Reviews — From the September 2008 issue

Books and Circuses

The politics of literary scapegoating

Discussed in this essay:

The Three of Us: A Family Story, by Julia Blackburn. Pantheon Books. 320 pages. $26.

Before I ran out of bookshelf space, I had a section devoted to “as told to” memoirs by B-list celebrities. I liked the racy, improbable tales of early traumas transcended, near-fatal illnesses and tour-bus crashes survived, substance-addled marriages crashing and burning, lessons learned and evil ways mended. Reading them was like watching TV, or like eating cotton candy. You couldn’t stand very much at once, and the gossamer stories seemed to dissolve on contact with your brain.

I’ve long since donated this collection to my local library’s book sale. But I thought of it twice in the past year, on both occasions with affection. The first time was when my son told me he’d just read, in Nina Simone’s memoir, I Put a Spell on You, an anecdote about being bored by one of Louis Farrakhan’s sermons and trying unsuccessfully to seduce him. “Who knows how much of the book is true,” my son said, “but it’s totally entertaining.”

The second time was during the scandal that erupted last winter over Love and Consequences, a “memoir” of an embattled inner-city childhood. The book received wide publicity and positive reviews until its author, Margaret B. Jones, was outed by her sister, who had seen, in the New York Times, an article about the haven Ms. Jones had found in Oregon after growing up amid the violence of South Central Los Angeles. When her sister revealed that Margaret Jones was actually Margaret Seltzer and had been raised in a middle-class suburb, the press spent several gleeful days telling us, it seemed, far more about Margaret Seltzer (who had given interviews in her invented, street-talking persona) than we were hearing about the war in Iraq. Acting quickly, Ms. Seltzer’s publishers not only recalled the book; they pulped it. Although the Nazis had given book-burning a bad name, the costly business of recall and punitive pulping appears to have become an acceptable, indeed merciful, form of literary euthanasia.

A month or so later, I was able to obtain a copy of Love and Consequences from a friend who works in a bookstore. (Alternatively, one can bid for the book on eBay, where copies last spring were selling for $50; the going price has since fallen to $9.95.)

The friend who gave me the book said, “Don’t ask how I got it.” He wouldn’t let me pay.

Were we doing something illegal? It was samizdat, in a way. I was reading a banned text. But why was I surprised by the book’s dire fate? Given the calumny heaped upon previous literary “hoaxers”—James Frey and J T LeRoy, among others—and their hapless editors, it made sense that publishers might have had a rapid-response plan in place, designed to minimize damage and negative publicity, should a similar situation occur.

What did seem a little strange was the extremity of the response, the eagerness to purge from the planet a book by a so-called memoirist who turns out to have made up her life story.

Of course, no one likes to be lied to, and for some reason Americans seem to hate lies—or, at least, certain kinds of lies—more than most. In Huckleberry Finn, the Duke and the Dauphin—bogus aristocrats, fraudulent thespians, grifters who pretend to be a dead man’s relatives in order to steal the legacy from his rightful heirs—are tarred and feathered for staging a performance that essentially consists of the Dauphin jumping around naked.

In order to put the Margaret Joneses and James Freys in a broader context, it might be useful to look at those chapters of Mark Twain’s endlessly reflective mirror of the American psyche. The irony of the Duke and the Dauphin is not how bad they are at what they claim to do, or how good they are at what they actually do, but rather the fact that their crimes—faked pedigrees, a rotten show, a thwarted attempt at larceny—provoke the moral outrage of a slaveholding society that finds it perfectly acceptable to buy and sell human beings.

On nearly every occasion when I’ve been invited to speak about both fiction and nonfiction writing, someone has asked my opinion of the scandalous disclosure that James Frey had fabricated sections of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. I reply that I’m puzzled that people seem more upset by a lie about how long a writer spent in rehab than a lie about whether Saddam Hussein had access to weapons of mass destruction. Inevitably, nervous laughter ripples through the room.

