Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the author of the award-nominated novel My Hands Came Away Red. A memoir, Love At the Speed of Email, will be released in June 2012. She lives in Laos with her husband and infant son. To learn more, visit www.lisamckaywriting.com.
In January I listened to a This American Life episode called Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory, which was excerpted from a monologue called The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey. The monologue described Daisey’s encounters with workers from the Foxconn factories in China that make Apple products.
Like many others, I was deeply moved by this story. It hit particularly close to home because, as I’m living in Laos, the factories he describes lay only one border away.
The episode became the most downloaded podcast in the 16-year history of This American Life. It launched a thousand editorials. It inspired a petition—signed by more than 250,000 people—demanding Apple guarantee ethical treatment of its workers. And last week it became the first show This American Life has ever retracted.
It turns out that Daisey didn’t actually witness some of the most egregious conditions he describes, such as workers as young as twelve and those poisoned by neurotoxic chemicals.
“As best as we can tell, Mike's monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand. And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.
Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey’s monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large…He claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn’t located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited. It happened nearly a thousand miles away.”
Last week, in a new episode called Retraction, TAL’s producer, Ira Glass, and Daisey sat down to discuss the ensuing scandal.
Frankly, I expected a more nuanced discussion on the topic of truth from two such talented communicators.
An understandably outraged Glass—who Daisey had personally lied to about the name and contact details of his translator and the literal accuracy of his account—kept equating “factually correct” with “truth”. He insisted that Daisey’s monologue wasn’t “strictly speaking a work of truth but a work of fiction that has some true elements in it.
Daisey, on the other hand, did himself no favors during this interview. He sounded stressed, even panicked. He paused for uncomfortably long periods of time. He prevaricated constantly.
“I use the tools of theater and memoir,” Daisey said at one point. “I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true…we have different languages for what the truth means.”
“I understand that you believe that,” Glass said, “but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people [interpret theatre and memoirs]… I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.”
Missing from Glass’ questioning was an acknowledgement of the existence of any truth beyond the literal recounting of events. And, astonishingly, missing from Daisey’s defense was a coherent statement along the lines of: “I judged that inventing some characters, encounters, and dialogue would serve to illuminate a larger truth for the greater good.”
The closest Daisey got to this was saying, “Everything I have done…has been…to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”
This incident highlights many important (although hardly novel) questions. Should memoir and theater be equated? Is there such a thing as a “larger” truth? Should factual truth ever be subordinated to emotional or other larger truths for the sake of advocacy or “art”? Which sorts of factual distortions are generally acceptable in memoir and which aren’t?
As far as Daisey’s monologue, I understand why he was tempted to misappropriate events that had actually happened and present them as personal experience. I applaud the result as a powerful piece of storytelling. I think, however, that he went so far in his fictionalizing that he should never have used the label “memoir” without a disclaimer attached, much less the label “journalism” that This American Life required.
When we write a memoir or a personal essay (or perform a first-person-narrative theater piece that purports to memoir) we are leveraging the power of actuality—the inherent emotional force generated by claiming “this happened to me just like this”. In exchange for this power we relinquish the right to significantly embellish, manipulate, or invent.
So then, what counts as “significantly”?
That’s the tough question that usually has to be answered with the frustratingly equivocal. “It depends.”
I think it depends on how well we remember what actually happened. It depends on which timelines, characters, events, or conversations we feel the need to change, and why. It depends on how many and what sort of other factual tweaks you have already made, because I agree with Glass on this point. Your readers (or listeners) will assume that what you’re recounting happened to you, pretty much as you’re telling it. Every timeline shift, re-creation, composition, or invention takes you further away from the narrative your readers would judge as “factual” and, contrary to what some of my fellow authors might argue, I think reader’s expectations on this front must be taken into account.
If we want to write something and call it memoir we can’t just play as fast and loose as we want to with a literal recounting under the guise of serving art. We need to be able to look a reader in the eye and confidently explain how our story serves the truth, yes, but a clear conscience isn’t quite enough. How we’ll label our account, and what others will take that label to mean, must also guide our choices. If most people would feel betrayed if they knew the “factual truth” behind our memoir, then I think we’re doing something wrong.
The well-known memoirist, Vivian Gornick, once said that “what the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.” I’ve used that statement as a touchstone more than once in writing my own memoir pieces. Now Daisey’s very public debacle has furnished me with a less ambiguous reference point to use when answering tricky questions related to truth—the prospect of a public grilling. And I know just how I’ll begin my reply in the unlikely event that I’m ever the one asked on national radio whether you can lie to tell the truth.
Well, Ira, it depends.