Memoirs, Movies and Those (Mostly) True Stories
A Writer’s Take on Reality’s Rough Edges
By Steve Luxenberg,
Author of Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
Why do they do it?
Why do so many film makers put “based on a true story” or some variation as one of their opening frames, when they have freely altered the truth of the story?
Because it works. Because those words retain their mesmerizing power, even though they are misused or stretched at times to the point where there’s little relationship between the story being told and the facts that gave rise to them. Truth-twisting in film has become so accepted that reviewers rarely comment on it or point out the discrepancies between fact and fiction, between information and invention.
As a long-time journalist and a first-time author, I’m probably more fascinated than most people at the transformation of a nonfiction work from book to screen. In researching and writing about a family secret that took me back to the beginning of the 20th century, I chased down many leads to ambiguous and not entirely satisfying conclusions. I joked with friends that I envied the novelist’s license to invent what could not be learned or verified.
I’m not suggesting that there’s a grand deception here. It’s news to no one that movies change certain facts, sometimes for legal and privacy reasons. But film makers increasingly want to have it both ways. What began as a safeguard (“some facts have been changed to protect . . . “) has turned into a genre. Why not just come out and say it? “Some facts have been changed to protect the innocent, streamline the plot and increase dramatic tension. But the story is still (mostly) true.”
Instead, the trend line is moving in the opposite direction. Recent case in point: The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie as the mother fighting a corrupt Los Angeles police department that had declared a stranger to be her abducted nine-year-old son, begins with the words “a true story” appearing on a black screen, holding for a few seconds, and then fade out.
Not “based on” or “inspired by.” Just that flat, unambiguous statement: “a true story.” Then, in the fine print at the end the closing credits, the film makers fess up. “While this picture is based upon a true story,” we’re told, “some of the characters have been composited or invented, and a number of incidents fictionalized.” In other words, (which I liked and admired for its storytelling as well as its artful re-creation of the 1920s) improved on the remarkable tale of Christine Collins and her young son Walter. The true story wasn’t quite good enough.
Moviegoers seem to accept this hybrid genre, and the industry celebrates it (Oscars, etc.). Is it any wonder that it has crept into the world of nonfiction books, where memoir writers have claimed a license to “fill in the gaps” (based on truth and memory, of course)? Or that universities now offer courses in “creative nonfiction”?
Truman Capote gave us the “nonfiction novel,” stealing a page from the film world. Tom Wolfe chose to take his new journalism into novels, which solved that problem. James Frey obviously crossed the line, however, in embellishing and inventing some of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces about his drug use and brushes with law. A screenplay version of Frey’s work could have said “a true story,” and no one would have batted an eye.
Subsequent editions of Frey’s memoir have carried an apology from the author that is a model of muddle. “I didn’t initially think of what I was writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography,” he wrote. “I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it’s a story, and one that I could not have written without having lived the life I’ve lived.”
Frey’s right on one score: Others disagree, and there’s a lively and continuing debate in the writing community about these issues. On a Facebook discussion the other day, for example, the question came up: How far should memoir writers go in reconstructing scenes and dialogue?
I draw a harder line than most. I favor the rough edges of memory over neat and pretty reconstructions. (More interesting, usually.) Invention? As I wrote in the Facebook discussion, that’s why we have novels.
Readers, I think, are smart. They know that most writers don’t have notes or documents to back up dialogue from long ago. So what’s the problem? In a word: Credibility. As a writer, I want readers to grant me some license to tell my story. But if I present lengthy dialogue as fact, I risk losing their trust — and their interest. Bad deal for me.
There’s a scene in my new book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, that illustrates the difficulty of reconstructing past events. I’m at a restaurant outside Detroit, interviewing a cousin about the secret that stands at the center of the book. The secret was my mother’s. Throughout her life, my mom had hidden the existence of a disabled sister. I was trying to find out why. My search had led to my cousin, someone I had never known.
In the early 1950s, I learned, my cousin and my mother had argued about the secret, leading to a life-long rift between the two women. Just as my cousin is recounting a climatic moment in their dispute, we’re interrupted by the waitress’s offer of coffee. After the waitress leaves, my cousin resumes her account — and offers a different (and more dramatic) version of the key moment she had described only seconds before.
I had no doubt about the crux of my cousin’s story. My mother had, after all, kept the secret. But if I wanted an “accurate” version of their conversation, I was out of luck. My cousin was giving me the version that reflected years of thinking about that moment, that reflected her feelings as much as her memory.
“The nuances lie beyond my reach,” I wrote in the book. “Fifty years later, this is the best my cousin can do.”
I saw no reason to choose between the two versions. I would present both, and use the scene to point out the intricate patterns of trouble imposed by time and memory. That would be better than presenting a reconstruction of their argument.
That would be something closer to true.
©2009 Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
Steve Luxenberg has been a senior editor with the Washington Post for twenty-two years, overseeing reporting that has won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
For more information please visit www.steveluxenberg.com