In fact, I couldn’t be more serious. Each time, I find myself wondering: Why isn’t the audience talking to one another, and to me, about how, for the past eight years, our government has deceived us about matters of huge consequence—the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, real estate foreclosures, poverty, unemployment, the handling of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy? The list of falsehoods—and attendant tragedies—goes on. And our response is to tar and feather James Frey and Margaret Seltzer rather than Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzales.

Is the steady barrage of Big Lies so terrifying and numbing that Americans can only respond to the Small Lies? Compare the frenzy of self-analysis and self-castigation with which the publishing industry responded to news of the fabricators to the relatively restrained reaction of our government when faced with the demands of its own citizens: thoughtful publishers of false memoirs have offered to refund the two-figure expenditures of irate consumers—an option currently unavailable to American taxpayers who have been defrauded of billions.

Meanwhile, the pulping machines into which Ms. Seltzer’s publishers pitched her faux-memoir have been fueled by the more unsavory aspects of celebrity culture. Readers of Amazon.com reviews or literary blogs have observed the intensity with which authors are simultaneously admired and despised as liars by profession. It’s something like the ambivalence that sports fans appear to feel about the athletes whose understandable reluctance to tell the world they’ve been shooting up with steroids has been denounced as a threat to the morals of the nation’s youth.

Americans have difficult lives right now. Mortgages have exploded, kids are in Iraq. Who could blame anyone for wanting a good laugh and a satisfying shake of the head over the public shaming of an Eliot Spitzer, or, for that matter, a James Frey or a Margaret Seltzer?

Perhaps I should have explained all this to the young editor who sat beside me at a dinner party, and who—when I claimed I didn’t really care if the writer’s name was Jones or Seltzer, or if her memoir was true—reacted as if I’d said I didn’t care if Chinese-made pharmaceuticals were contaminated with poison. I almost told him, “It’s only a book,” but I thought that would have sounded strange, coming from a writer.

Because I’ve been blithely going on about telling the truth, I feel a certain compulsion to confess that I was one of those who avidly followed the story of the Margaret Seltzer memoir. I especially loved the detail of her being exposed by her sister. I wondered what was the history there, how did that conversation go? And what about the mentors, editors, agents, and critics who had been deceived?

My curiosity about all this made me want to read the book. I hoped that Love and Consequences would prove to be a first-rate work of the imagination that should have been identified as fiction. No matter how much her story stuck to, or diverged from, the facts, Margaret Seltzer should have followed the route that Dave Eggers took with What Is the What, his terrific novel closely based on the autobiography of a Sudanese lost boy, Valentino Achak Deng. Call your book a memoir, as did Ishmael Beah, and you must be willing to swear to the veracity of every word, which is what happened with Beah’s A Long Way Gone. But call it a novel, and you have quite a bit of latitude to embroider.

I would have liked to write that because of the doublethink and denial that have taken over our culture, Margaret Jones-Seltzer’s great novel would never be read. Sadly, Love and Consequences is not a great novel. As fiction, it has the generic quality of those B-list celebrity bios. The little girl’s abuse is discovered when blood runs down her leg at school. There’s a violent gang initiation, the senseless deaths of appealing young people, a rock of maternal goodness, Big Mom, struggling to hold her biological and foster family together.

But if you read it as a memoir, it’s a whole different book, because there’s a second story grafted onto the first. The parallel narrative, shadowing everything, is that of a young woman (abused, part-white, part–Native American, farmed out to a foster family in South Central) who survived all that and went on to write all this. It’s not just a book; it’s the American dream. Poverty can be overcome, a street kid can grow up to write about it, and although race informs every word of the text, the point is that a white girl can live in a black world, surrounded by loving foster siblings, as if race didn’t matter. Even the most experienced of us, the most hardened, or the most savvy are defenseless against the stories we most want to hear, and you can understand how the book’s early readers were persuaded, especially in the absence of any reason for doubt.

