December 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

features

A Million Easy Histories

“Americans love junk; it’s not the junk that bothers me, it’s the love.”—George Santayana

There are some great words in French, and in German, for disaffection and world-weariness, for anomic burnout. There are probably some good ones in Yiddish too (maybe even a word as terrific as schlock), in Norwegian, or in Chinese. Still, I wish I had a uniquely American term for what I’m feeling right now, for this irritating exhaustion with “the media,” with publicity, with mass-publishers and tiring, bad literary magazines and TV commercials and mediocrity. I’m sure there is an all-American word, maybe in some online slang dictionary, but somehow I’ve missed it in the crush of pop-reality where I’ve gotten lost. Sometimes a person gets trampled by a crowd and no one notices.

I would need this special word to talk about the memoir boom, about the planet-sized flurries of murdered trees, and the trillions of pixels devoted to true stories of people going on benders or torturing their children in basements or setting themselves on fire or getting divorced or getting married or being crippled or having sore genitals or lymphoma or a disabled baby. If Oprah ruled the world, and she does, every last one of these stories would end with someone transcending all of their titillating hardship and abuse and finding his or her Best Life, transitioning from being a Child Called “It” into a happy (and rich) Man Named Dave.

Also, writing an article about feeling oppressed by what Ben Yagoda calls “the golden age of autobiographical fraud” is probably a more annoying literary act, at this moment, than just adding my own yellow trickle to the poisoned ocean, opening up to you about being flashed and fondled and frottaged and meeting heart-warming people in war-torn Serbia and getting lured backstage by members of Pearl Jam or Poison or Pink Floyd and discovering dark secrets about my grandfather’s work with J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t know which angle to take. Maybe my miasma isn’t your miasma. I think I’m going to order in a falafel sandwich from taim with extra hot sauce and amba and read In Search of the Far Side again.

If you’re still interested in the boom of the (fake) memoir, if it hasn’t yet hit your list (right under Prozac and 9/11) of things you never want to read about ever again, two new books shed some light on the subject: Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda and Literary Hoaxes: An Eye-Opening History of Famous Frauds, by Melissa Katsoulis. Both authors are journalists, as far as I know, not historians, and both books are lively. Yagoda is especially thorough. Read them together and, really, anything else you’d ever want to know about memoir, you’ll be afraid to ask.

According to the Yagoda book, readers have always loved true stories; still, in the 1960s, fiction outsold nonfiction four-to-one, and now that ratio is reversed. Memoirs like Eunice Waterman’s 1950 Don’t Call Me Dad (“Married and the mother of twins, she is shocked to discover… that she was an adopted child; obsessed by the search for her biological parents… she is rebuffed by her wealthy, powerful father…”), Mary Payne’s 1954 I Cured My Cancer, and Janice Fielding’s 1963 The Bitter Truth of It (“a highly emotional… account of the years following a hysterectomy, performed on her… without her informed consent”) had to be self-published by the authors. Today, one imagines, they would fly off the shelves.

Some of the hoax memoir stories detailed in both books are real doozies. It’s weird enough that Laurel Rose Willson (as “Lauren Stratford”) wrote phony stories of enduring ritual abuse, including details of having babies who were killed in snuff films and sacrificed by Satanists as she watched, but the next part of the story gets even stranger. After her publisher withdrew her fake memoirs, she retooled her identity and claimed to be Holocaust survivor Laura Grabowski, collecting donations and befriending another fake Holocaust survivor, the Swiss Gentile Bruno Grosjean (aka “Binjamin Wilkomirski”). From getting raped and tortured by a Satanic cult to being a victim of Mengele’s experiments -- it doesn’t take a keen analysis to see the running theme.

