Sunday, March 05, 2017

Based on a True Story: Memoir, Truth, and Ethics

A beloved third-grade teacher introduced me to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, with her outrageous cures for children’s bad habits, and Nancy and Plum, orphaned sisters who fight to survive under the cruel Mrs. Monday. These stories (and others) nurtured a love of fiction for me and many other students in Mrs. E’s classes over the years. They helped make me the reader and writer I am today.

Part of the appeal of was that the author, Betty MacDonald, had written these stories from our very own Vashon Island. Later I’d learn that she had also produced four adult memoirs. The Egg and I, the first and most famous of them, recounts her experiences on a chicken farm across the water on the Olympic Peninsula. In Anybody Can Do Anything, Betty writes about her family, particularly her sister Mary (who also authored both children’s books and memoirs); it focuses on the lengths to which they went to get and keep work during the Great Depression. I  read and enjoyed Onions in the Stew, which was about life on our island. My favorite Betty MacDonald memoir may be The Plague and I. This humorous look at a grim topic describes Betty’s year in a sanatorium near Seattle after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.

The books vary somewhat in tone and characterization. I didn’t realize how much until reading Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I, by Paula Becker and published last year by the University of Washington Press. Becker is not only a fan but also a careful researcher. In this book she explores the differences between the real Betty MacDonald and the fictionalized version of herself put forth in her books.

The Egg and I sold more than a million copies in its first year. It was made into a film starring some of Hollywood’s most popular stars and made Betty into a Hollywood celebrity herself. It’s based on Betty’s actual experiences, but they were originally reframed to entertain her friends and salvage her sense of self-worth as she recovered from the very painful period, then further adapted to attract and please a literary agent, publishers, and the public. If nothing else, Betty knew how to tell a story.
The Egg and I revealed Betty’s fundamental irreverence, a Bard family quality. Exaggeration was encouraged and expected. Telling a good story outranked following the Golden Rule” (Becker, p. 74).
In “Egg,” Betty glossed over the fact that her husband Bob was viciously abusive and that their life on the farm ended when she left him. She presents a version of herself that is more self-assured and less of a victim. And, although she changed names and identifying details of her location and other characters, when both the book and movie became hits, residents of the community where Betty had lived (decades before, at this point) were happy to direct people to the farm and other sites mentioned in the book, sometimes profiting from the connection. One neighbor family who recognized themselves in outrageous characters Betty hoped would be considered composites eventually took her to court for libel, and although the case was settled in her favor, it seems clear that their clan and the family ridiculed in Egg were one and the same.
“Caught in the truth in court, Betty had lied. More than one relative of Betty’s laughed at questions that tried to parse the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. ‘Nobody in this family ever let the truth get in the way of a good story!’ they explained” (Becker, p. 125).
Readers loved the book anyway. The timing of the 1945 publication had been perfect.
The Egg and I hit the war-numbed public as a comforting tale of survival: one woman’s successful effort to just keep getting up each morning in spite of challenges and discomfort.” (Becker, p. 73). 
Later cultural shifts also played a part in how Betty’s books presented their content and how they were received. Though Onions in the Stew describes events that took place between 1942 and 1945, it’s published in the conservative 1950s. As one of Betty’s editors wrote to her agent,
“Public taste has changed pretty radically in the nine years since The Egg and I was published. A sort of Puritanism has made great progress, and some things that would go without question in the late 1940s will now tend to alienate a large segment of the reading public” (quoted in Becker, p. 146).
Betty responded by toning down the language, cleaning the manuscript of bitterness and snarkiness, and presenting a more traditional patriarchal household than she actually had (and rather different from what we saw in the other books). Some modern readers consider this book the “bland” one.

The editor responsible for Onions also wanted to avoid more libel suits. He made a list of every character in the book who was not a member of Betty’s family and asked for assurance that their names and identities had been changed. Betty responded that many of the characters were entirely made up and most of the others were composites. “How true to life Betty’s nonfiction book really was seems to have mattered little,” remarks Becker (p. 146).

All this raises some questions about the whole genre of memoir, then and now. What does it mean to write one’s story in an ethical manner?

1. Is it more ethical to change your story than to tell it in such a way that others might be hurt? Readers may love tell-all stories, but publishers and their lawyers don't. At what point do stories about events involving other people become libel?

2. In fiction, if you use material from real life, you have to change it. But when you’re writing non-fiction, is there some kind of responsibility to your reader to uphold certain standards of accuracy? Is there a difference between what we can expect in a biography (like Becker's) and a memoir (like Betty's)?

Occasionally, these days, there is a big scandal about a blockbuster autobiography that succeeds on the basis of claims that turn out to be untrue. To what extent is fictionalizing one's life a normal and expected part of this genre? Or does an author defraud the public by making things up and calling it a memoir?

Image: Dust jacket from 1946 edition