2016-07-27
In the wake of the James Frey affair--concerning the now-admitted fabrication of parts of "A Million Little Pieces," the best-selling author's vulgarity-laced, Oprah-titillating addiction memoir--media pundits unleashed a torrent of self-important lecturing. The moral lesson, we're being told ad nauseum, is about how ordinary folks don't care enough about truth-telling.

Yet anyone with a bit of common sense and life experience should have been able to detect that Frey's wild stories of drunken, crack-addled mayhem were partly or wholly made up. So let's have an end to posturing on this matter.

There are three good reasons not to feel much outrage at all about Frey's fictions posing as non-fiction.

1) It's OK to delight in a fib. As demonstrated by an enjoyable exposé on The Smoking Gun, Frey fabricated a lot of his story about how he repeatedly fell prey to what he calls the Fury, an impulse to create chaos everywhere he went, fueled by massive quantities of drugs and alcohol. In its extensive reporting, TSG focuses on a supposed episode Frey recounts in his book about a drunken melee with cops in Ohio that resulted in his spending three months in a county jail. What really happened, based on legal records, was a far more mundane drunken driving citation with no jail time.

So he lied. But it's perfectly reasonable to say you enjoyed a book purporting, but only purporting, to be truth-based-as Oprah Winfrey did, which is why she recommended Frey's book to her viewers and turned it into the second-best-selling book of 2005 (1.77 million copies). I loved "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," the alleged factual basis for "The Da Vinci Code," despite the extreme implausibility of its conclusion about Jesus having blood descendants alive in modern France. Ditto Graham Hancock's "The Sign and the Seal," a silly but highly entertaining work purporting to discover the true Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia.

As with Frey, no one should have been fooled by either of those books unless they wanted to be. Far more troubling would be a piece of "non-fiction" or news reporting-like the notorious CBS "60 Minutes" story impugning President Bush's National Guard service on the basis of a forged document-where the writer or reporter is obviously striving to give an impression of sobriety, plausibility, and responsible concern for getting at the facts.

Whatever claims to truth-telling Frey made in interviews ("If I was gonna write a book that was true, and I was gonna write a book that was honest, then I was gonna have to write about myself in very, very negative ways"), this was belied by the tone and substance of the book itself, which fairly screamed: "I'm fibbing!"

2) Memoirists always lie. A memoir is a story, not a history, and real life doesn't play out as a story. Rather, life spools out full of ambiguities and doubts, seemingly random reversals and detours. A good story can't afford to do this. Thus, inevitably, in a memoir there will be distortion. This is why anyone with common sense and life experience should have a nose for the kind of deceptions in Frey's book. There are certain kinds of narratives that happen in real life and others that don't. The difference can't be defined by any abstract rule, but rather by hard-won intuition.

Since the Frey fray has inaugurated a season of truth-telling, I'll tell a truth about my own memoir, The Lord Will Gather Me In. The book is my narrative of becoming an Orthodox Jew and of finding my birth mother. The details and stories there are true, apart from many names being changed (as Frey did too). But creating a storyline that will pull the reader along from the first to the last page requires much simplification, streamlining, smoothing of rough edges, and the clear resolution of tensions where maybe the resolution wasn't so clear.

My adventures in lying
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For example, I wrote about a certain long-established anxiety that, in the book, is dispelled quite marvelously by the wise words of a rabbi. At the time, this evaluation of my own state of mind was more hopeful than accurate, and indeed I'm still somewhat plagued. (I won't go into more details here, but readers of the book may consult Chapter 8.)

More important, though, when I came to write the conclusion, about a dramatic realization I had after visiting the Stockholm city archive to research my ancestors, I presented as a factual certainty something that has since turned out to be far from certain.

My birth mother, Harriet Lund, who was born in Stockholm and came to the United States as a young woman, was not Jewish, but she believed she had a Jewish great-grandfather, August Edvard Goldkuhl, a physician in a town in southern Sweden. Harriet thought that this man's surname--her mother's maiden name--was Jewish. The family had immigrated to Sweden from Osnabruck, Germany, in 1755. Partly on the basis of this belief, she selected Jewish--albeit secular--adoptive parents for me.

My memoir is about becoming a ba'al teshuvah (literally, a "master of repentance"), a Jew who returned to tradition from secularism. When Harriet first told me about her great-grandfather, I was thrilled, for it meant I had Judaism literally in my veins.

In Stockholm, however, I found records of the family's baptisms and church burials going back a century before my alleged Jewish ancestor was born. My birth mother evidently had her ancestry wrong. As I wrote in "The Lord Will Gather Me In," this disappointed me, but it also led to a revelation about the nature of the Jewish soul. In the book, I presented this reversal as an occasion to draw the enlightened-sounding lesson that Jewish identity is really about belief, not blood-truth, not tribe.