Memoirs -- real ones, fake ones, good ones, schlock-y ones -- are not the problem. Every book, of every genre, is a tiny history of itself, a document of the physical and cultural moment of its creation. Some are junk, some are art, some are true and beautiful, some are pure poshlust, and you might not agree with me on which is which. The problem is not the junk, it’s the love -- the need to uphold that we want to read highly graphic accounts of satanic rapes or Michael Ryan having sex with his dog just because we’re so compassionate and caring. That’s why James Frey couldn’t get his book published as fiction, and even though Laura Albert (aka JT Leroy) could, she had to pretend that she was pedophile-candy by sending her boyfriend’s little sister out in a blond wig. (An earlier hoaxer, the 15-year-old AIDS patient/sex abuse victim/runaway Anthony Godby Johnson, sounds so JT Leroy-esque it isn’t even funny -- Leroy first befriended Dennis Cooper via letters to his agent, while Johnson had a close telephone friendship with Armistead Maupin.) It’s not just the thrill of voyeuristic sex and violence that allures readers. A huge subset of popular hoax memoirs and fake novels “based on a true story” has been all about the triumph of members of historically oppressed groups -- fake aborigines, fake Native Americans, and fake “inner-city” kids. Again, because we’re so compassionate and caring, so concerned about the plight of the underdog (not just Ryan’s underdog). Prose like The Education of Little Tree (the fake Cherokee memoir actually written by former Ku Klux Klan member Asa Carter) might read like a “passable and occasionally effective Twain/Hemingway pastiche” (as Yagoda puts it, too generously) when we think it’s a Native American “true story” -- exposed as something invented, it shows up as the schlock it is.

When we fantasize that our misery porn or our Holocaust porn or our tween prostitute porn or our PC victory-of-an-oppressed-inner-city-foster-child porn or our sex-abuse-derived-psychiatric-disorder porn is “true,” we can pretend that we’re educating ourselves about culture and history, about people’s lives, about how the world works. When we learn it’s made up, it loses its ickily transcendent O Magazine earnestness, and starts to look more like full-on pedophile jerk-off material, or the ultra-violent Freikorps novels quoted in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies. Not that all overly-graphic abuse memoirs are fraudulent, or schlocky. But when they are, let’s admit it. Let’s keep the junk, if we must, but lose our reverence for it. Let’s lose our scramble to imbue it with value by fussing about its bravery and truth.

Great work in any genre, including memoir, gives us a more radical sense of something -- history, human life, mythic underworlds, physics, art. Junk doesn’t do that. So we have a collective, Oprah-fueled hard-on for poshlust. Probably nobody would dispute that. The part that’s exhausting, that causes all the Weltschmurtz and ennui and angst and malaise, is where we all sit around, nodding like bobbleheads, pretending we’re doing something other than what we’re doing, pretending that we want to read badly-ghostwritten books about celebrities getting beaten by their mothers for bed-wetting out of some sense of nobility and moral rectitude and living our “best life,” feigning credulity about the schlock.

He’s pithy, that George Santayana, but I’m not sure he’s always right. He was the one who said something about how those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, wasn’t he? I wonder whether that’s true. It’s one of those quotes I think about, like “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” (that one’s lame, I feel like the definition of insanity should include hearing voices that tell you to wield a knife at your family, your cat, or an innocent passerby), and, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” It would never surprise me to learn that George Santayana was completely fabricated, that he was some Swiss lady.

In a miasma of junk, how do you find a good book? Especially when my miasma might not be your miasma, when your schlock might not look like my schlock. (Maybe your schlock is like rose petals. Maybe your schlock doesn’t stink.)

I have a suggestion: go to the library. Go to the library and find a real history, a difficult, awkward, true history, a history that will wake you up or sing you to sleep, a history you can trust. It can be in any genre. It might be a book of Leonora Carrington’s paintings. It might be a scientific study of ravens. It could be comics or poems or fiction or something beautifully genreless, like Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell. It could be a history-history like Fernando Baez’s A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-day Iraq, by an historian or a journalist or a good novelist, or a selection from Camus’s notebooks, or a study of voudou. It might even be a memoir.

Yagoda concludes his history of the memoir with a 1960 quote from New York Times reporter Raymond Walters, Jr.:

The reader who picks up an autobiography merely for several hours’ entertainment is not likely to be troubled about its truthfulness as long as it tells a good yarn. But what of the reader who hopes to learn something about the ways of the world and how one individual responded to them? He may follow a method discerning critics have used for centuries: when you start reading an autobiography, think of it as a person to whom you have just been introduced. Size up as best you can the personality of the man or woman who is talking and take it constantly into consideration as you judge the truthfulness of what he has to say.

