The Memoir Genre: Ethical Implications and Issues of Truth and Reliability

Below is my the table of contents and introduction to my undergraduate thesis. If you’d like to read the whole thing, please download the pdf.

Table of Contents

Introduction · 5

Chapter I: Relativism, Essential Truth, and James Frey · 10

Chapter II: Wilkomirski’s Imagining of the Unimaginable · 24

Chapter III: When Does Your Story Become My Story? · 40

Chapter IV: Challenging The Autobiographical Form · 62

Conclusion · 72


The autobiographical form has been around for centuries. Written around 400 A.D., St. Augustine’s The Confessions, which describes his sinful past and subsequent conversion to Christianity, is widely acknowledged as the first Western autobiography. In 1770, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions became one of the first autobiographies to depict an author’s worldly experiences and emotions rather than his or her religious path.

However, despite the autobiography’s lengthy history, it has only been in the past 50 years that autobiographies and memoirs have become commonplace on bookstore shelves.2 In the 1990s and early 2000s, the memoir genre exploded, largely due to the success of books like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.3 “[A]ccording to Nielsen BookScan, nonfiction outsells fiction by about 100 million books a year. ‘Fiction seems to have lost a lot of authority in the culture,’ says Michael Coffey, executive managing editor at Publishers Weekly. ‘People now look more toward true stories as something that justifies the expense of their time.’”4

Lev Grossman believes that one factor driving the sales of memoirs “is the public’s continuing fascination with reality TV. The programming genre’s obsessive interest in the lives of ordinary people and B-List celebrities has migrated to the printed word.”5 Making this connection, however, still doesn’t explain the root of our interest with media based on real life—whether it be in the form of a television show or a book. Perhaps reality television shows, like memoirs, allow us to feel more connected to other human beings than fiction. By asserting, “This is my story, this happened to me,” a writer or television producer is increasing the potential emotional impact.

A memoir provides evidence of humans’ ability to endure. Mary Karr says:

The only thing you can get from a memoir that you can’t get from a novel—and actually my undergraduate students taught me this. I said, ‘Why would you want a memoir class?’ And they said an amazing thing that was counterintuitive to me—that it’s a kind of survival testimony. The fact that the person lives past the book, that the character goes on, is a kind of hopeful thing, a priori.6

With a memoir, we know from the moment we open the cover that the writer overcame the challenges—whether they are funny, sad, or painful—that we are about to read. Senior Editor for Books at Brad Parsons “argues that there’s a ‘safety valve’ factor that a memoir provides in an uncertain world. ‘We like to read about the crazy lives of others and how they got through them,’ he says.”7 Fiction certainly provides comfort, but memoirs have the authority to say, “I got through this and you can too.” Simply because they are true, they offer proof and comfort in a way fiction cannot.

Along with readers, writers also find comfort in memoirs. In writing about one’s life, a writer asserts his or her identity. Paul John Eakin writes:

Life writing addresses…important goods, both psychological and social. When we tell or write about our own lives, our stories establish our identities both as content—I am the person who did these things—and as act—I am someone with a story to tell. And we do something even more fundamental—we establish ourselves as a person: I am someone, someone who has lived a valuable life, a value affirmed precisely by any life story’s implicit claim that it is worth telling and hearing.8

It is reassuring to write about one’s life and have it deemed worthy of being read about. Present in virtually all memoirs is a hope—that readers will understand what the writer went through and feel empathy.9

While there are numerous issues within the memoir genre worthy of study, this thesis focuses on the reliability of memoirs and the ethical implications of writing about others. It would have been fascinating to use a psychoanalytic approach to the memoir genre; however, I was more interested in focusing on specific texts and the controversies surrounding them. My work has been guided by questions such as: How truthful can memoirs be? Does it matter when a memoirist lies? Do memoirs still have value if parts of them are untrue? What happens when history becomes subjective? Life stories inevitably overlap, but is it ever justifiable to share someone else’s secrets?

