Memoirs, Objectivity, and Accuracy

Memoirs, Objectivity, and Accuracy

It is an odd cultural conundrum, indeed, in which homeless transgendered kids might make the best referees, which is most succinctly debated on television by husband and wife Gay and Nan Talese, and for which Elie Wiesel proves to be the punch line.

But that’s the state of play in the wake of frantic publishing industry and media reports that JT LeRoy, a cult novelist and memoirist who claims to be a 25-year-old, HIV-positive, androgynous ex-street hustler, may in fact be the fraudulent composite of Laura Albert, the woman who allegedly took LeRoy in and helped save him, and Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop AND that James Frey’s best-selling memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” about his young years as a brawling, alcoholic, drug-addled convicted felon, which set the stage for a Hallmark-quality redemption, borrowed at key moments from other people’s real-life tragedies in which he played no role.

The scandals unraveled nearly simultaneously as The New York Times took dead aim at the question of who JT LeRoy really is and published the results of an intensive investigation of those assertions in Frey’s book that could be checked in the public record. The reports raised serious, nearly irrefutable doubts about whether LeRoy even exists and Frey can be accorded any credibility at all.

Yet refute they did. Knoop was fingered for being the wispish character who appears in public, often with of-the-moment celebrities in tow, as the author LeRoy. But when contacted by The Times, she snapped, ‘’I don’t need this in my life right now,’’ before hanging up. Earlier in the newspaper’s inquiries into LeRoy’s bona fides, The Times received a written defense in JT LeRoy’s name: ‘’As a transgendered human, subject to attacks, I use stand-ins to protect my identity.’’

Yet, The Times and others before it have made a persuasive case that the putative stand-in, Knoop, in fact, has a sister-in-law, Laura Albert, a middle-aged married woman who has palmed off at least some of her writings as the memoirs of a young man’s harrowing life on the streets of San Francisco after an escape from an impoverished West Virginia childhood. Speaking to UK, Christopher Daly, director of Britain’s Transgender Legal Center, said, “It’s obviously not the crime of the century, but for a community like the transgender community, whose voice is so rarely heard, it stings to hear about somebody fraudulently appropriating the experiences of transgender people in this way.”

If possible, the Frey matter is even more bizarre. When the heat from SmokingGun got too hot, the author appeared on “Larry King Live.” His primary defense was that less than five percent of the book’s content related to incidents now in dispute, which he said “falls comfortably within the realm of what’s appropriate for a memoir.” He said even absent those pages, the story remained compelling.

The King appearance was highlighted by a surprise call from Oprah Winfrey, whose decision to feature “A Million Little Pieces” in her televised book club helped Frey sell nearly 1.8 million copies last year. “The underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me,” Winfrey said.

Several evenings later, also on CNN, Anderson Cooper interviewed Nan Talese, whose imprint at Doubleday published Frey’s book, and her husband Gay, a non-fiction author noted for the depth and elegance of his writing. Even as Nan disputed Frey’s account that he originally submitted his manuscript to Doubleday as a novel, which they decided to market in the more lucrative memoir niche, she essentially parroted Frey’s defense, noting that memoir is a highly subjective form of writing.

Gay, not so subtly, took his wife to task, patiently explaining that the essence of memoir writing, as with any non-fiction, is the author’s integrity in striving as much as possible to be accurate.

Gay Talese makes a critical distinction. The media often belabors what can be a false choice between subjectivity and objectivity, when in fact clarity and accuracy are the critical hallmarks of good writing. Even as the mainstream media and its pallid imitators crow about their objectivity, about their “fair and balanced reporting,” we have witnessed a lamentable decline in the achievement of a far more basic, though demanding standard—accuracy.

Winfrey may have her own reasons for defending the dubious Mr. Frey, but it can’t be an accident that her latest book selection, announced this Monday, is a new translation of “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s 1995-56 Yiddish-language memoir of his time as a young man in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald Nazi death camps. In the past, some critics have carped that “Night,” with a highly subjective narrative voice, is in fact a novel, a charge that angers Wiesel. It’s safe to bet that Winfrey is counting on the fact that, however subjective Wiesel’s writing, there could be no challenge to his memoir’s accuracy.