The memoir was a bestseller, a literary sensation, a compelling read. Unfortunately, its most sensational and compelling material was invented — a fact that many of its readers learned from a controversial and much-quoted television show.
No, I’m not talking about James Frey’s drug-, blood- and alcohol-soaked “memoir,” “A Million Little Pieces,” which led to an unprecedented apology from Oprah Winfrey last week. I’m talking about Lillian Hellman’s “memoir,” “Pentimento,” published in 1973 and denounced on “The Dick Cavett Show” by the writer Mary McCarthy in language significantly more withering than what we have become accustomed to hearing on daytime television: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’ ” is how McCarthy put it on the air — a line far more memorable than Winfrey’s “I feel duped.”
But what’s interesting about a comparison of the two works is not what they tell us about the evolution of talk shows from Dick Cavett to Oprah — I’ll leave that analysis to the professors of media studies — but what they tell us about the evolution of literary fabrications. Hellman’s most famous invention was a character named Julia, a female friend who supposedly persuaded Hellman to smuggle money into Germany to help the anti-Nazi resistance. In “Pentimento,” Hellman’s descriptions of that mythical 1937 train ride into Germany are powerful. There is a girl in the train compartment who asks too many questions, an emotional meeting with Julia in a station and various other emotionally convincing scenes that never took place. Julia’s character was actually derived from the life story of a woman named Muriel Gardiner, whom Hellman knew of but had never met.
What is most striking about a rereading of “Pentimento” (which I don’t necessarily recommend) is the quaint, outdated heroism of it. Hellman reinvents herself and her nonexistent friend as brave and principled, willing to fight for the right cause even in the face of great danger. In that sense, Hellman’s work belongs to a long line of fantasists, stretching back to Baron von Munchausen and beyond — liars who reinvented themselves as better, braver or more blue-blooded than they really were.
Frey, by contrast, belongs to a tradition that emerged more recently and that has been best described by the British writer and psychologist Anthony Daniels as the “literary assumption of victimhood.” These fabricators reinvent themselves not as heroes but as victims, a status they sometimes attain by changing their ethnicity. Among them are Bruno Grosjean, aka Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose touching, prize-winning, “autobiographical” tale of a childhood spent in the Majdanek concentration camp turned out to be the fantasy of the adopted son of a wealthy Swiss couple. Another was Helen Darville, aka Helen Demidenko, whose touching, prize-winning “autobiographical” tale of a Ukrainian girl whose father was a former SS officer turned out to be the fantasy of a middle-class British girl living in the suburbs of Brisbane, Australia.
And the trend continues: In the past few days, yet another prize-winning author, who calls himself “Nasdijj” and claims to be the son of a violent cowboy and an alcoholic Native American woman (and who, as a child was “hungry, raped, beaten, whipped and forced at every opportunity to work in the fields,” he told an interviewer) — has also been “outed” as a white writer of erotica named Timothy Barrus. As Daniels wrote in the New Criterion several years ago, “where fantasists would once have invented privileged aristocratic backgrounds for themselves, they now invent childhoods filled with misery. It is lack of privilege, not privilege, that now confers prestige upon a person’s biography.”
As for Frey, he gave himself not just a juvenile delinquent’s childhood but a flamboyantly bad character — “I was a bad guy,” he originally told Oprah. He had spent most of his life, he wrote, as a drug-addicted, alcoholic criminal. Although his violence and excess were in truth limited to his vulgar prose, Frey was clever enough to know that moral degradation is, nowadays, what wins you admiration, fans and money.
I’m not writing here in praise of Lillian Hellman (whose other fantasies included a deeply held belief in the goodness of Stalinism) but rather to point out how much the world has changed in 30 years. We used to admire people who claimed to fight the Nazis. Now we admire people who claim to have fought their own drug addiction — and we really, really admire them if they beat up priests, fight with cops, frequently find themselves covered in vomit and spend lots of time in jail while doing so.