Very nice. However, after the book's publication, I made contact with a Goldkuhl living in northern Germany-the part of the family that never left for Sweden--who told me of an old tradition he received from his father that, long ago, the Goldkuhls were Jews. If he was right, then Harriet was also right, in which case the climax of my book, with its admirable moral-placing truth above tribe-was not supported by the facts of my personal history. I didn't know that at the time, but now I do.

What is the truth? Who knows? But one thing's obvious: Presenting the matter as I see it now, hanging and ambiguous, would have meant giving my book a most unsatisfying conclusion.

The story as told in my memoir ends with what may be a factual error that undermines what I regarded as the whole point of the exercise of telling it. However, I still like the moral about tribe and truth. I'm glad my book ends the way it does even if its climax is based on incomplete and misleading information.

Given the opportunity to amend the book, I would leave it as is. The facts may be wrong, but the moral is true.

"Am I a fibber like James Frey?"
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3.) Story-telling has moral value. Story-telling is one of the most important ways we have of educating ourselves about right and wrong. Jewish traditional sources (Talmud, Midrash) are full of narratives and parables, some based on careful inferences from the text, but many quite fantastical. These stories are frequently given as interpretive asides within the Torah narrative itself. For example, in the Pentateuch's story of Moses' youth, there are many, many junctures where the narrative is unclear. Jewish tradition, which Jews believe was orally transmitted from the revelation at Mt. Sinai, steps in here, as everywhere in the Bible, to provide the connecting narratives that make sense of the scriptural text.

For example, when Moses kills a cruel Egyptian overseer who is beating a Jewish slave, the Midrash explains, based on an anomaly of diction in the text, that Moses killed him by pronouncing the secret and holy four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton.

Exactly where real history leaves off and pure parable begins is often impossible to discern. But what matters is the great moral truth that's conveyed-in this case, about the power of God's Name--much more than the nitpicking tiny truths concerning what this person did on this day and what he didn't do.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean that what the Talmud and Midrash relate about biblical characters didn't really happen. From a perspective of religious faith, as a Jew I don't always know what happened, and I have to be comfortable with that.

Perhaps I'm too comfortable. In my second book, The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, I took certain liberties with the life of the first Hebrew patriarch. My book was the first to tell Abraham's life story at length, combining the very bare and cryptic scriptural text with the insights of secular historians and the often wild-sounding interpolations of the Talmud and Midrash.

The latter present Abraham as an occultist, astrologer, healer, and writer of esoteric texts whose home was a regular gathering place for angels. He was an androgynous figure born with an indeterminate sexual anatomy, a man who wrestled with an accusing spiritual force, the Satan. He may or may not have done something terrible to his son Isaac on a rock altar on a mountaintop. Jewish tradition hints that the binding of Isaac, contrary to what the Bible seems to say, did not end happily.

Is any of this history? I present it as such. So am I a fibber like James Frey?

I took a chance that this material was not merely parable but also that it happened. This is the presupposition of my book, and I admitted it there freely. Could I be wrong? Sure, but I took the chance because I thought that the story, told as a narrative about a real man who was born in 1812 B.C.E., bears certain moral meanings that would be lost if the stories about him remained as they were, scattered throughout the corpus of ancient Jewish traditional literature, or if they are told like naïve children's fables, which is often their fate in our ignorant age. I wanted to give readers an opportunity to appreciate Abraham as a full-bodied non-fictional character.

So, let's give James Frey the benefit of the doubt. Yes, there's much to doubt, but for all that his book may be faulted for its disgusting details of bodily functions, its vulgar language, and its patent untruths, I think he was trying to convey a moral message. And it's not a bad one.

In its exposé, The Smoking Gun admits this. "While claiming that he does not desire to become the poster boy for unconventional recovery, Frey has nonetheless emerged as a source of inspiration and guidance for countless substance abusers.Frey rejected the Twelve-Step approach and considers addiction a weakness, not a disease.Frey's reported post-Hazelden recovery was unorthodox, hinging on his ability to continually surmount temptation.

"For desperate people, there appears to be magic in his approach, though it really boils down to a familiar refrain: Just say 'No.' But since that phrase has long been tainted, Frey opts for the pithier: `Hold on.' "

Seeing your failings not as the product of a disease but rather of, well, failing, of being weak--where the solution is to seek strength and to "hold on" to moral resolutions you make--is not only a traditional but also a radical message. In our day, the reigning but often unacknowledged presupposition is that people, being animals, really have no power to make morally free decisions.

For his saying such a thing, I'm willing to forgive James Frey a lot. Indeed, as he withstands the media hurricane that can't abide his success in moving readers not only to tears but to contemplate their own lives and their own failings in a new light, I have a message for him. It is two words.

Hold on.

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