Life Stories: Can we handle the truth?
In a recent article in the Evening Standard, David Sexton addressed the new surge in biopic films, which trace the life stories of distinguished individuals and offer audiences a glimpse of history in motion. Recent years have seen the lives of countless famous figures brought to life on the big screen, including Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher and even the Queen. However, as Sexton points out, these biopics are not without their controversy, thanks to their potential to provoke backlash as well as praise. Bennett Miller, Oscar-tipped director, is the latest victim of the life-story backlash, centred on his recent release, Fox-Catcher, the true story of John DuPont, a multi-millionaire who sponsored a team of Olympic wrestlers, including medal-winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, the latter of whom DuPont shot dead whilst suffering from mental illness. Mark, who survived the attack, was heavily involved in the film’s development, but has since turned against Miller over reports of the film’s supposed homosexual undertones in the portrayal of his relationship with DuPont. In this case, as in many others, the sincerity of the story may have been corrupted by Hollywood’s addiction to sensation on the big screen, much to the dismay of Mark Schultz, which begs the question: is real-life interesting enough to fill cinemas and warrant peak DVD sales?
Another of this season’s cinematic biographies, The Theory of Everything, arguably demonstrates a similar imbalance. Documenting the lives of Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane, the film, which won Best Actor and Best Original Score at the Golden Globes, appears to have captivated the nation with its universal story of unshakeable love. However, it’s interesting that The Theory of Everything has stirred-up such interest, whilst the protagonist’s own biopic of his life, Hawking (2013), which he co-wrote merely a year earlier, seems to have been vastly overlooked. It’s hard to believe that truth is what we’re seeking if we’ve collectively shunned an autobiographical documentary starring Hawking himself, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, in favour of a glitzy Hollywood love story. Although The Theory of Everything is also based on real life, and cannot therefore be discredited, viewers have certainly leapt at the chance to veil the sad and uncomfortable truth with something far more romantic. As Sexton suggests, ‘[w]e want to have our cake and eat it: we want the story to be packaged for us as satisfying drama, point-fully shaped, excitingly paced, while at the same time enjoying the frission of believing it to be all true.’ But what happens when the sensational and romantic embellishments are taken away?
Life Stories in Popular Literature
A similar fascination with life stories arose in literature in the early millennium, which witnessed anyone who was anyone settling down to write their memoirs, documenting their struggles and successes in the big wide world. Unlike autobiographies, memoirs focus personal and emotional, rather then historical or factual, truths, and in the absence of a Hollywood director, they’re often a lot more honest than their visual alternatives. Naturally, the lack of censorship appealed to society’s curiosity, and readers across the world devoured the pages as quickly as they were written, frenzied by the opportunity to glimpse into someone else’s life from a first-person perspective. Writers such as James Frey, Beatrice Sparks, Margaret Seltzer and Misha Defonseca were immediately thrown into the spotlight, admired for their harrowing yet inspiring stories. However, in the world of life writing it seems almost traditional that sensation should be shortly followed by inquisition. In fact, there’s a long trail of wounded life writers each bearing the scars of their media backlash, having been accused of falsifying events, embellishing beyond recognition, or simply causing offence.
Augusten Burroughs, is one such memoirist who knows the tenuous divide between marvel and outrage. His first memoir, Running with Scissors, captivated its readers with tales of the most unconventional childhood imaginable. A burden to his psychologically unstable mother, Burroughs tells how he was left in the care of her shrink, Dr Finch, a dead-ringer for Santa Claus who believed he could read God’s will from the contents of the toilet bowl. Burroughs’ life spent with the Finches is both charming and terrifying (some might say, the trademark of a good memoir) leaving readers feeling like an intrusive fly-on-the-wall. A raging success in America, Running with Scissors was swiftly catapulted onto the big screen by none other than Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee and American Horror Story.
