It’s news to no one that the memoir has become a magnet for liars, frauds, cheats and over-imaginative, less-than-ethical tale-spinners of all kinds. This is especially true in the subset of addiction memoirs, whose narratives of recovery and redemption offer oodles of factual wiggle room. (Not surprisingly, many ex-junkies and drunks are also liars, frauds, cheats and over-imaginative, less-than-ethical tale-spinners.)
But with all the public hand-wringing and out-of-control lawsuits, publishers and writers have at last put fact-checkers on the permanent payroll and are strenuously insisting on their books’ honesty. Here, on the occasion of the publication of David Carr’s self-flagellating The Night of the Gun, is a round-up of the best of the worst.
A Million Little Pieces, James Frey (2003)
Premise: Bad boy’s marathon drug use and criminal behaviour land him in rehab, amid a cast of crazy characters, including mobsters and crack whores.
Disclaimer: Recent editions feature not one but two apologetic notes, from both the publisher and the author. Frey’s very lengthy one (too lengthy to reprint here) can be summed up thusly: my memory’s shot (hey, I did a lot of drugs) and all writing — be it fiction or non — tells a "story" of some kind (don’t believe everything you read). Also, don’t forget that you, too, can overcome your addictions (we’re all in this together).
Mea culpa: Turns out wild man Frey exaggerated and magnified certain – OK, a lot – of the grisly details of his life, including how much time he spent in jail and the claim that he had root canal surgery without an anesthetic.
Fallout: One angry Oprah, who felt betrayed by Frey (A Million Little Pieces was one of her book club picks) and ordered him to apologize, live, on her show. Millions more copies subsequently sold, however, and continue to sell. Frey has just published his third book – a novel.
Truthiness: Five Pinocchio noses.
Dry, Augusten Burroughs (2004)
Premise: High-paid twentysomething ad writer indulges in epic drinking and drugging, sobers up, loses his best friend to AIDS.
Disclaimer: "This memoir is based on my experiences over a 10-year period. Names have been changed, characters combined and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events."
Mea culpa: "Imaginative recreation" is a clever feint, making it nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction.
Fallout: Dry didn’t cause too much trouble, but Burroughs’s previous bestseller – Running with Scissors – prompted a lawsuit from his foster family, who claimed he misrepresented them. That lawsuit, in turn, prompted numerous suspicious articles and radio programs about the Burroughsian method in general. Burroughs’s mother is now writing her own memoir.
Truthiness: Three noses.
In My Skin, Kate Holden (2005)
Premise: Beautiful, well-bred Australian student (and dead ringer for British singer Beth Orton) gets hooked on heroin, ends up turning tricks on the street and then in a high-end brothel. On occasion, she finds it all surprisingly pleasant if life-threatening.
Disclaimer: "These are my memories. To protect the privacy of others, names have been changed, characters conflated and some incidents condensed."
Mea culpa: The book’s practically gynecological detail suggests real accuracy, though the hazy, poetic prose gives the book an overly novelistic sheen.
Fallout: Crime can pay! 40,000 copies sold in Oz alone. Holden’s now a regular columnist at The Age and working on a novel.
Truthiness: One nose.
What Did I Do Last Night?: A Drunkard’s Tale, Tom Sykes (2006)
Premise: British nightlife columnist (brother of It Girl and novelist Plum Sykes) drinks himself into oblivion but soon realizes that a life of comped meals and booze might not be the free ride it seems.
Disclaimer: In the acknowledgments, Sykes writes: "And to James Frey for the importance of this statement: Everything in this book is absolutely true, although sequences have been rearranged and conversations recreated, often on the basis of subsequent interviews."
Mea culpa: In order to guarantee its veracity, Sykes’s publisher and lawyer insisted he send portions of the manuscript to the people mentioned in the book and ask for their confirmation of the facts. He did, further annoying and embarrassing the people he annoyed and embarrassed the first time around.
Fallout: None to speak of. Reviewers found the book entertaining if tepid: Gawker described its tawdry tales as no worse than what most frat boys experienced in college. Sykes is now a family man and farmer in Ireland.
Truthiness: Half a nose.
Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines, Nic Sheff (2008)
Premise: The son of two Bay Area journalists starts early with booze and drugs (drunk at 11, dropping out of college for rehab) until a full-blown meth addiction brings him to the brink of death in his early 20s.
Disclaimer: "This work is a memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollection of his experiences over a period of years. Certain names, locations and identifying characteristics have been changed, and certain individuals are composites. Dialogue and events have been recreated from memory, and, in some cases, have been compressed to convey the substance of what was said or what occurred."
Mea culpa: Given that the experience is so fresh in Sheff’s mind – he’s now only 25 and still wrestling with his addictions – it’s likely the book is pretty honest. Then again, this is a book full of sentences like "My first instinct, of course, is to lie."
Fallout: Too early to tell. Sheff’s father, David, published a near-simultaneous contrapuntal book, Beautiful Boy, about his experiences raising a drug addict. Both books employed John Lennon epigraphs. Nic Sheff is currently writing mysteries.
Truthiness: One nose.
The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life – His Own, David Carr (2008)
Premise: New York Times media reporter recounts his early life as a crack addict, drug dealer and wife-beater, scrupulously employing medical and legal records and videotaped interviews with former friends, dealers and wives.
Disclaimer: "Every effort was made to corroborate memory with fact, and in significant instances where that was not possible, it is noted in text … All of which is not to say that every word of this book is true — all human stories are subject to errors of omission, fact, or interpretation regardless of intent — only that it is as true as I could make it."
Mea culpa: As airtight as can possibly be – that’s its raison d’être. Though readers might wonder if they want to spend so much time hearing about how airtight the book they’re reading is.
Fallout: Too early to tell – though the obligatory excerpt in the New York Times Magazine couldn’t have hurt. And the reviews to date have been pretty good.
Truthiness: Absolutely no noses.
Jason McBride is a writer based in Toronto.