Did Nan Talese Lie to Oprah?

What did James Frey’s publisher know and when did she know it?

In her televised interrogation of Nan Talese, whose Doubleday imprint published James Frey’s discredited memoir A Million Little Pieces, Oprah Winfrey asked Talese when she first smelled a rat. Let’s go to the transcript:

Q: When did you realize that James hadn’t told the truth in his memoir?A: I learned about the jail, the two things that were on The Smoking Gun, at the same time you did. And I was dismayed to know that, but I had not—I mean, as an editor, do you ask someone, “Are you really as bad as you are?”

This isn’t technically a lie, but it’s breathtakingly (and, one must assume, deliberately) misleading. Yes, Talese learned about the particular fabrications exposed by The Smoking Gun (there were more than two) “at the same time” that Winfrey did. But Talese had reason to believe Frey hadn’t told the truth in his memoir well before that.

We know this because Deborah Caulfield Rybak published a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune way back in July 2003 that not only flagged other likely fabrications in the book, but solicited comment on those likely fabrications from … Nan Talese. (You can get Rybak’s story by clicking here; free-but-unusually-cumbersome registration required.) The credibility problems Rybak cited were not trivial. One concerned the book’s very first paragraph:

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone. I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.

Here is what Frey’s friend Keith Bray told Rybak:

Bray said in an interview that he and another friend took Frey to the hospital before they took him to the airport. “So he wasn’t bleeding, and he wasn’t unconscious, although he was in blackout and he was a mess,” Bray said.

Rybak also talked to several airline employees and was told that no flight attendant would ever allow someone onto a plane in that condition because she wouldn’t want to take responsibility for evacuating him. “The only way someone would be on a plane in that condition would be on a stretcher and accompanied by a doctor,” said Capt. Steve Luckey, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association’s national security committee.

When Rybak flagged these credibility problems to Talese, did Talese stand steadfastly by her author? Er, not exactly:

“You have to remember when someone is writing in the first person, it is their memory as they recall it,” she said in an interview. “And memory is very selective; there’s no such thing as the whole story. If they took a lie-detector test it would probably be true, but if that person had a witness all the way through, maybe it didn’t exactly happen that way. But that’s how they see it.”

This is more or less what Talese would later say in response to The Smoking Gun’s findings: Memoirs hew to a different standard because memories are faulty. That’s true up to a point—one that falls well short of Frey’s gaudier inventions. It certainly doesn’t extend to changing people’s names without informing readers in the text, another problem Rybak flagged to Talese. Talese acknowledged this error more directly. “It’s a total slip-up that we didn’t have a disclaimer page,” she told the Star Trib. “I’m embarrassed.”

Does that sound to you like someone who had yet to learn that “James hadn’t told the truth in his memoir?”

Later in the Oprah interview, Winfrey asked Talese,

Q: [I]n a press release sent out for the book in 2004, by your company, the book was described as “brutally honest and an altering look at addiction.” So how can you say that if you haven’t checked it to be sure?

A: You know, Oprah, I mean, I think this whole experience is very sad. It’s very sad for you. It’s very sad for us.

Q: It’s not sad for me. It’s embarrassing and disappointing for me.

A: I do not know how you get inside another person’s mind.

Set aside, if you can, the obvious howler that Winfrey herself defended the book on Larry King Liveafter The Smoking Gun’s revelations became common knowledge. Instead, please join me in marveling at the artfulness with which Talese sidestepped the question. Talese was in no position to call Frey’s book “brutally honest” in 2004 because that was after her conversation with the Star Trib. But she didn’t tell Oprah that. Nor did she say she had no idea in 2004 that there were problems with the book, which would be an outright lie. Instead, Talese said, “[T]his whole experience is very sad” and observed that you can’t “get inside another person’s mind.” This last is an especially preposterous non sequitur because by 2004 you didn’t need to “get inside” Frey’s mind to find out that his memoir wasn’t factual. All you had to do was find that out from the Star Trib. Even if Talese never read Rybak’s piece, she surely knew what Rybak found out, because Rybak asked her to comment on it!

How did Talese learn how to deceive so skillfully? I like to think it was from being married to a journalist.