It isn’t just about discerning true stories from fake stories, though. It’s also about deciding whether what you’re reading is junk or not, and what its value is, what it offers you, what it chronicles or shows. And that’s why it’s a good idea to actually open the book, to introduce yourself to it, to see how it feels to read it -- not the blurbs, not the marketing copy, but the book itself. Part of why memoirs outsell fiction these days, even schlock fiction, is because everyone can tell what they are before (or without) reading them. They can be turned into easy blurbs, into easy book proposals. Agents and publishers and readers know what the book is “about” before cracking it open. This is understandable, what with all the anomic burnout and the Weltzshmertz and the angst.

But the hoaxes might save us. If we can’t trust agents and publishers and writers, then we have to size up a book’s personality on our own, as best we can. If we can’t trust that the schlock we’re reading really was written by a shy, sexy blond teen who fantasizes about being spanked -- if we can’t trust the blurbs from Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill and Gus Van Sant -- then we have to start taking the measure of the book ourselves.

Nabokov wrote that poshlust was not only “obviously trashy” work, but “the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever.” It’s hard, with everybody grazing mindlessly through the Walmart picking up a copy of Valerie Bertinelli’s Losing It: And Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time or Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment Upside Down to find something profound to read. But if we stay aware that our Oprah-vetted gangland-half-Native-American-foster-child memoir or true-story-based heartwarming triumph-over-torture novel might be fake, then we’re forced to consider whether we’re responding to interesting work, or indulging in PC- and pedophile-kitsch.

Some people really enjoy the junk -- I do, of course, with my appetite for Multiple Personality Disorder case studies -- but if we’re conscious of what we’re doing, maybe we can stop shlock from replacing real books? After all, as Yagoda shows, the junk is nothing new. Maybe we can stop mutilated, sliced up surgery-faces from replacing real faces, too? Maybe not. Maybe I’m just replaying the old, exhausted, wrong, high-versus-low culture debates that have been on auto-repeat for the past four (five?) centuries. Maybe ranting about it is as tiredly inauthentic as just lapping it up.

Katsoulis shows how the real stories of many hoax memoirists are just as troubled, fascinating, and revealing as their fake personae’s adventures with cults and wolves. A subgenre of the true lives of lying autobiographers is sure to bloom up next, what with all the memoirs and the books about memoirs and the guides to writing memoirs.

I recently read Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, Savannah Knoop’s story of dressing in that blond wig and having sex with Asia Argento. According to the product blurb on Amazon.com, “Savannah led this bizarre double life for six years, trading a precarious existence as a college dropout for a life in which she was embraced by celebrities and artists -- Carrie Fisher, Courtney Love, Mary Ellen Mark, Winona Ryder, Asia Argento, Sharon Olds, Gus Van Sant, Mike Pitt, Calvin Klein, Shirley Manson, to name a few -- and traveled the world… As Savannah and Laura [Albert] struggle over control of the JT character, Savannah realizes the limits of the game, and is relieved when it’s over. Inadvertently, she finds herself through the adventure of being someone else.” There’s a glowing blurb by celebrity photographer Mary Ellen Mark, “In 2001 I photographed JT Leroy for Vanity Fair. Five years later, we met again; this time Savannah Knoop was her true self. We immediately became friends.” It was never hard to tell that The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was written by a middle-aged woman; either way, it takes a bit of fantasy to imagine it into great literature. It wasn’t the quality of Laura Albert’s work that resonated with readers, it was the idea of a young boy, turning tricks and getting fondled by his mother.

One of the things that struck me most about the JT Leroy story was all those celebrities, all those writers, getting off on talking to this weird, bewigged kid on the phone. They must be so lonely, so brutally lonely, or maybe just sad and lost. They must be lonely and lost in pop-reality and sad with a ferocity only describable using overwrought French or German words for emptiness. Or maybe they didn’t notice talking to him at all. Maybe they chatted quickly at the behest of a publicist, and then sent along blurbs.

Not the junk, but the love.