“I would not even mention this piece of sad fiction except for the fact that the accumulated weight of fictions just like it, when added up, form a picture of a place that never was, and a time that never happened.”
–Memoirist Nasdijj, in a 2001 News & Observer essay
criticizing cowboy author Louis L’Amour’s To Tame a Land
For those who lament the flood of memoirs that have become ubiquitous on bookstore shelves, a glimmer of hope flickered recently. Disclosures that several acclaimed memoirists had invented key elements of their allegedly autobiographical tales prompted publishers to search their souls and, maybe, check a few facts in the future. But readers who hope that the scandals will mark a shift toward an interest in a more accurate version of history–or away from our creeping cultural narcissism–will be sorely disappointed.
The news that memoirist James Frey’s best-selling A Million Little Pieces was riddled with falsehoods caused an uproar in literary and media circles, culminating in Oprah Winfrey’s well-publicized defense of Frey followed by her change of heart a few days later. The Frey revelations were still fresh when an author with local ties–Nasdijj, aka Timothy Patrick Barrus–was exposed by the L.A. Weekly as having one-upped Frey by fabricating his entire life in his succession of memoirs. Rather than the hard-scrabble half-Navajo survivor of an abusive Caucasian cowboy and alcoholic mother, a man whose two adopted sons had respectively died of fetal alcohol syndrome and AIDS and provided fodder for his books, Burrus turned out to be an unremarkable middle-class white kid from Lansing, Mich., who had penned gay pornography in a previous life.
The News & Observer, which had lavishly praised Nasdijj’s work (critic J. Peder Zane compared Nasdijj to Faulkner, Melville and Proust and stated flatly in a glowing 2001 profile that “every word of [his personal saga] is true”) and hired him to write essays and book reviews, quickly acknowledged that the paper had been duped. Zane wrote a column in which he expressed regrets for his gullibility but sought to absolve himself, as well. “In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t trusted him, hadn’t repeated his claims in my column as fact,” Zane wrote. “But I did. I saw no reason not to. Neither, it seemed, did anyone else.”
By “anyone else,” Zane meant editors and others in the publishing world responsible for disseminating Nasdijj’s fictions as truth. In fact, people did step forward to challenge Nasdijj’s veracity. As the L.A. Weekly reported, Native American author Sherman Alexie, convinced that Nasdijj was a fraud after reading a galley proof of his debut memoir (The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams) in 1999, unsuccessfully urged Nasdijj’s editor at Houghton Mifflin not to publish the book. A British screenwriter with knowledge of Navajo culture was hired to adapt another of Nasdijj’s books but conveyed his skepticism about Nasdijj to the producer after reading it, and the project was eventually scuttled. Ted Conover, who wrote glowingly about The Blood for TheNew York Times Book Review, realized he’d been hoodwinked after a reader with expertise in fetal alcohol syndrome wrote to tell him that the symptoms Nasdijj attributed to his son in the book were not consistent with FAS.
Still, most of the gatekeepers simply avoided conducting any due diligence on Nasdijj, apparently content that someone else had believed him. Nor would it have been that difficult to check, as Nasdijj left plenty of clues to his false identity along the way. On numerous occasions, for instance, he claimed that his name meant “to become again” in Navajo Athabaskan; no such word exists in that language. And though the paper apparently never checked until the L.A. Weekly article, it took The N&O about two minutes to determine that the social security number provided by Nasdijj was actually assigned to Timothy Barrus.
In a column about the Frey affair, Zane pointed out that stretching the truth is a time-honored tradition in the annals of literary non-fiction, citing Mark Twain, Joseph Mitchell, Truman Capote and others as examples. That’s certainly the case–after all, memoirs always include numerous direct quotes, and recalling with precision what someone said 20 minutes let alone 20 years ago is an impossible task deserving of creative license. “An autobiography may be largely fictional,” observed the English scholar and author J.A. Cuddon. “Few can recall clear details of their early life and are therefore dependent on other people’s impressions, of necessity equally unreliable.”
But the assumption has always been, and should be, that the essential facts in a memoir, or any first-person account identified as non-fiction, are accurate.
That assumption is proving increasingly dubious, if it was ever valid. People have a natural inclination to selectively recall events that paint a more dramatic and benign picture of their lives. “Everyone tends to remember what he wants to remember,” wrote Cuddon. “Disagreeable facts are sometimes glossed over or repressed.”
