The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Memoir, Narcissism and the Problem of the Unreliable First-Person Narrator

Posted on | January 3, 2013 | 18 Comments

In addition to its advice about “Crazy Hot Sex” (“10 Secrets to Intense Action”), the February issue of Cosmo features an interview with an actress you probably never heard of before. Julianne Hough tells Cosmo that when she was studying dance in London as a girl, she “was abused, mentally, physically, everything. . . . I was a tormented little kid who had to put on this sexy façade because that was my job and my life.”

Shocking, but have Hough’s abusers been prosecuted? No:

Hough declines to say who abused her or provide other details.
“I’m a very forgiving person, and I don’t want to hurt anybody,” she says. “What’s past is past.”

Unless it is Cosmo‘s purpose to expose the shameful secrets of abusive dance studios — a criminal enterprise in need of investigation — one might be tempted to think that the primary journalistic purpose here is to let Julianne Hough tell her dramatic tale of victimhood. And Cosmo evidently didn’t bother to contact anyone at London’s prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Arts, the alleged scene of her abuse, to attempt to verify these disturbing (but rather vague) claims by Hough.

My own purpose is not to dispute the truth of Julianne Hough’s tale. For all we know, her experiences in London were every bit as horrible as she suggests, and Scotland Yard may yet launch an investigation that exposes the Italia Conti Academy of Arts as a criminal den of sadistic depravity. Readers meanwhile can believe whatever they want. I don’t care.

Rather, it is the entire confessional genre that is the object of my critique. In recent decades, we have become so accustomed to these shocking first-person revelations — “I Was a Teenage Call Girl” and so forth — that we seldom ask what usefulness they provide, and credulously accept the truth of even the wildest tales, without pausing to wonder if the tale-teller might have a motive to exaggerate or otherwise distort the facts.

We’ve seen where this leads: James Frey became a bestselling author whose memoir A Million Little Pieces was featured by Oprah Winfrey:

In emotional filmed testimonials, employees of Winfrey’s Harpo Productions lauded the book as revelatory, with some choking back tears.   When the camera then returned to a damp-eyed Winfrey, she said, “I’m crying ’cause these are all my Harpo family so, and we all loved the book so much.”

Unfortunately . . .

Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey’s book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw “wanted in three states.”
In addition to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students. In what may be his book’s most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy’s third victim.

How shocking: The criminal drug addict was also . . . a liar.

Well, a lesson learned the hard way, huh? Unfortunately, not:

Oprah Winfrey has a new book scandal on her hands. A “memoir,” praised in her O Magazine as “startlingly tender,” has been revealed as a complete work of fiction.
“Love and Consequences,” written by Margaret B. Jones, a self-described half white, half Native American foster child and former drug runner, has been revealed as a fake. The fictional story was actually penned by Margaret Seltzer, a white, private-school educated writer.

The problem in both cases was that these liars’ tales were (a) cleverly told, and (b) stories that many people wanted to believe were true.

Good liars are like that: They have a keen sense of what the listener wants to believe, and a capacity for telling lies that seem plausible to the intended audience. Evidently, book editors and TV producers are particularly gullible, if the tale and teller appeal to their sympathies. But why bring Obama’s Dreams From My Father into this?

In the realm of fiction, the “unreliable narrator” is a literary device employed for artistic effect by, among others, Vladimir Nabokov. The protagonist of Lolita is a child molester and murderer whose veracity is therefore highly dubious, and the novel is filled with little clues that Humbert Humbert’s memory of events is at best somewhat confused and that Humbert’s obvious purpose — to justify his shameful actions — renders his “confession” less than wholly reliable.

Was Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s mother) really as annoying as Humbert portrays her? Was the villainous doppelgänger Clare Quilty really so much worse than Humbert himself? We cannot actually know these things to be true, because Humbert cannot be trusted. Furthermore — and rather ironically, because Nabokov was contemptuous of psychiatry in general and of Freud in particular — Humbert is clearly a pathological narcissist. Vain, selfish and smug in his sense of intellectual superiority, Humbert makes “clever” jokes for his own amusement, is contemptuous of “ordinary” (i.e., inferior) people, and is interested in other people only as they relate to his own devious purposes.

Understanding the problem of the “unreliable narrator” in fiction, what are we to make of those who practice deception in non-fiction, especially in the first-person confessional form? This is not an idle reflection, nor has it been inspired entirely by Julianne Hough’s shocking tales of abuse in that “prestigious” dance school. (How could Scotland Yard overlook this? Demand an investigation!) Rather, I was alarmed by an article by Hamilton Nolan entitled “Journalism Is Not Narcissism”:

Every year, thousands of fresh-faced young aspiring journalists flood our nation’s college classrooms, in order to learn how to practice their craft. What should we tell them? This, first: journalism is not about you.
Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, has a piece in the New York Times in which she explains that her “signature assignment” for her students is to write an essay confessing their “most humiliating secret” — when asked why, she replies “Because they want to publish essays and sell memoirs.” This confessional is good practice for launching all of these 20 year-olds on careers as 21 year-old memoirists and “Modern Love” columnists.
It is tempting to stop here and dismiss Shapiro, the author of nine(!) “first-person books” including three(!) memoirs, as a run-of-the-mill narcissist whose unfortunate students are being molded in her own misguided image. (Quoth the professor, “You have to grab the reader by the throat immediately, which is why I launched my second memoir with the line ‘In December my husband stopped screwing me.'”) But let us more generously interpret Shapiro’s attitude as not a cause, but a symptom — her own honest reading of the state of the professional writing market today. In a way, she is not wrong, although she is also part of the problem.
Shapiro is, in essence, telling her students that they only way they will get published and sell stories and books and have careers as professional writers is to exploit every last tawdry twist and turn of their own lives for profit.

