If your father presided over a blood-drinking sex cult whose membership also included the mailman, the doctor, the town drunk, and representatives of the local judiciary; if you ran with wolves as a young person, and had your cuts and grazes healed by their antiseptic saliva; if you have Multiple Personalities, one of which (the Countess of Orzabal) is allergic to strawberries and one of which (Lil’ Pete) is not; if you’ve been abducted by aliens; if you believe that the Twin Towers were brought down, not by the impact of two enormous airplanes and the subsequent 1400-degree fire, but by a sequence of controlled explosions engineered by Mossad; if The Da Vinci Code made you think again about Christianity; if you’re a Boston firefighter who cheated on his promotional exam by sending text-messages from the bathroom; if you’re Eliot Spitzer; if you’re James Frey; if you’re Jonny Fairplay; if you’re Roger Clemens; if you’re Mitt Romney: congratulations! You’re a fully accredited and paid-up citizen of Fabrication Nation — and history is on your side.
False Memory Syndrome, False Memoir Syndrome, False Syndrome Syndrome . . . The ratio of falsehood to truth in the universe has not, of course, altered one jot since the world began. From the day we learned how to talk, by and large, we’ve been lying our heads off. Nor can it be said that we have grown more credulous. To us, the most precious certainties of our gaping and rustic predecessors are a great joke: they believed what?! Those idiots!
But something’s afoot. Fakery has a new license, a new swagger. Who is responsible for this? Who did this to Truth? Was it postmodernism? Blame the French. Was it New Journalism? Blame Tom Wolfe. Blame Google! Or better yet, gentle reader, blame yourself, because I know you feel it, too: reality — it’s just not good enough anymore.
Yes, if you’re impatient with the facts, if you feel they require enhancement, colorization, or “jazzing up,” now’s your moment. If you’re Tom Ashbrook, on the other hand, the times are vexed. “A program note,” announced the host of WBUR’s On Point on Tuesday, March 4, sounding unwontedly small-voiced and glum. “In our second hour on Friday, you may recall we talked with an author. Thought her name was [slight spin of sarcasm] Margaret B. Jones. Her new memoir was Love and Consequences, it was about life in South Central Los Angeles, growing up half-white, half–Native American, uh, running with gangs there, selling drugs for the Bloods . . .” A sigh. “Well, it comes out today the whole thing was a fraud . . . Story a complete, uh, fraud, the publisher now says. We’re learning this along with everybody else. It is embarrassing, it is frustrating, it’s kind of infuriating. Don’t know what to make of the memoir business in this country . . . Going to have to be a little warier in the future, and I trust you will, too.”
Poor old Ashbrook. Sing-songing his way through the Great American Conversation, with the grandest themes of the culture constellated around him in Newtonian splendor, he had collided head-on with Planet Bullshit. The deconstruction of Margaret B. Jones had been swift: a week after the publication of Love andConsequences, following a profile in the House & Home section of the New York Times (“One of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot”), her real-life older sister dropped the dime on her. Margaret B. Jones, gifted ghetto survivor, was actually Margaret Seltzer, well-educated Valley Girl, and everything in her book — the guns, the drugs, the foster care — was fiction. Or rather, it wasn’t fiction, because it had been advertised as truth: it was bullshit.
And the weird thing is, if you listen to her original On Point interview, you can hear it. You can hear the conditions for bullshit being created in the ardent queries of the duped Ashbrook — “How old was Terrell when he got ‘jumped in’?”, “And how did Big Momma feel about that?” — and you can hear bullshit grooming itself in her sketchy, improvisational replies. The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, in his lapidary little primer On Bullshit, taught us that the focus of the true bullshitter is “panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context, as well.” Or as Margaret B. told Ashbrook, parrying one of his more direct questions, “You have to take that artistic vision.”
Et tu, Billy Corgan?
So Oprah got taken by Frey, and Ashbrook gets taken by Seltzer. And we — the finger-poppin’ daddies of the alternative press — are amused: these middlebrows, crowing their empathy, they had it coming. Right? Wrong.