Burroughs’ Candid Consequences
However, in the four years that it had taken to leap from publication to adaptation, Burroughs had encountered his fair share of trouble. In 2005, Burroughs found himself in the middle of a lawsuit over the exploitative and intrusive depiction of the Finches. In 2007, Vanity Fair published an extensive article on the scandal, including an in-depth interview with the Turcotte’s, know in Running with Scissors as the Finches. Theresa Turcotte, or Natalie Finch, was the first to dispute the memoir, claiming that ‘It was filled with things that were categorically false or had been wildly embellished.’ Although Burroughs’ memoir is remarkably unique, his post-publication circumstances are certainly not. Like Burroughs, almost all of the biggest names in life writing have fallen victim to similar attacks. As noted in New York Magazine’s retrospective on his career as a memoirist, Burroughs was unable to avoid the controversy surrounding the memoir, much as ‘James Frey suffered the most visible public flogging in the long history of global torture, as Margaret “Gangland” Seltzer was outed by her own sister as a pampered suburbanite, [and] Misha Defonseca admitted that she was neither a Holocaust survivor nor raised by wolves.’
As a society, we have a pretty consistent track record for suspicion against memoirs. Unlike cinematic representations of life, which are transformed by directors, producers, scriptwriters and actors, we expect a certain amount of truth from a story that is told from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. If, like Burroughs’ example, the life stories intersect with the lives and rights of others, we question how much of the truth we should tell and whether we need permission to tell it. Alternatively, if, as in Frey’s case, the memoir’s extra characters are unable to speak for themselves due to death or incarceration, we speculate about the levels of fiction employed and cry deceit if the truth is enhanced with embellishment. So, do we have the rights to our own stories? And if so, do we have a choice in how we tell them?
In Vanity Fair’s intense enquiry regarding the potential offence caused to the Finches, Burroughs declares:
‘This is my story […] It’s not my mother’s story and it’s not the family’s story, and they may remember things differently and they may choose to not remember certain things, but I will never forget what happened to me, ever, and I have the scars from it and I wanted to rip those scars off of me.’
Here, Burroughs touches upon an idea that concludes David Sexton’s article, that is: ‘Any recreation of a story is bound to be more or less a misrepresentation, however much it aims for fidelity.’
Lena Dunham’s Provocative Confessions
Needless to say, it’s a question of interpretation and perspective – something that applies to readers as much as it does to writers. It was impossible to avoid being sucked into the media scandal that surrounded Lena Dunham after the release of her memoir last September, in which she reveals the questionable intimacy of her childhood relationship with her younger sister, Grace. Dunham was accused of assault as the press clung on to the descriptions of her exercised sexual curiosity in outrage. However, although Dunham was undoubtedly out of line in casually comparing herself to a ‘sexual predator’ during an attempt at a quippy joke, it might be a step too far to accuse her seven-year-old self of sexual exploitation. For those who have seen Dunham’s popular TV series, Girls, her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, is merely an extension of her brash and confrontationally honest persona. It’s curious that Dunham’s ability to tell the truth, which was a refreshing revolution in television, seems to have brought her downfall on the page. But if Dunham hasn’t changed, maybe the discomfort surrounding her memoir isn’t her problem, but rather, ours. Would we be any less outraged if she’d concealed the truth and offered us an idealised, predictable version of her life?
We love Dunham’s blunt humour, providing that she leaves out the awkward confessions; we’re happy for Burroughs to exploit his adopted family, until we learn that they’re filing a lawsuit; and we’re inspired by Stephen Hawking’s remarkable story, but only if you leave out the heartbreaking details of his illness. To echo Sexton’s argument, it seems we’re a little childlike in our desire for the truth, demanding to know everything and then crying ambush upon the revelation that our pet rabbit wasn’t sent to live on a farm, but actually died a grizzly death at the jaws of a city fox. But if we’re not ready to confront the truth in all its ugly details, perhaps we should offer a little lenience to those who attempt to fluff out the timelines with a little light-hearted fun.
Anderson, Sam, ‘The Memory Addict’ in New York Magazine, April 2008.
Bissinger, Buzz, ‘Ruthless with Scissors’ in Vanity Fair, January 2007.
Sexton, David, ‘Just because a movie is a biopic doesn’t mean it will all be true.’ The Evening Standard, January 2015.
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