too much weight on anything published anyway. Even articles are inherently slanted by the writer’s perspective, regardless of the truth of the events described. That is why I feel taking things at face value, without placing more weight than is necessary on a writer’s word is a fair compromise. If something is proven to be fallacy, then acknowledge that.

  4. I consider memoirs to be journalistic.

    It’s funny because one of my all time favorite books is a memoir called “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey. It was a bestseller, was part of Oprah’s book club, etc, etc, etc. Fantastic piece of writing.

    However, after he got all this recognition for his memoir about his drug/alcohol addiction and rehabilitation, some people involved in the story came forward to say that Frey had exaggerated and embellished in some areas of his book.

    I was a little upset when I heard this, but that didn’t change how incredible reading that book felt for me. Whether some aspects are fictional or not, the fact that James Frey has a gift is undeniable. His voice is so unambiguous and powerful in his writing. His story was both traumatizing and inspiring, and he does such an exquisite job painting the pictures of his recovery process for you.

    I feel like I give memoirs more leeway with trasnparency than I give to news or profile pieces. I think with memoirs, the writers goal is just as much to share how a certain circumstance felt for them than to tell you about it. In order to do that, maybe they feel they have to stretch the truth a little bit.

    If it’s done well and effectively, I tend to be okay with it I guess.

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