Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Does Truth Really Matter?

“Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask.
He sees your deeds; He knows your needs even before you ask.
How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?”

- Bob Dylan – “When He Returns” (1979)

A while back Nancy read “A Million Little Pieces,” a book highly recommend by Oprah Winfrey. After she read it she told me that there was something that just seemed funny about it. There was a part of her that wanted to give James Frey, the author, the benefit of the doubt. The true story of a man who’s hit bottom and then redeemed himself was very appealing. But Nancy couldn’t bring herself to the place where she believed the story.

Not having read the book, I had no good advice to give her on how to bridge the gap between her doubts and James Frey’s words.

That’s where I left it all until this morning. Right after breakfast I read Ellen Goodman’s opinion piece “My Sorry Life (well sort of).” James Frey, it seems, played fast and loose with the truth:

“THE HEADLINE WRITERS got the most out of this brouhaha. After James Frey's memoir of self-destruction and redemption, “A Million Little Pieces,” was riddled with buckshot from the Smoking Gun website, they got to work: “A Million Little Lies.” “Truth, the Whole Truth and Memoirs.” “Prose and Cons.” “Too Bad to Be True.”

“It turns out that the “gut-wrenching memoir” that Oprah loved and that sold 3.5 million copies was made of whole cloth as well as whole life. Frey did five hours in custody, not three months in jail. He didn't mix it up with the police officers, and he barely knew the girl who died in a train accident for which he said he was blamed. And that's the beginning.”

“The defabrication set off the debate on truth and virtual truth, reality and essential reality, fiction and nonfiction that pits certified members of the “reality-based community” against the post-modern-recontructionist-abstract-expressionist-who-knows-what school of literati.”

Oprah Winfrey, whose recommendation had given the book the traction it needed to be a best seller, defended Frey:

“Phoning in near the end of the show, on which Frey gave his first interview since the controversy broke earlier this week, she dismissed the affair as “much ado about nothing” and urged readers inspired by the book to “keep holding on.”

“What is relevant is that he was a drug addict ... and stepped out of that history to be the man he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves,” Winfrey said”

So, who’s right about James Frey?

Now I’m not a big fan of Ellen Goodman, but in this case she has hit the mark. The question she raised is really important. Is truth nothing more than something that can be reconstructed to market a book or an idea? Or was getting caught in the act of passing fiction off as fact “much ado about nothing,” as Oprah contended.

How much did Frey fabricate? A lot, apparently. On January 8th, a weblog bylined “The Smoking Gun” exposed Frey in a piece titled “A Million Little Lies – Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction.” A small sample follows:

“But a six-week investigation by The Smoking Gun reveals that there may be a lot less to love about Frey's runaway hit, which has sold more than 3.5 million copies and, thanks to Winfrey, has sat atop The New York Times nonfiction paperback best seller list for the past 15 weeks. Next to the latest Harry Potter title, Nielsen BookScan reported Friday, Frey's book sold more copies in the U.S. in 2005--1.77 million--than any other title, with the majority of that total coming after Winfrey's selection.”

“Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey's book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw “wanted in three states.”

“In addition to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students. In what may be his book's most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy's third victim.”

This is really more than “much ado about nothing.” This is not a matter of the public demanding verbatim transcripts of conversations from a person’s life. This is not a matter of people viewing the same events from slightly different perspectives. This is pure fabrication.

When I read Augustine’s Confessions I don’t expect each and every word of each and every conversation to be written exactly as they took place. I don’t expect a word for word transcript. I’m not a lawyer, I’m a pilgrim. But I do expect the facts of the story to be accurate. I don’t expect invented facts thrown in to lend credence to what otherwise might be a very dull, uneventful life. Truth simply cannot be built on a foundation of lies.

One of the really troubling things I see in all of this is the gullibility of some who’ve read, and continue to defend, Frey’s work. The real truth doesn’t seem to be good enough, so Frey created “truth” and a lot of folks fell for it. Why?

C.S. Lewis, I believe, got to the heart of the problem:

“The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart – an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience different things; in other words they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He made eating pleasurable.”

I think that Frey may not have been satisfied with the truth of his life. So, he created a new one and cashed in on what he’d fabricated. Along the way he found some willing not only to read his book, but also to defend what he’d done. To them, created truth was better than the real thing. Fabrication and falsehood were worthy of praise while the real truth was deemed to be unimportant, “much ado about nothing.”

There is, of course, a cure:

“But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm.”

It may seem as appealing to exchange the truth for a lie today as it was two thousand years ago, but there’s something very valuable lost when we make the deal. The truth is lost, and so is the firm foundation life in a free and decent society should be built on. As Goodman noted in her column, it’s dangerous ground to tread:

“Where does all this slippery thinking take us? The morphing of truth and fiction promotes a world in which facts are “subjective” and reality “flexible.” It feeds an indifference to honesty and a belief that every truth is up for grabs. At its most extreme it lends credibility -- street cred -- to such frauds as the Holocaust denial.”

“Did you notice that the new president of Iran calls the Holocaust a “myth”? Someday we'll read about it -- in his memoirs.”
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The Ugly American said...

he wrote the book to make money period.

The only thing worse than a lying drug addicted career criminal scumbag is a man who pretends to be one for profit.

not that I have a strong opinion on the matter 8).

Leon said...

I agree. I also wrote a post on it, which you can view here.

Jay said...

Truth makes some people uncomfortable. It's easier to believe a lie than to discover you've been lied to.

Chromatius said...

Regarding your last statement - a myth is also a set of political and cultural beliefs and messages derived from a common or shared historical experience. This is what most historians would mean if they used the word.

For example America has the myths of the Alamo, the myths of the old west - stories designed to misdirect from brutal historical truth and empahsise the messages the culture wishes to associate with the event.

We live in a world burdened by the myths of WW2 - e.g. America nuked Japan and saved many lives. And yes, the holocaust.

It is not that the events didn't happen, they all did, but that a complex of beliefs and propaganda have accreted around it that bends the event to certain ideological ends.

I don't know if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the word in that way, but any conference held on the subject will.

In fact recently deceased Palestinian academic Edward Said's 'Orientalism' is one of the great explorations of such effects.

R2K said...

Lol funny that bob dylan should speak like that, he changed his name for one that sounded cooler.

Bathroom Review

Ed Darrell said...

Okay, you've convinced me.

Now, will you take after Jonathan Wells, Michael Behe, William Dembski and the Discovery Institute? Their fabrications are at least as bad.