The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Memory that Never Was

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Truth apparently matters after all. And James Frey, author of the best-selling A Million Little Pieces, is finding that out the hard way. His book—which is classified as a “memoir”—has been under scrutiny as of late because some of the events he describes in the book didn’t actually happen. Oprah Winfrey highlighted the book and the author in her book of the month club. This is usually all that is needed to make a book a best-seller, but Frey’s book went gangbusters. Now the author, the publisher, and Oprah Winfrey are backpedaling big time to defend the book’s integrity, lies and all.

The current debate is swirling around the genre that the book belongs to—the memoir. By definition this is not specifically a non-fiction book, but is based on the author’s memory of how things went down. James Frey recounted a particular stint in prison that really put the cherry on the top of his “down” period in his “down, but can’t keep me there” story of inspiration. The only problem is, the prison time never happened; James Frey made it up. The publisher, Doubleday, said this in a press release: “The power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers.”[1] In other words, to Doubleday’s collective mind, the success of the book is reason enough to defend Frey’s fabrications. After all, does a story necessarily have to be true for it to be “deeply inspiring and redemptive”? Doubleday and Oprah think not, especially because A Million Little Pieces is a memoir, not non-fiction.

I wonder why this kind of logic doesn’t carry over to Samuel Alito in his Senate confirmation hearings. Alito was grilled for hours on end by Democrats about an association that he had more than 20 years ago. His memory didn’t serve as well as the Democrats liked, and this became a major point for liberal senators to hammer on. Too bad Oprah wasn’t there to support Sam and remind the senators that memoirs are not held to the same standards as non-fiction. If your memory fails you, go ahead and make things up, but if you actually remember clearly, then you must tell the truth. This sort of double standard mish-mash was called out over fifty years ago by C.S. Lewis when he wrote:

There can be no moral motive for entering a new morality unless that motive is borrowed from the traditional morality.… All the specifically modern attempts at new moralities are contradictions. They proceed by retaining some traditional precepts and rejecting others: but the only real authority behind those which they retain is the very same authority which they flout in rejecting others.…You can attack the concept of justice because it interferes with the feeding of the masses, but you have taken the duty of feeding the masses from the worldwide code. You may exalt patriotism at the expense of mercy; but it was the old code that told you to love your country. You may vivisect your grandfather in order to deliver your grandchildren from cancer: but, take away traditional morality, and why should you bother about your grandchildren?[2]

When Lewis refers to “traditional morality,” he is simply referring to Christian morality. He understood that you can’t have a non-fiction category and a memoir category being subject to different sets of rules. But then again, in our modern world of sophistry, “the code is really more like a guideline”[3] anyway, isn’t it?

Endnotes:

[1] “Call It Fiction,” NYTimes Editorial, January 13, 2006. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/13/opinion/13fri4.html
[2] Clyde S. Kilby, A Mind Awake, An Anthology of C.S. Lewis (Harcourt, Brace: New York, 1968), 223.
[3] Taken from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).

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