Stretching the truth for “entertainment value” is hardly a new concept. In almost all memoirs and personal stories, bits and pieces of embellishment can be discovered that make the story juicer, more dramatic, or more provocative. When I tell a story, I fall under this category too, changing minor details to get the desired “Wow’ effect. It is expected in both written and oral genres, and ignored 95 percent of the time.
But when does it cross a line?
I can remember two main instances where the public has called out an author for being too false. The first was with the ‘memoir’, A Million Little Pieces, which describes a young man’s challenges of dealing with drug addiction, alcoholism, and an extensive life of crime. The only trouble was, when people tried to locate a booking photo of him, it turned out his ‘life of crime’ was almost entirely made up. While the author, James Frey, proclaimed he never said his entire story was true, the public was outraged, and Oprah, who had previously added the book to her ‘best reads’ list, scathed him on national television. Another example of this type of fraudulent writing was with a short piece entitled Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. Previously called “stunning” by The New York Times, the story, about a Holocaust survivor from Latvia, quickly unraveled when it was discovered the author never lived in Latvia at all.
When it comes to these stories, I have conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they serve their purpose in gaining recognition for their subject matter, often areas that people don’t normally like to bring into conversation. A Million Little Pieces did a lot to get the topic of drug addiction out into the forefront of conversation, and Fragments: Memories of Wartime Childhood represented the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s the personal touch that people crave. A clinical study of drug addiction doesn’t rile people up the same way that a real-life story does. In this regard, I applaud these writers for getting their message out there. At the same time, however, when the truth of these stories comes to light, it often does more harm to the writer’s cause then good. The conversation almost always switches away from the important subject matter, and onto how the author’s work represents another lie.
This is the case with Mike Daisey’s writing as well. The retraction podcast mentions that Daisey is at the forefront of the battle against unfair trade practices, creating many conversations about the horrors of these factories and how they can change. But I have to wonder if his message would still have been heard if he told the truth about his time in China? Yes, some areas would not be as dramatic. Not as provocative. But at least the nation’s conversation would be about the tragedy of the situation, and not his lies.