By now it’s impossible to approach Love and Consequences (unless you come to it cold, having picked it up on the remainder table, which is unlikely to happen) as anything but a made-up story whose author pretended it was true. Reading it, I kept recalling something I’d heard about a medieval alchemist who told his students they could transform base metals into gold if they could perform the extremely long and elaborate distillation without once thinking of the word “hippopotamus.” In this case, the hippopotamus I couldn’t screen out was the subject of how and why we read memoirs, and how the assumption that what we are reading is factual may cause us to approach the work in ways that would never cross our minds were we reading a novel.

Perhaps the most degraded level on which we may find ourselves reading a memoir is that of pure gossip. A friend from San Francisco told me that one reason Sean Wilsey’s Oh the Glory of It All was such a hit in his native city was that many people felt they were acquainted (from life, or from the society pages) with the wicked stepmother whom Wilsey portrays, with understandable relish, as the socialite equivalent of a fanged, taloned fairy-tale villain. This approach may be all but unavoidable when we actually do know the writer or any of the characters who figure in the narrative. That might have been the case for literary Manhattanites reading Her Last Death, the well- received memoir by Susanna Sonnenberg, whose father (name changes did little to disguise the identities of the principals) was a prominent figure on the New York cultural scene. At its extreme, such a reading can assume the rhythm of a curious child paging through a steamy novel in search of the dirty bits, or of a celebrity-gossip hound reading a Hollywood roman à clef, skimming for insinuations too libelous for the tabloids.

The next level on which memoirs can be read involves our sense that a writer is telling the world something we might not confide to our best friend. This sort of reading experience is provided by the increasingly crowded subgenre of autobiographies that portray the outrageous exploits of parents who have remained, in the writer’s memory, larger than life, just as they would have seemed to a child. Some of the most popular recent memoirs—Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle—fall into this group. The writer’s courage or boldness in making the private public may be part of the reason why so many first-person accounts (Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is yet another example) may fulfill a self-help function, and why thousands of readers find their encounters with these intimate narratives to be less voyeuristic than therapeutic. The traumas of the reader’s own dysfunctional childhood or painful divorce seem suddenly less taboo, less isolating, less fraught. Hidden secrets may come spilling out in the supportive context of the book group—a less expensive alternative to psychotherapy—and the reader may feel heartened and encouraged by the fact that the writer (such as Margaret B. Jones) has not only survived but triumphed.

To read in this way is to enter into a relationship with a book and a writer that is not only extra-literary but personal, a phenomenon that may be partly responsible for the orgies of recrimination that have followed the exposure of memoirists with faulty recall or vivid imaginations. It’s less as if a writer has lied or exaggerated than as if one’s therapist has been found guilty of practicing with false credentials.

Unlike the confectionary, speed-readable, rags-to-riches stories authored by celebrities and their ghostwriters, unlike the books that reveal the bad behavior of real-life acquaintances or the first-person case histories that make us feel better, by comparison, about our own childhoods, the memoirs to which I am drawn are appealing for many of the same reasons that one might want to read fiction: for the pleasures of language, for the insights provided by a writer with a unique sensibility and an original voice, for the opportunity to admire an artist’s effort to impose the logic and order of art on the chaos of experience, and for the recognition of the fact that life is so strange and mysterious that it easily defeats the most skillful attempt to sandwich it between the covers of a book. Although they are no less accessible or engaging than their more popular counterparts, such books tend to be less warmly embraced than those by writers whose works top the bestseller lists. Possibly, the things I most admire—singularity, quirkiness, the refusal to resort to easy charm or to suggest the existence of happy resolutions—may be the very qualities that put off the prospective reader in search of titillation, consolation, or both.

The audience enticed by the first pages of Eat, Pray, Love—recuperating in Rome after a painful divorce, Gilbert fantasizes about kissing her handsome young Italian teacher—may be discouraged by the incantatory beginning of Hilton Als’s The Women, in which Als sketches the outlines of his mother’s life by telling the reader what his mother refused to talk about (“Until the end, my mother never discussed her way of being”), or by the opening of Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, a memoir/travel book about her journey to the South Pole: “I am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life. My bedroom is white: white walls, icy mirrors, white sheets and pillowcases, white slatted blinds. It’s the best I could do. . . . If I trace it back, that wish for whiteout began with the idea of being an inmate in a psychiatric hospital. Not during my first stay in a mental hospital, in Hove, when I was fourteen, but later, aged twenty and twenty-one, in London’s Maudsley psychiatric unit, hospital became my preferred environment. White hospital sheets seemed to hold out the promise of what I really wanted: a place of safety, a white oblivion.”

