For this week’s blog post, I would like to consider the varying positions put forth in the different pieces that we were assigned, focusing primarily on “Nester’s “Notes on Frey”.
First, to discuss the complementary opinions of Bacon and Montaigne, both of which shame liars as being unable to confront their fellow man with who they really are (and in the process losing the credibility of their word). I wholeheartedly agree with some aspects of their arguments, both of which were complex and insightful. While empathizing with the idea that the urge to lie is powerful (Bacon describes it as a guilty pleasure), both Montaigne and Bacon consider it to be a vice that corrupts men. According to Montaigne, “we are men, and hold together, only by our word” (p. 12). In saying this, he is emphasizing the idea that being seen as honest is a very valuable thing, and that lying can cause permanent damage to one’s trustworthiness and credibility. I agree that lying is a terrible habit to have, and that it can have a negative impact on one’s reputation and relationships. However, I disagree with the idea that small falsehoods have no place in autobiographical writing. To the contrary, I feel that they are integral to good personal writing. I will explain why I feel this way in the context of James Frey’s infamy and Hampl’s views on using imagination in autobiographies.
If we were to look at honesty in autobiographical writing on a continuum, James Frey would certainly be at the extreme end of dishonesty, with Hampl probably in the middle. After all, many of Frey’s characters had never existed at all and many of the claims he made about his own personal journey were highly exaggerated. It is not hard to understand why the people who read his story as if it were true felt majorly betrayed when his fabrication became apparent. For instance, his embodiment of the damaged, sensitive bad boy appealed to the sympathy of many readers. However, he lied entirely about how long he had spent in jail (he said 87 days when in fact it was a few hours), about the severity of his addiction and his experiences in rehab and as an addict. Still, worse than the lies themselves was the disenfranchisement felt by those who had read the book and learned something from his journey. One of the most important things that I have learned so far in WRT 303 is the value that an autobiographical story has to the reader. It is not just human curiosity or morbidity that draws us to a book that describes an author’s personal hell. Rather, it is because we somehow identify with their struggle. The result of embarking on that journey with the writer is coming out of it fundamentally changed. However, those suffering with addiction who found solace in Frey’s book, as well as readers with different lifestyles and struggles, will no longer be able to learn from his story. This point truly reinforces Bacon and Montaigne’s assertion that lying destroys a person’s credibility and the value of their words.
I felt that Nester framed Frey’s story in a very fair and cogent manner. While he did focus somewhat on the mistakes that Frey made and expressed an overall dislike for dramatization in personal writing, he also emphasized that Frey is not the only one. Not only is dramatization a feature of personal writing but so is fabrication, as demonstrated by the numerous well-established writers whose work comes under scrutiny from time to time. In fact, Nester places a little bit of blame on the readers for being so willing to take Frey’s story as 100% true and feeling betrayed when it didn’t turn out to be. I thought more than once during this reading, rather oddly, that many more people would have benefited in this situation if Frey had never been called on his lies. However, aside from the fact that his book was much less impactful after his lies were revealed, I feel that some of his dramatizations were necessary, if not critical, to his message. His dramatizations regarding addiction, personal tragedy (after all, his girlfriend did take her own life regardless of the means) and healing serve the purpose of reaching more people with a story that may not have been phenomenal to begin with. Unfortunately, I feel that he really missed out on a chance to show his vulnerability and realness. The fact that he portrayed what he considered to be a better version of himself in the book shows a lot of insecurity and an inability to accept himself. At the same time though, the daring, awesome bad-ass is not a realistic persona, alienating people that would have been able to identify with a softer, weaker person with internal conflict.