The memoir phenomenon has bled into traditional journalistic practice with what seems to be increasing frequency. Columnists who trade as much on persona as insight routinely inject themselves into their observations; documentary films these days are often as much about the filmmakers as their subjects. Whatever limited objectivity journalists hope to bring to their interpretations is compromised beyond repair when they become part of the story.
Moreover, the percentage of the public relying on traditional print and broadcast media for news and information has been steadily shrinking. And in the digital world, the ability to reinvent ourselves has become a relatively simple matter. On the Internet, you are who you say you are, or who you want to be; name, age, gender and race change at will. Blogs, often little more than online diaries or rehashes of “news” refracted through a personal lens, present virtual realities that few would bother to challenge. College professors report that their students are frequently referencing the online “encyclopedia” Wikipedia, which anyone can edit, in their research papers–no surprise, then, that Congressional staffers were recently discovered to have sanitized the Wikipedia entries on their bosses. Chicago Tribune columnist James Coates lamented in 1996 that “America is awash in a growing and often disruptive avalanche of false information that takes on a life of its own in the electronic ether of the Internet, talk radio and voice mail until it becomes impervious to denial and debunking.”
The Internet, however, is not the problem here. In the cases of Frey and Nasdijj, the traditional filters, including the media, abdicated their responsibility to ensure that fact remains at least marginally distinguishable from fiction. High-profile fabrications have brought down prominent journalists in unprecedented numbers the past few years. News outlets have largely abandoned investigative journalism, which often depends on reconciling conflicting information, in favor of “balanced” stories and oppositional man-on-the-street interviews that offer no resolution or direction. A news story today about the shape of the globe would likely include a quote from the flat-earth faction juxtaposed with equal weight alongside one from Copernicus.
In this environment, the search for information has supplanted the quest for knowledge, with self-validation the ultimate objective. Memoirs fit neatly in a framework where distinctions between fact and fiction have become ever more irrelevant and in which every opinion has equal merit. At the same time, if all information is inherently suspect, we can (and do) choose to disregard any that doesn’t conform to our preconceived notions. Goodbye, learning. Hello, the story of my life!
According to the L.A. Weekly, Barrus/Nasdijj is now shopping a new memoir about his true identity and life story. An e-mail to Penguin Books from Barrus said that the memoir, Year of the Hyena: The Story of Nasdijj, would set the record straight and resolve “the current swirling controversy about who I actually am.” No word on if Nasdijj/Barrus has signed a deal, but notoriety sells–ask Frey, whose book sales have spiked since his unmasking.
The Independent has obtained an advance copy of House Speaker Jim Black’s forthcoming memoir, A Leader for All Seasons, excerpted for the first time here:
“Beginning in 2005 I was the subject of a partisan witch hunt designed to undermine the people of North Carolina. My opponents, jealous of my ability to unite politicians on both sides of the aisle, deliberately misrepresented support from certain grassroots constituencies as some sort of conspiracy. As an optometrist all too aware of the ravages of eye disease among the state’s youth, I used the legislative process to help them get much-needed screening exams before attending school. The appreciation of my humanitarian efforts from my fellow eye doctors was expressed through normal channels; the fact that a few of them forgot to fill in a blank or two on their checks, which my staff and I generously did in order to avoid costly bureaucratic processing delays, was absurdly seized upon by the partisan forces of evil as somehow indicative of corruption. Imagine my surprise when the media picked up the story and ran with it.
“Compounding this injustice, certain elements tried to tarnish my consistent support for jobs and a vital economy in our great state. Everyone knows that video poker provides a good living for thousands of North Carolinians, and it was only natural for me to stave off efforts to undermine our financial well-being by banning video poker. The fact that the folks who understand the importance of video poker to our citizens expressed their appreciation in the form of campaign contributions made perfect sense. Besides, everyone likes to play a game of chance every now and then, including me–you don’t get to be Speaker of the House and stay there without taking a few risks.
“The smear campaign against my political aide, Meredith Norris, was especially unconscionable. Meredith was always able to compartmentalize her various jobs and never let one influence or interfere with the other. As we battled the forces of ignorance to pass a state lottery and help improve education for North Carolina’s children, Meredith was invaluable in helping me and other legislators grasp the fine points of the lottery business. Of course, I took full responsibility for any misguided assumptions her research might have caused, but that didn’t stop the special interests from distorting. …”