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.

http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/celebrity/million-little-lies

http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v17/v17n5p15_Weber.html

6 responses »

  1. wmw014 says:

    You bring up a great point in describing how people exagerate or include lies in their stories in order to obtain that “Wow” factor. However, I think that the line is crossed when you label your story as something that it is not to a large group of people. In Mike Daisy’s case, he labeled his fabricated story as journalism which is why he has come under so much scrutiny. Similar to what Ira says to Mr. Daisy, if he had just labeled his monologue as an act and not as factual journalism he would have been in the clear. In addition, I also had some conflicting emotions when I heard Mike Daisy’s admittance that he had exagerated/fabricated his story. If one ignores the fact that several elements of his monologue are lies, they can see that he really is a brilliant actor.

  2. mbc014 says:

    I mentioned this in another comment but my biggest problem was that this wasn’t portrayed as an exaggeration or a Hollywood-like production, it was advertised as truth. It’s like you said in your other two examples, this hurts more than it helps. The American public is so fickle anyways; look at how quickly this outrage died out even before this was revealed as a fake. Like I said before, if you want to make changes, do it the right way. I will agree sometimes you have to play with fire to get what you want, but if you stoop too low and people find out, you actually aid your opposition. And honestly, most of the time the moral high ground is the most effective strategy, even it is also the most difficult path to choose.

  3. Loukas T says:

    I liked the examples that you use to compare to Mike Daisey’s monologue, but I believe that there is a difference between the two and the monologue. The other two examples do not hurt anyone while they attempt to bring these issues (drug abuse and the Holocaust) to the forefront. I would argue that Daisey’s monologue hurts Foxconn and Apple. By using lies or exaggerations, he hurts these two companies’ reputations. I know that boycotts of Apple products occurred after Mike Daisey’s monologue became famous. Though this may not have been directly due to Mike Daisey, it certainly was unfair of him to accuse Apple and Foxconn of injustices that were fabricated.

  4. Jordi says:

    Can you use scathe that way? I’m used to it as an adjective.

    Yes! Cool.

  5. Jordi says:

    How about the other, other incident of troubling credibility- Greg Mortensen and Three Cups of Tea. That was HERE!
    Controversy surrounds ‘Three Cups of Tea’

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