If you’ve never embellished an anecdote to get a bigger laugh from your drinking companions, please stand up. If you’ve never lifted an emotional story from your kid brother’s life or from a book you’ve read and then plugged it into your own narrative, you can stand up, too.
If you’re still sitting, stand up and join the other liars. Everybody embellishes and steals a little, and some of us do it a lot.
Why do we lie? When talking about our own histories, we lie because we fear—quite rightly—that unadorned our autobiographies are too dull to interest anybody. Plus, the true lies we tell around life’s campfires are mostly harmless. So what if I sharpened a punch line or boosted the pathos a little at a dinner party? Social listeners don’t demand the Associated Press’ high standards of accuracy from storytellers. If anything, they expect a little fiction marbled into the facts.
But trouble starts when an enhanced story makes its way into print and collides with the value system known as journalism, as the New York Times and humorist David Sedaris learned this month.
On Sunday, the New York Times published an editors’ note essentially retracting a sizable section of its March 18 Times Magazine feature, “The Women’s War,” because one of its subjects ginned up her military résumé.
The piece looks at the role sexual assault seems to play in the post-traumatic stress syndrome diagnosed in women who have served in combat in Iraq. Former naval construction worker Amorita Randall tells the magazine that an I.E.D. hit the Humvee in which she was riding during her 2004 tour of duty. The explosion killed the driver and left her with a brain injury, she said.
“I don’t remember all of it,” Randall told the Times. “I don’t know if I passed out or what, but it was pretty gruesome.”
The reason Randall doesn’t “remember all of it” is because it never happened. She never went to Iraq.
The Times Magazine fact-checkers didn’t contact the Navy to verify Randall’s story until three days before deadline, according to the editors’ note. Hours before press time, a Navy spokesman denied Randall’s account to the Times Magazine, the note states. Randall still stood by her account, and the Times Magazine sent it off to press with a passage containing the Navy contradiction: “[N]o after-action report exists to back up Randall’s claims of combat exposure or injury. A Navy spokesman reports that her commander says that his unit was never involved in combat during her tour.”
Three days after the piece went to press, reports the editors’ note, the Navy provided the conclusive evidence that Randall had lied. Only part of Randall’s unit was sent to Iraq, leaving her behind.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Times Magazine committed journalistic malpractice. In hindsight, it should have started its fact-checking earlier and surely the writer wishes today that she hadn’t been so willing to believe such a convincing liar. You can hear the article’s desire to believe Randall in this passage, which reads as if it was reworked in the final minutes before press time:
And yet, while we were discussing the supposed I.E.D. attack, Randall appeared to recall it in exacting detail—the smells, the sounds, the impact of the explosion. As she spoke, her body seemed to seize up; her speech became slurred as she slipped into a flashback. It was difficult to know what had traumatized Randall: whether she had in fact been in combat or whether she was reacting to some more generalized recollection of powerlessness.
Another public storyteller whose personal recollections don’t jibe with reality is David Sedaris. Alex Heard’s examination of Sedaris’ nonfiction in the March 19 New Republic reveals the humorist taking broad and routine liberties with the facts in pursuit of laughs.
Sedaris’ stories derive their punch from the fact that they’re supposed to be true, a standard he embraces in the introduction to his 1997 collection Naked. “The events described in these stories are real,” Sedaris writes. Even so, nobody expects a humorist to apply the absolute faithfulness to characters, dialogue, and events in his stories that an AP reporter brings to a congressional-hearing dispatch. No scold, Heard bends like a contortionist to accommodate Sedaris, writing that it’s OK for a “humorist to recreate dialogue that captures the general spirit of how a conversation unfolded.”
But this artistic license doesn’t give humorists the right to remember their stories more vividly than they actually happened and still call them real. If humorists pipe lines of dialogue like a playwright (as we now know Sedaris does) or remold scenes from life like a novelist (as we also know he does), they’re basically writing fiction and should cop to it. If we label Sedaris’ pieces fiction, are they as hilarious? I think not, and I think Sedaris knows that, and I think that’s why he presents them as nonfiction.
Sedaris and Randall retooled their stories for the same reason we improve ours around the campfire: to make them better. The biggest difference between their lies and ours is the transmutative power of print: Fib about doing a little post-graduate work at Berkeley, and it’s unlike that anybody will bother you. Print it on your resume and let that circulate, and it may prove to be your ruin.
A second New York Times piece earned a chiding editors’ note on Sunday: It documents the similarities between an anecdote found in Ben Schott’s March 4 Times Book Review essay, “Confessions of a Book Abuser,” and one found in Ann Fadiman’s essay “Never Do That to a Book,” published in her 1998 book Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.
Schott’s piece describes being berated by a chambermaid in a foreign hotel for mistreating a book. So does Fadiman’s. The punch line in Schott’s essay, “Sir, that is no way to treat a book!” echoes Fadiman’s, “Sir, you must never do that to a book.”
Now, the similarities could be easily explained if the same chambermaid policed books in both Copenhagen and Lake Como hotels or if chambermaids everywhere are taught to admonish book defilers. But I don’t think so. Schott insists he didn’t read the Fadiman essay prior to writing his, telling the Times the chambermaid reprimanded him in 1989 when he was 15, which came nine years before Fadiman’s essay appeared in a book. The Times editors’ note doesn’t accuse Schott of plagiarism but states that had it been aware of Fadiman’s essay, it wouldn’t have published his.
If Schott really experienced the event, I apologize for drawing him into this discussion. So, without calling anyone a liar, let’s hypothesize how Schott’s story might have come to be. Perhaps it happened to him (his version). Or maybe he read a review of Fadiman’s book that included the chambermaid story and found it such a good story that he decided over time that it was something that could have happened to him. Or maybe he heard somebody tell the story in a bar and decided that it was something that should have happened to him because of his book-abusing ways. Perhaps Schott told this story so many times that by the time he typed it into his Times essay he had come to honestly regard it as his possession. If so, he wouldn’t be the first.
Randall’s wartime lies remind journalists that if a source’s story is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. The Sedaris inquiry instructs readers not to become too invested in a personal history that seems too funny, too sad, or too true. And the Schott affair suggests ever so gently that sometimes memory is a liar.
Who first said “memory is a liar”? I’ve forgotten! “A liar should have a good memory” is attributed to Quintilian (A.D. c. 35 to A.D. c. 95), but that’s not the same thing. Let’s crowdsource this one and find out who coined it! Send your findings to firstname.lastname@example.org. Disclosure: Alex Heard is a friend. Also, I once wrote a piece for the Times Magazine and the fact-checkers were wickedly thorough. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)