Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller
(W.W. Norton, 2008)
Stories of real lives draw their power from authenticity, engagement, and example. Whether these stories are told by the subject, an insider, or an independent researcher who was not even born when the events occurred, it is their reality that touches, teaches, and inspires us. This year, the legitimacy of the genre repeatedly came into question, but there were outstanding examples that reminded us of the singular importance of actual life stories, honestly examined.
Autobiographies filled the headlines in 2008, and not in a good way. Several highly touted memoirs were revealed to be frauds — not just exaggerated but completely made up. More than 10 years after publication of Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca, an award-winning book about the author’s experiences as a Jewish child hiding out from the Nazis and for a time literally raised by wolves, it was revealed that Defonseca was a Catholic and that none of it happened. Love and Consequences, by Margaret B. Jones, a memoir of being raised by a foster mother and being a gang member in South Central Los Angeles, was critically acclaimed, too — until it was revealed that Jones (real name Seltzer) grew up in a suburban family home and attended private school.
A credibility problem of a different kind arose from the book that sparked the most Weblog posts of the year: What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. It is the most recent in a long, rich tradition of Washington self-exonerating payback books, the kind that are read index-first inside the Beltway. It is also an un-spinning, or perhaps re-spinning, from a professional spinner that directly contradicts much of what McClellan told the press and the American public.
The memoir elicited many a smug “we told you so” from those delighted to hear a “Bushie” admit the president was uncurious and more focused on politics than reality. And there were howls of outrage from the White House, insisting that the book was just sour grapes from a man who was pushed out of his job. But what are the rest of us to believe, what McClellan said then or what he says now? A hint for parsing this genre: Look for the subject of the verb. “In these pages, I’ve tried to come to grips with some of the truths that life inside the White House bubble obscured,” writes McClellan. It does not count as “coming to grips” if the second part of the sentence omits any clue to causation or sense of responsibility. The treatment of mistakes and critics is another key indicator of validity and value in this genre. “It strikes me today as an indication of [the president’s] lack of inquisitiveness and his detrimental resistance to reflection, something his advisers needed to compensate for better than they did,” writes McClellan. Shouldn’t that be “better than we did?”
The real challenge to biographers and autobiographers is not the outright frauds but the bias inherent in any selection and presentation of facts. Biographer Kristie Miller notes, “A biographer’s greatest challenge is not to put in everything he or she knows,” and she quotes Lytton Strachey on how the craft of biography should aim for “a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant.” The appropriate proportion and context is just as essential as the names and dates.