The Modern Memoir: Popular Confession and How it Sells 'A Million Little Pieces'

By Edward A. Carr
2014, Vol. 6 No. 11 | pg. 2/4 |

By looking at autobiography as a “vantage point,” he says that, inherently autobiography gives perspective to those who look through that lens and that through that lens the reader can then see the “human condition.” This lens and the interpretation of the “human condition” put both the writer and the reader in a larger community. Memoir allows people to become an observer of their own humanity and of all humanity. Once again it is the personal echoing the larger world. By looking at an individual we have a window to the human race. Through “self-criticism” we can judge the “human condition.” Memoir is the window; memoir is the personal story that gives the reader a perspective that includes themselves and all of humanity.

In their book, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson look at the purpose of memory and how it is recorded in society. They say that “the politics of remembering—what is recollected and what is obscured—is central to the cultural production of knowledge about the past, and thus to the terms of an individual’s self-knowledge” (Smith & Watson, 2010).

In memoir the memory is important. The writer puts their memory on paper and basically decides “what is recollected and what is obscured.” To Smith and Watson, memory does a similar transcendence of personal to global. What is remembered has a cultural effect, which, in turn effects what a person knows about themselves. The memory, in this case the recorded form of memory in memoir, determines what a reader understands about the past, and subsequently about themselves. Memory in memoir is another window that puts transparency between what is cultural and what is personal.

This transcendence of the private becoming global and communal creates a special relationship between the reader and the text. This relationship was exploited by James Frey in his book, A Million Little Pieces. Frey sold this book as a memoir and made a lot of money from it. The confessions in the book allowed this transcendence and readers subsequently were drawn into this incredibly powerful relationship.

Frey essentially mimicked the echo, reproduced the manifestation, and that was how he sold books. The Smoking Gun did a lot of digging to uncover the truth behind Frey’s “memoir.” They conclude that “Frey appears to have fictionalized his past to propel and sweeten the book's already melodramatic narrative and help convince readers of his malevolence” (A Million Little Lies, 2006).

In order to make his book a better read, Frey fictionalizes his life. This becomes problematic but proves the power of memoir lies in its ability to become relatable.

“Frey appears to have fictionalized his past to propel and sweeten the book's already melodramatic narrative and help convince readers of his malevolence”

In one scene, Frey’s fictional Frey meets the recovering criminal, Leonard in the rehabilitation clinic. Leonard confronts Frey about a misnomer and Frey threatens Leonard, Leonard appreciates Frey’s gusto and befriends him (Frey, 2003). It is surprising that Frey did not use the term “moxie” in this cliché meeting of two like-minded criminals.

But there is something to this clichéd transfer of respect between the two. The relationship presented by Frey mirrors a real-life experience that most people have had. People often discover a like-minded person, befriend them, and then the two offer mutual benefits. This is called friendship and it is a phenomenon that transcends cultures. Frey mirrors this “larger world” of friendship in his discovery of Leonard. In the context of fiction this is simply relatable, but in the context of memoir, relatable usually equals reliable and this imitation of relatable as reliable helped Frey sell books.

Frey exploited the expansive connection of the reader, writer, and the text. Basically Frey’s meeting Leonard can “radiate outward” to people. It can basically represent something for everyone and in this outward expansion of the simple act of finding a friend, people then have a window to look at their own friendships and, subsequently, their own lives. The problem arises in that Frey’s experience is fictitious. Frey exploits these moments that can transcend the personal in order to appeal to his readers. Frey purposely employs these moments which, essentially, points to the power that these moments have.

If Frey is utilizing the relatable in memoir, Frey is pointing out that the relatable is important to memoir. Frey employs several other methods in order to mask his fiction as memoir and make it more popular.

Another aspect of memoir that makes it popular is the fact that people crave confession for both themselves and from others. In his book, The Psychology of Confession, Erik Berggren, of the University of Uppsala, analyzes the science of confession:

“Talking about painful and disturbing memories or experiences which have lain on our minds unburdens us of them and affords a sense of relief. This means that such recollections or experiences may be felt as a weight. They induce a psychic pressure which can create worry and depression. The pressure, as if by its own force, impels a release; the process may take the form of a powerful need to make disclosures, to speak openly about oppressive secrets” (Berggren, 1975).

According to Berggren, the confession, in this case, the memoir, acts as a release, an unburdening of the weight of bad memories. He portrays the weight, the bad memory, as a force that exerts on someone. The memory has agency to Berggren and is part of the motivation to confess, forcing the confessor, in this case, the writer, to spill his guts in order to unburden themselves of the weight. Memoir is this unburdening force.

The writer craving this unburdening confesses to the reader the way a Catholic confesses to God. Berggren is essentially talking about the sacramental act of confession in Christian contexts, but the argument can be made for memoir as well.

Peter Gilmour draws a direct correlation between the religious and literary confession. Gilmour says, “[t]estimonies and confessions, two forms of memoir, like sacred biography, are explicitly religious in genesis and orientation. Their purpose is to evangelize hearers or readers into a specific community of faith, to further inspire the faith of existing members, and to reinforce the faith of doubtful or waning members” (Gilmour, 1997).

Although specifically talking about religious memoir confessionals, this argument from Gilmour can also apply to any memoir confessional. Part of the allure of confessing in a public sphere is to inspire others to join in that confession. Gilmour leaves the actual allegiance of the confessor vague. It could apply to any and all communities of faith, including the communities of people who have made the same mistakes. Like-minded readers will flock to the author who has something to say about that experience.

This relates back to the whole aspect of transcendence. In order to experience their own confession, people look to the confession of their peers. To Gilmour, confession serves a purpose aside from the unburdening of weight; confession essentially is what brings readers into the fold. The reader is “evangelized” into the book, brought into the flock of the confessor through the strengthening of the bond between the confessor and the witness.

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