Like Jenny Diski and Hilton Als, Julia Blackburn reminds us that a skilled writer can create a memoir that not only avoids the clichés of the genre but is as artful as a novel. To summarize Blackburn’s The Three of Us risks making it sound like a number of accounts of Gothic childhoods, in this case one written by a sort of British distant cousin of Susanna Sonnenberg’s or Augusten Burroughs’s. But when the writer herself provides an outline in a prologue entitled “This Is the Story,” her sentences take surprising turns that hint at the ways in which her book will depart from, and surpass, the more familiar model. Here, in the preface, Blackburn encapsulates her father’s psycho- pharmacological problems:

My father Thomas Blackburn was a poet and an alcoholic who for many years was addicted to a powerful barbiturate called sodium amytal, which was first prescribed for him in 1943. When the cumulative effect of the drug combined with the alcohol made him increasingly violent and so mad he began to growl and bark like a dog, he was tried out on all sorts of substitute pills, including one which he proudly said was used to tranquillize rhinoceroses.

What’s striking is not only the tone (lightly bemused, matter of fact, free of sentimentality, self-pity, or blame) but the deadpan humor, the choice of detail (canine vocalizations were, we will learn, hardly the most egregious symptom of Thomas Blackburn’s addictions), and the use of precise, telling language. That adverb “proudly,” as Thomas boasts about taking rhinoceros tranks, conveys reams of information.

The memoirist continues:

He was disastrous in so many ways, yet I never felt threatened by him. I could be frightened of the madness and the drunken rages, but I never doubted the honesty of his relationship with me and that was what really mattered.

My mother, Rosalie de Meric, was very different. She was a painter by profession and she rarely got drunk and didn’t use prescription drugs, and she was sociable and sane and flirtatious, and I was always afraid of her. Right from the start I was her sister and her confidante and, eventually, her sexual rival, as the boundaries between us became increasingly dangerous and unclear.

So, in just a few paragraphs, Julia Blackburn—whose previous works include a book about Goya’s old age, another about Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena, and a meditation on the life of Billie Holiday—artfully smudges the line between memoir and reportage. On the memoir side of the border, the writer is working from a distance. Colored by passion and memory, by opinions and feelings, such a book is highly, if not completely, subjective. A sexually competitive mother more threatening than a violent, mad, barking father? It depends on what Blackburn means by sane—or by dangerous, for that matter.

For all of Blackburn’s unjudgmental cool, the family she describes redefines parental misbehavior. Throughout much of her early life, until her parents divorced, she was the shield her mother interposed between herself and the punches of a demented, flailing husband who wouldn’t hurt his daughter. Among Thomas Blackburn’s public (and, to Rosalie, shaming) adulteries was an intense, unhappy affair with the painter Francis Bacon. Rosalie talked to her daughter about sex at embarrassing length and in graphic detail, barraging her with unwanted information about Rosalie’s lovers and offering to teach her how to masturbate. After the divorce, Rosalie had a string of male boarders who became lovers, or didn’t, and it was always high drama: fights that involved the throwing of household objects, or tense silences in the car. Fifties British bohos, Julia Blackburn’s parents breathed a rarefied ether saturated by ideas about art, alcohol, sexual experimentation, Freudian psychotherapy, family nudity—intensified, in their case, by their own ghoulish childhoods. Rosalie’s sister killed herself and was perhaps abused by their father; Thomas’s zealot father made his son sleep in a chastity belt that practiced painful aversion therapy on a boy having a wet dream.

