Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:November 1st, 2011 11:06 EST
Memoirs? Some Aren't

Memoirs? Some Aren't

By Jack Engelhard

When does fact trespass into fiction? I don`t know. I can`t vouch for every word in a memoir that has just been newly released..."Escape From Mount Moriah."

I can say that I was honest, sometimes brutally so. (Check out "The Sewing Machine"...a story that was painful to write and publish.)

Canadian film-maker Nikila Cole turned the first short story of the book, "My Father, Joe," into a 10-minute work of high art, so much so that the film was honored at the CANNES Film Festival. For me, the film reawakened Montreal and even reawakened the book. No one can beat you at your own story.

In "Escape From Mount Moriah," 18 sketches of what it means to suddenly find yourself a stranger in a strange land, I wrote truthfully from memory, duplicating the people and the events as best I could, but none of us walks through life recording everything with a tape machine and a camera.

My sister Sarah - a few years older - is now writing her own memoirs of our adventurous upbringing, but her memories are sometimes not my memories.

She even remembers our parents differently than I do.

Let`s recall a publishing scandal that occurred not that long ago, as reported in The New York Times under the headline, "Tracking the Fallout of (Another) Literary Fraud." Turns out that the memoir "Love and Consequences" by Margaret Seltzer, writing under the pseudonym Margaret B. Jones, was more hoax than memoir.

The "author" confessed that she made it all up, those accounts of her "life as a foster child in gang-infested South-Central Los Angeles." Publisher Geoffrey Kloske, over there at Riverhead Books, got stuck with all those copies and had to recall all those that had been sent out and sold.

Publishers are scratching their heads on how to prevent this stuff that keeps on happening. In a separate commentary we should discuss if mainstream publishing is really more reliable and legit than print-on-demand. In a here-we-go-again moment, Kloske, the Riverhead publisher, laments: "The one thing we wish is that the author had told us the truth."

Well, she did, but too late.

We`re not here to comment on outright lies, as in this case, fraud is fraud, but upon writers who seek to tell the truth but have nothing but memory to rely on. We`re talking about real writers who posses skill and integrity - like you and me, I`m pretty sure. Every life is a memoir, of course, and when told honestly, those that get published can change the world, as did Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel.

On the other hand, Richard Gere starred in a movie ("The Hoax") that was all about biographer Clifford Irving. Irving nearly pulled off the hoax of the past century in selling himself as the author of an authorized biography of Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire who never authorized Irving or anyone else to write his biography. (Another case of mainstream publishing gone wrong.)

Whether we`re writing about ourselves or someone else, it still amounts to a game of true or false, is it live or is it Memorex.

Most of us (I`m pretty sure) tell it straight, though there is the occasional James Frey (remember that?) whose memoir "A Million Little Pieces" turned out to be fiction -- and let`s give the man some credit. Frey offered his writing as fiction but the publisher (according to reports) switched it all to "memoir" for the benefit of marketing and sales and that`s when Frey got debunked for embellishments.

Following that, every memoir and biography and autobiography became suspect. Did that really happen? That`s what we began to ask ourselves whether reading someone else`s remembrances down to our own reflections. Well, yes, it happened, but can we account for every minute? When my father was taken in for questioning by the Gestapo, was he gone for one hour or two hours? I say one, my sister says two.

Does it make a difference? No. We may be brother and sister, but we are still different people entitled to our own conclusions. Was my father heroic? I say yes. Sarah agrees but with qualifications. In almost all cases, when it comes to upbringing, the perspective of a daughter will automatically differ from that of a son. (For sure, he saved our lives. On this we agree.)

In "Dream Catcher: A Memoir," Margaret Salinger gave us the scoop about her father J.D., and some of what she wrote did him no favors. This was a growing-up-with-Dad tell-all peppered with resentment. Margaret`s brother, Matt, saw it all differently and said so in The New York Observer, writing: "I can`t say with any authority that she is consciously making anything up."

Matt Salinger continues - "I just know that I grew up in a very different house, with two very different parents from those she describes."

There is no telling who is right and who is wrong, except to assume that we all own exclusive rights to our own memories. That`s as true as it gets. In a story headlined, "The Politics of Prose," The New York Times reminds us that we`re living in an age of memoirs, especially political memoirs, from Barack Obama to John McCain to Rudy Giuliani to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Most books by politicians," writes Michiko Kakutani of the Times, "are, at bottom, acts of salesmanship."

Why stop at politicians? We all want our story told and we`d prefer to tell it ourselves, before someone else messes it up. Can we be trusted? A writer famous for presenting dialogue exactly AS IS, as spoken (John O`Hara? I`m not sure) explained that it all came from his head. In other words, if you were to copy street-talk straight off the tape recorder, it would all come out as false and inarticulate.

Can memoirists support every remark, every quote? Can any memoirist pass a lie detector test?

We don`t live a life of facts, merely impressions. That`s the best we can do

Novelist Jack Engelhard wrote the international best-seller "Indecent Proposal" that was translated into more than 22 languages and turned into a Hollywood motion picture starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. His memoir, "Escape From Mount Moriah," which won awards for writing (MPA) and film (CANNES) has been newly released in paperback.

Engelhard website:

Judyth Piazza chats with International Bestselling Author Jack Engelhard on The American Perspective Radio Program...