The first chapter explores James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a recovery memoir describing his time spent in a drug rehabilitation center. When Oprah Winfrey decided to include Frey’s book in her book club, it almost immediately made it to the top of the bestseller lists. It was later discovered that Frey had invented or exaggerated events portrayed in his memoir. Frey presented his book as a work of non-fiction filled with historical truth; Oprah’s attitude, and the attitude of many Americans, was, “How could you lie to us?” The massive media coverage of the case was astounding. This chapter discusses the trouble with Frey’s two main defenses, which were: 1) His book is “essentially true” and 2) Memoirs are subjective; A Million Little Pieces is his subjective interpretation of the past.

The second chapter looks at Binjamin Wilkomirski’s memoir Fragments, which describes his experiences as a young Jewish child in the Auschwitz concentration camp. After receiving the National Jewish Book Award and touring with the National Holocaust Museum, among numerous other honors, it was discovered that Wilkomirski was a complete fake: he was born to Christian parents and was never in a concentration camp. What complicates Wilkomirski’s case is that he seems to genuinely believe that everything he wrote is true. Many historians believe that Wilkomirski wrote the story of the Holocaust because he could not remember his early childhood and longed to fill the blank slate of his past. The chapter addresses questions like: What are the consequences of invented or misremembered history? What are the boundaries between fact and fiction? What is better, abused memory or no memory at all?10

The third chapter examines Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss, which tells the story of her incestuous relationship with her father, and Augusten Burroughs’s memoir, Running with Scissors, which describes his disturbing and bizarre childhood living with his mother’s psychiatrist’s family. Many critics of Kathryn Harrison argue that her memoir should never have been written—that it is harmful to her children, that she is merely writing for the money, and that some secrets should not be shared with others. The controversy surrounding Harrison raises questions about the relationship between literature and gender, along with the ethical implications of writing about others.

The family that raised Augusten Burroughs has filed a lawsuit against him and the publisher of his memoir, Running with Scissors, claiming defamation of character, invasion of privacy, emotional distress, and fraud. Burroughs’s case raises questions about ownership—what is yours to remember and what is yours to tell? What are your obligations to those whose stories inevitably overlap with yours? How can a writer find a balance between his or her right to tell a story and another’s right to privacy?

The fourth chapter explores Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a postmodern, self-conscious, and self-referential memoir. In the book, Eggers manipulates the reader by distorting events, people, and conversations. He then exposes his deception of the reader and even calls attention to it. In the book, Eggers raises the question of whether a memoirist can ever be completely honest and truthful. The chapter focuses on Eggers’s destruction of the standard rules of the genre and its significance.

Each of these chapters relates, in a different way, to both our ability to remember and our ability to forget, and the constant struggle between the two. This thesis investigates the possibility of truth and reliability in the memoir genre, while exploring the consequences of lies and fabrications. It also looks at the memoirist’s responsibility to those whom he or she writes about. Not all of the questions that I have asked, and continue to ask, can be completely answered, but it is a beginning. Ultimately, the following chapters examine the vital importance of life writing in the recording and remembering of history, in spite of the challenges memoirists face.

2Robert J. Hughes. “Publishers’ Solution to Slow Sales: My Story (And His, Too). The Wall Street Journal. 14 April 2006. Accessed 13 March 2007.

3Dwight Garner. “A Scrappy Little Beast.” Salon. May 1997. Accessed 6 February 2007.

4Lev Grossman. “The Trouble with Memoirs.” Time Magazine. 15 January 2006. Accessed 13 March 2007.

5Robert J. Hughes. “Publishers’ Solution to Slow Sales: My Story (And His, Too). The Wall Street Journal. 14 April 2006. Accessed 13 March 2007.

6Dwight Garner. “A Scrappy Little Beast.” Salon. May 1997. Accessed 6 February 2007.

7Lev Grossman. “The Trouble with Memoirs.” Time Magazine. 15 January 2006. Accessed 13 March 2007.

8Paul John Eakin. The Ethics of Life Writing. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. p.5.

9David Parker. “Counter-Transference in Reading Autobiography: The Case of Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss.” Biography. Summer 2007. 25.3. p.499.

10Susan Rubin Suleiman. “Problems of Memory and Factuality in Recent Holocaust Memoirs: Wilkomirski/Weisel.” Poetics Today. Duke University Press. Fall 2001. 21.3. p.554.