Initially charismatic, Rosalie panicked about aging and acted out in ways that harmed her daughter, engaging her in wildly inappropriate and painful sexual rivalry. But by the time the book begins, Rosalie is old, dying, and helpless, and she couldn’t be sweeter as she encourages her daughter to write about her.

The Three of Us shifts tone and rhythm as Blackburn quotes from documents present and past: Julia’s faxes to a former lover whom she will later marry, pages from Julia’s notebook, letters, and the diary that Rosalie gave her daughter when Julia was about to have her first child, in 1978. In this journal, Rosalie recorded the resentment and the “wave of ambivalence” she felt the first time she had to feed baby Julia.

Given what we know about postpartum depression, such emotions hardly seem unusual. But what kind of mother, we might ask, would give her daughter this account of her first, defenseless hours in the world? Although there may be a diagnosis explaining Rosalie’s behavior, there is no entirely satisfactory answer. What complicates things further is that both writer and reader view the mother’s helplessly lacerating, lifelong self- involvement through the scrim of the wispy carapace that the dying, eager-to-please old woman has become.

Among the skillfully dramatized scenes that may remind us of an expertly written play is one that takes place in 1961, when Julia was twelve, not long before her parents’ divorce. It involves the family dog, Jason, an initially good-natured and loyal black cocker spaniel that has become furious and neurotic because Thomas hates it and has been sadistically trying to turn it into something closer to a surly fox terrier.

It all came to a head one Sunday lunch. There we were, the three of us, gathered in the dark basement kitchen for a family occasion and three stuffed lambs’ hearts were roasting quietly in the oven. There was a lot of tension in the air, but there was nothing new in that, and we were used to it. For some reason the telephone kept ringing and my mother kept answering it in a curiously unreal and cheerful tone of voice. And, as my father pointed out later, she kept on saying, “Jolly good!”

“Oh, jolly good! How nice to hear from you! Yes, we’re all jolly good, thanks! Well, that’s jolly good! Bye-bye!”

Jason was under the table looking dangerous and my father was sitting at the table and grinding his teeth. “Jolly good, jolly good, jolly good!” he said, doing a simpering imitation of my mother’s positive approach. “There is nothing at all jolly good, as far as I can tell, and if I hear you say jolly good one more time I shall go mad.”

Like poor old Desdemona with the handkerchief, my mother was stuck in a circle of repetition. She opened the oven door, brought the dish of hearts to the table, set them down and said, “Oh jolly good, they do look nice!”

My father bent forward, lifted the dish in both hands and—never mind how hot it was—hurled the hearts across the table in the direction of my mother’s face. They missed their mark and fell in a splatter on the floor.

The dog seizes a lamb’s heart, the father lunges at the dog, the dog bites the father, the father threatens to hit the dog with a mahogany doorstop, Julia intervenes and protects the dog.

Lunch was over. The dog finished the hearts, my father retired to his study, I went to my room to weep and my mother got on the telephone. “I can’t stand it any longer and now he’s trying to kill the dog,” I heard her say, and for once I agreed with her.

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Blackburn’s mother and father said exactly what she claims they said before and after he tried, or pretended to try, to bludgeon the family pet. I can only assume they were eating stuffed lambs’ hearts, but the detail is so perfect, one might almost give Blackburn more credit if she had made it up. In any case, who would want to spoil the uncanny pleasure of reading such a scene by quibbling about the exactitude with which Blackburn is reporting?

That a writer can get so much complicated and (literally) messy life onto the printed page is encouraging, in a way, even at a moment when there is so little reason for encouragement and so many causes for distress—in addition to our economic woes, the daily toll of violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay. In these places, and so many others, there is suffering that our government has caused, and about which we would be lied to, if we asked. But where would most Americans find enough information to frame the most basic questions, when our newspaper editors and TV producers jump at the chance to bump these painful stories so that they can devote their front pages and lead slots to exposing the crime of a middle-class white girl who imagined she could fool us with her phony ghetto memoir?

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her new novel, Goldengrove, will be published in September.

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