January 12, 2006

The Scourge of Authenticity

The other day, in the midst of a flurry of emails on the general subject of James Frey, JT Leroy, identity or lack thereof, and the nature of truthiness, my editor asked: "I just want to check. Are you real?"

She was kidding, but it's a good question. I think I am mostly real. Like a lot of people (I assume) I feel like a great fraud from time to time, portraying an unpersuasive character in public, hoping no one will probe too deeply to discover the real story. Sometimes you want people to think you're better than you are; sometimes you want them to think you are worse than you are; and sometimes the only way to leave the impression that you are better than you are is to contrive to leave the impression that you don't care what impression you leave and that the cards have just happened to fall in such a way as to suggest the illusion of authenticity. And if you deliberately contrive not to do this or that with the cards, well, that's kind of fake, too. What you really are is kind of hard to spot from the inside, as it were. I think everyone experiences this to some degree. But most of us are spared the challenges and the great, big, huge, honking stacks of cash that arise from being in a position to do it under the scrutiny of an audience of millions. That is life's great tragedy.

I'm not a fan of the Self-Help I-have-been-to-hell-and-back confessional. I find Recovery Movement culture indescribably boring. If there's one thing worse than a slobbering druggie, it's a proselytizing former druggie. Give me a slobbering drug addict any day (though that doesn't mean I don't keep my eye on my wallet when I'm around them - I'm not an idiot.) Authenticity as such doesn't mean a great deal to me either, though I tend to suspect there is usually less to it than meets the eye, and it's fun when someone is caught out and pilloried on account of their unsupported pretensions.

But within recovery movement culture, authenticity is the basic minimum requirement. Blow your credibility, and you've got nothing. Frey's argument, tenuously endorsed in carefully chosen equivocal terms by Oprah (his "fairy godmother" in Ben's memorable phrase,) is: I stand by my Authenticity, which is so awesome and powerful that it overshadows all the fake details I used to shore it up. Lies serve the greater good of communicating a deeper truth. That won't wash. In a way, it's the whole idea of the literary novel, but it utterly fails as chicken soup for the soul. It begs the question. Lying about your authenticity, when authenticity is the matter under discussion, is a self-refuting tactic. (Unless, I suppose, if you were to claim that lying about your authenticity is itself an authentic sine qua non of the process of addiction: I actually expected Frey/Oprah to take this tack in the the interview, and I was disappointed that he didn't "go there." I have to say I'd have warmed up to Frey a bit if he had just said: "look, I'm a drug addict! We always lie about everything! And by the way, are you wondering who has your wallet, Larry? It's me! It's me! And I plan to spend your money on drugs! Heh heh heh!" An unrepentant rogue is way more lovable than a self-righteous blowhard.)

Frey's real sin was, in a way, biting off more than he could chew, writing-wise. He tried to bridge the gap between For Whom the Bell Tolls and Chicken Soup for the Soul, to be both a self-help poster boy and a Great Literary Artist at the same time, and he just wasn't up to the task. Many people have said that Frey's book would have been unpublishable as a novel, even though that's how it was originally pitched; too many clichés, too many ersatz characters straight out of central casting. Too much Hugging. I'm not sure I'm convinced by that (they publish a lot of crap these days) but of course, these negatives are pluses in the lucrative world of the I've-been-to-hell-and-back sermon. Can that circle be squared? Beats me, but it would take a very clever person to pull it off. The slow-witted Frey, despite his earnestness, falls a bit short.

Anyway, here's an angle on that, from within the bowels of the recovery movement, by Slate's Seth Mnookin:

In rehab ... it's fairly standard for new patients to begin their stays by boasting of their fearlessness, their criminal bona fides, their extreme debauchery. I used to brag of my own rap sheet. I'd elide over the fact that my two arrests resulted in no convictions. And I certainly didn't offer up that my first arrest occurred after a remarkably inept attempt to break into a high-school classmate's house was foiled when his mother returned home and found my car parked out front (I referred to that as a "b&e with intent to commit a felony"), or that the second arrest was the result of my pilfering underwear and some light bulbs from my college's bookstore.

For most people, the insecurity and fear that lead to these type of exaggerations needs to fade away before they can really start trying to figure out how to go about fixing what went wrong with their lives. One counselor at an in-patient facility I attended used to publicly humiliate new patients on their first day in the program by first making them tell the group what brought them there and then quizzing them on the specifics—how many CC's does a standard syringe hold?—until they crumbled and started telling the truth.

Fascinating as a case study in something or other; worthless as "literature." That's the inescapable verdict.

Or, as one girl I know put it:

This whole thing just pisses me off because I can peg Frey just by listening to him speak for 10 minutes. He is an overweight frat boy who fancies himself a gifted writer and literary critic. I bet I can drink more than him.
Me too. Posted by Dr. Frank at January 12, 2006 10:44 PM | TrackBack

I think Larry King was also disappointed Frey didn't "go there," when he (Larry) lead James towards an easy out asking about possible blackouts and memory loss, due to his authentic troubles.

Posted by: dave bug at January 12, 2006 11:09 PM

"Fascinating as a case study... worthless as 'literature'" -- I'm confused, are you referring to Frey's creation (in which case I would agree) or the ability to tell an authentic story, particularly one related to drug abuse (in which case I would say it can be done, but takes more skill than Frey may have at his disposal)?

Posted by: Wesley at January 13, 2006 02:06 PM

You're all phonies. Nobody is genuine any more. I hate you all.

Posted by: Holden Caulfield at January 13, 2006 02:35 PM

Identity is so much more than consciousness. People may not even really know why they do the things they do, but rather rationalize after the fact. Have you read the Edge question. There's lot's of great stuff on cognitive neuroscience. I found it fascinating. At least, I think I did.

Posted by: josh at January 13, 2006 04:27 PM

Once you can fake authenticity, all the rest is easy.

Like Gary Farber, I never heard of this shmoe until I read about him here. Then I saw something in the paper about it yesterday. I'm authentically unhip, and I stand by that.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at January 13, 2006 05:17 PM