Why All Memoirs Are Bullshit
Misha Defonseca, apparently, is not a survivor of the Holocaust. And it turns out she didn't walk hundreds of miles by herself from Europe to the Ukraine when she was between the ages of 7 and 11, as she wrote in Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years. And she didn't murder a Nazi who was trying to rape her. Also, not shockingly, she wasn't raised by wolves, as she'd also written.
Similarly, Margaret Seltzer, a white child of privilege, claimed in her memoir, Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival, to be a half–Native American child of South-Central Los Angeles. She boasted of her membership in the Bloods and, even worse, with the help of her literary agent, she faked the existence of a nonprofit organization, called International Brother/SisterHood, to promote the book. The fictional organization's very real website, now offline, featured quotes from "Madd Ronald," a fictional member of the Bloods who asserted that Seltzer "is a product of the hood. She has seen her share of desensitizing events and hardships, enough to be a soldier in the fight against poverty, oppression and ignorance."
Book blogs are predictably swollen with indignation over reports of these two newest fraudulent memoirs. It's both safe and satisfying for the media to tut-tut at a shamed author, but all this shame and outrage and bluster are smokescreens that obfuscate a point that needs to be made: All memoirs are bullshit.
The concept of a memoir suggests the imposition of a fictional narrative structure onto a life. Nearly every memoir I've ever read has ended on the false redemptive note of a powerful lesson learned, a "The More You Know" moment that smells questionable at 10 paces. To read a memoir is to buy into the ridiculous notion that someone can experience a life-changing epiphany—finding the love of one's life, say, or a long, hard climb out of substance abuse—and then, six months later, have the wisdom and distance to write compellingly about it. That's not a tall order; it's impossible.
Of course these memoirs are fiction. Chuck Klosterman didn't suddenly stop being a creepy writer with proclivities toward unrequited love at the end of Killing Yourself to Live. A. J. Jacobs didn't learn a touching, sitcom-like lesson about mortality and family at the climax of The Know-It-All. These are fictionalized epiphanies that exalt the memoirist and ultimately serve to make the reader feel better. People continue to read these prefab chunks of narrative drivel and desperately believe that they're true because the idea behind the modern memoir is remarkably similar to the American dream: You can become a better person without earning it, just by being fabulous, magnificent you. That's simply not autobiography; that's self-help.