What is a Lie? A Critical Analysis of the Memoir

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“Once we’ve made sense of our world, we wanna go f–k up everybody else’s because his or her truth doesn’t match mine. But this is the problem. Truth is individual calculation. Which means because we all have different perspectives, there isn’t one singular truth, is there?”

The opening line of Steven Wilson’s progressive rock album To the Bone introduces listeners to an alternative interpretation to the often black-and-white concept of truth. Rather than viewing true and false as definites, Wilson believes that reality is subjective and different for everyone, contrary to common belief and that the difference between telling the truth and lying comes down to the perception of those analyzing the statement. Taking this into consideration, we are prompted to consider the question: what exactly is a lie? How do lies as we know them relate to the truth, and, for that matter, what even is truth? Is there a definite divide between truth and false, or is Wilson’s analysis accurate? Through exploring the philosophy of “true” and “false”, analyzing James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces and the controversy surrounding it (as well as the concept of memoirs as a whole), and by discussing how lies can exist in memoirs, we will come to understand how, even though definite truths exist, truth and fiction are often simplified ideas of a spectrum containing opinion, abstracts, and subjectivity, and are often impossible to prove, especially within the context of memoirs.

According to Merriam-Webster, a lie is “marked by or containing untrue statements”. For the most part, this is a simple concept; things that are untrue are simply things that are not proven to be true, or that are proven to be absolutely false. This can be seen most prominently in logical programming, in which a program categorizes input into binary categories; “0” symbolizing false or untrue, and “1” symbolizing true, with no “grey area” in-between. For example, if one were to program a machine to perform an action once the threshold value of 50 was reached, the program would categorize anything outside of this threshold (anything below 50) as “false”, regardless of how close to 50 the input happened to be. Of course, human nature tends to be far more complex than a string of text; many things in life fall outside of “true” and “false”, and are more abstract, rather than concrete. Often, statements can be subjective, and the line between truth and false can be blurred. However, there is a difference between “truth” and “fact” according to Difference Between a website for “descriptive analysis and comparisons”; it is a fact that two plus two equals four– it is a statement that is mathematically proven, and therefore cannot be disproven– but truth, on the other hand, is about belief rather than fact. Singer Hilary Gardner describes this difference by explaining that “Facts are notes and lyrics on sheet music. Truth is what the singer gives to the listener when she’s brave enough to open up and sing from her heart”. Amaris Ketcham’s How to Determine Truth states that “truth is more important than fact,” and while this may seem illogical, facts often mean nothing to a person; they are simply accepted aspects of reality. Truths, on the other hand, are more personal and are conjured by belief. After considering the difference between “truth” and “fact”, we can clearly see that while “two plus two equals three” is a lie, but what about statements such as “I love you”, and “That was a difficult situation”? Can truths be proven or disproven? As we will further discuss and analyze, a memoir is a work that includes both facts and truths. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“A memoir is a history or record composed from personal observation and experience. Closely related to, and often confused with, autobiography, a memoir usually differs chiefly in the degree of emphasis placed on external events; whereas writers of autobiography are concerned primarily with themselves as subject matter, writers of memoir are usually persons who have played roles in, or have been close observers of, historical events and whose main purpose is to describe or interpret the events.”

In other words, a memoir may provide a different, more personal perspective to a historic event, making them interesting and efficient learning tools, especially for gaining a well-rounded understanding of an event or time period. This is primarily what separates memoirs from autobiographies, as an autobiography would focus primarily on the author, while a memoir would focus more on the situations faced by the author. For example, James Frey’s famous memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is not an autobiography, because it does not chronicle Frey’s entire life, but rather, a significant portion of it (his struggle with drug addiction and rehabilitation). As mentioned previously, a memoir contains both facts and truths, with truths relating to the author’s experiences and facts relating to the external circumstances. Taking this into consideration, is it possible for a memoir to truly lie?

Readers felt as though they had been deceived when they were informed that Frey’s memoir was not entirely truthful, despite having been lead to believe that it was a retelling of Frey’s struggles– The Smoking Gun, a legal website specializing in documents, found that much of Frey’s account had been fabricated, leading to Frey being dubbed a liar. Of course, certain parts of Frey’s memoir– such as criminal charges, hospitalizations, and deaths– can easily be proven or disproven with the use of official documents, but what about the abstract concepts conveyed by Frey, such as his level of psychological suffering or the addictions that he faced? In reality, there is no way to truly evaluate whether or not these aspects are accurate and factual, and therefore cannot be proven or disproven. Why, then, would Frey blatantly lie about things that can be factually analyzed? There are many potential reasons why Frey would dramatize his memoir, including to boost his self-image, to conjure a greater reaction, or even to weave a more intriguing story. According to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “The most common lie is that which one lies to himself; lying to others is relatively an exception.” In his memoir, Frey paints himself as a troubled anti-hero, who must face countless challenges to succeed. His persona is dramatic, with many romantic characteristics that help to convince readers of his virtues. Perhaps, even, Frey attempted to convince himself that he was his persona. According to Mixing Memoir and Desire, “Frey wanted to be ‘the f–ing best’ writer of his generation”, and it is possible that he wished to achieve this by creating an intriguing, shocking, and dramatic story posing as reality. Mixing Memoir and Desire goes on to elaborate that “Every con artist relies on some susceptibility in his audience, and for Frey part of this was his readers’ desire for a protagonist with an exceptional command of the spectacle of the wound”. It is also possible that some of the inaccuracies in Frey’s memoir were the product of an inaccurate memory; How to  Determine Truth explains that “Scenes are nothing but big lies in memoir because they are related to another big lie: that memory is somehow accurate”. When we remember events, we merely remember fragments of the entire picture, and a writer (even a non-fiction writer), must fill in the blanks to create something coherent. Biases and differences in perception can also create this unintentional “lie”. A memoir, especially in the case of James Frey, can help to define who a person is, and what they have been through, as well as historical perspectives; when these are proven to be false, it is highly likely that the author will be perceived as unauthentic, not only as a writer but as a person.

Perhaps the opening line to Steven Wilson’s To the Bone helps to explain the “blurred line” between true and false; even though definite truths exist in the forms of facts, truth and fiction are often simplified ideas of a spectrum containing opinion, abstracts, and subjectivity, and are often impossible to prove, especially within the context of memoirs. Truth and fiction are simplified ideas of a spectrum containing opinion, abstracts, and subjectivity, and this must be considered when attempting to prove or disprove statements, such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Though Frey undeniably lied about certain aspects of his memoir, other statements present in the text are impossible to prove or disprove. There are many reasons for lying, including attention, fame and self-image, and this must always be considered when analyzing a work of nonfiction.


Works Cited:

Frey, James. A Million Little Pieces. New York: Anchor, 2003.

Hamilton, Geoff. “Mixing Memoir and Desire: James Frey, Wound Culture, and the “Essential American Soul”. Journal Of American Culture 30.3 (2007): 324-333. Academic Search Elite. Web. 20 June 2018.

Ketcham, Amaris. “How to Determine Truth”. Bark. (9/2/2011). Web. 20 June 2018.

“Memoir.”. “Memoir.” Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America, Encyclopedia.com, 2018, www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/memoir. Web. 20 June 2018

Vritika. “Difference between Fact and Truth.” Difference Between, 14 Aug. 2015, www.differencebetween.info/difference-between-fact-and-truth. Web. 20 June 2018


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