Confabulations of Everyday Life: Is a memoir ever free from fiction, if not outright lies?


“A memoir takes some particular threads, some incidents, some experience from a person’s life and gives an account of it.” Richard Hell

Here is a recent post by Bruce Poulsen in his column “Reality Play” featured by Psychology Today. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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In 2003, recovering addict James Frey published a memoir about his journey through rehabilitation and eventual recovery from substance abuse. His book was touted and proclaimed to be an inspiring example of turning one’s life around. Frey detailed his journey through painful medical procedures, agonizing introspection, and a stirring cast of characters. By 2005, the book had been selected for Oprah’s Book Club and soon topped the charts on as well as the New York Times Best Seller list. In 2006, the website The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey was more of a fraud—that he “wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw wanted in three states.” As he later confessed to Oprah, for example, he had only spent a few hours in jail, rather than the 87 hours he had claimed.

Controversy and outcry followed, and Frey admitted that he made himself seem “tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am.” He further noted that, “my mistake…is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience”. Frey also admitted that he, “wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.” For Frey, it seems, the memoirist is part autobiographer and part fabulist. Which raises the question as to whether there is a difference.

Is a memoir ever free from confabulations, if not outright lies? Can we ever give an honest account of our history without embellishing the facts? Even with the most generous and forgiving view of Frey, is there something about the nature of autobiography that makes it bound to be forged? The cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser described memory retrieval as a kind of cognitive paleontology: much like dinosaur bones, we have bits and fragments of episodic memory that have been encoded. When we recall our past, we reconstruct these pieces into coherent narratives, filling in the blanks. And of course, these reconstructions change over time and meet the idiosyncratic, often unconscious needs of the present moment.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

PoulsenBruce Poulsen, Ph.D., is the Director of Training for the clinical psychology internship program at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. He also supervises child psychiatry residents in the PCMC pediatric residency program at the University of Utah School of Medicine, and he is an adjunct assistant professor in both the School of Medicine and Department of Educational Psychology. Dr. Poulsen is a past president of the Utah Psychological Association. He also maintains a private practice in Salt Lake City.

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