Read the whole thing, because the trend Nolan describes is dreadful: Young journalists incapable of writing objectively or of finding interest in anything beyond themselves. Young people have an awful tendency toward self-indulgent writing, and it is wrong for teachers like Susan Shapiro to encourage them in such narcissistic stuff:

Growing up in Midwestern Jewish suburbia (where if you say anything bad about yourself or your clan, the Cossacks will come get you), I felt awkward, alone and misunderstood. Then my high school English teacher turned me on to traumatized, intensely self-exposing confessional poetry.

Ick. Notice that Shapiro relates her feelings of being “awkward, alone and misunderstood,” because (a) no one can fact-check feelings, and (b) this allows her to scapegoat her upbringing in “Midwestern Jewish suburbia,” so that she can portray herself as a victim.

This is the moral of nearly all memoirs now: Love Me, I’m a Victim.

If they’re not merely “awkward, alone and misunderstood,” memoirists nowadays are expected to recount some form of childhood suffering, to expose their parents as drunkards or workaholics, and to tell their stories as somehow overcoming all these youthful disadvantages.

No literary agent or book editor wants a memoir by someone who grew up happy in a healthy normal family. Pathology sells, baby.

Is Susan Shapiro telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or are her three memoirs — three! — shaded to tell the stories that she wants to tell, exaggerating certain aspects and obscuring or omitting whatever didn’t fit the narrative? Pardon my extreme skepticism, but I was taught by Old School editors who believed that skepticism was a prerequisite to journalism, and my finely tuned B.S. detector doesn’t like the scent of Susan Shapiro’s stories.

Except the part about how her husband stopped screwing her.

That definitely has the ring of truth about it.



18 Responses to “Memoir, Narcissism and the Problem of the Unreliable First-Person Narrator”

  1. Adriane
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

    “No! It’s true! You’re really the child of Turkish yak herders!!!” – nightmares from Binkley’s closet (paraphrased)

  2. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 7:18 pm

    These type of stories sell copy. I similar issue came up with Sleepers, which was a big selling book and later a movie with Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. Abused boys, Hell’s Kitchen Irish hoodlums, revenge ala Count of Monte Cristo–but did it ever happen? There was no record of this “true story.” Of course, kids get sexually abused in detention centers all the time (mostly from other kids in those facilities). Still, if you are going to report on a “true story” you should be able to back it up.

  3. smitty
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

    Susan Shapiro’s site is a four-alarm fire for any Dude With A Clue:
    Run away! Now! Ruin!

  4. McGehee
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

    The Coen Brothers spoofed the “true story” bit in their Fargo disclaimer, and naturally a bunch of people missed the joke and have tried it for real.

  5. joethefatman
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

    Pity Party for beautiful and glamorous sexy girl with angst. SSDD

  6. Finrod Felagund
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

    People tend to remember the bad things that happen.

  7. Finrod Felagund
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    Run or Ruin sounds about right.

  8. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

    Just as long as you don’t tell me that the Farley Brothers’ Kingpin is not true!

  9. K-Bob
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    You’re right as rain, Stacy. I’m gonna stick with my books by Carlos Castaneda, because they are the really real truth.

    I say, can someone pass the peyote buttons?

  10. BLBeamer
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    You know, something really bad happened to me a long time ago, but I don’t want to tell you what it was or who did did it or why they were never prosecuted.

    Why not? Well, modesty forbids me from telling you it’s because I am a very forgiving, kind, saintly and beautiful person…

    Hey, buddy, LOOK AT ME!

  11. Mike G.
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    Actually, unless you’re a narcissist, most people repress the bad things and try to remember the good things.

  12. AngelaTC
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 11:27 pm

    Stacy, this ranks among your best pieces. You’ve really nailed what’s been buzzing in the back of my head for years.

  13. robertstacymccain
    January 3rd, 2013 @ 11:49 pm

    Thanks, Angela. I worked a few hours on it, and felt somehwat depressed when I was done with it.
    I keep promoting Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism as a useful analysis of what’s gone wrong in our culture, and worry that people aren’t really paying attention.

  14. C.T.
    January 4th, 2013 @ 1:25 am

    I’m a writer, too, but of pure fakery, and I also hate this memoir crap, because I smell the stage glue on these tales. We unrepetant story constructors (like the many “producers” scripting reality shows) find our skills publicly devalued– who needs them when there’s such great real-true stuff merely waiting for mindless transcription? Also, I adore that you spent hours on this, because it reads so easily once you’re done, I’m happy to know it isn’t like falling off a log for you either : )

  15. Quartermaster
    January 4th, 2013 @ 7:39 am

    I suppose that’s why you linked the site. You actually are a lefty infiltrator seeking the destruction of clueless young men.

  16. Dai Alanye
    January 4th, 2013 @ 9:54 am

    Memoir should be considered a genre of fiction. Grant’s Civil War memoir is a rare exception, but I’m sure even it could be challenged to a minor degree.

  17. Patrick Carroll
    January 5th, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

    I had us on basic cable until my wife – jonesing for an Oprah fix – upgraded us, so she could get access to the Oprah Winfrey Network. We are now an OWNed household, 24/7/365.

    I can’t be in the living room any more. The stomach-churning mawkishness is the sort of thing one gets from an excessively drunk, maudlin Irishman. But these people appear completely sober. And they go on, and on, and on.

    Still, with years of Irish religious boarding schools under my belt, maybe I ought to do an ever-so-slightly fictionalized autobiography. And get on Oprah…

  18. Patrick Carroll
    January 5th, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

    I’m not sure about that. Is this your explanation for PTSD?