Sunday, August 12, 2012


Written originally in 1997 and revised in 2006
BY Andre B. Heuer D.Min. LICSW

"I feel duped," Ms. Winfrey told Mr. Frey. "But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers."

She added: "I sat on this stage back in September and I asked you, you know, lots of questions, and what you conveyed to me and, I think, to millions of other people was that that was all true."

"No," she said, "the lie of it. That's a lie. It's not an idea, James, that's a lie."

Live on 'Oprah,' a Memoirist Is Kicked Out of the Book Club
NYTimes EDWARD WYATT Published: January 27, 2006

The above is an excerpt from the Oprah show on January 26. The show focused on Oprah's concerns that many of the incidents in Frey’s book "A Million Little Pieces" were fabrications and embellishments and not factual. She stated that she felt duped.

In my 20 plus years in the storytelling and literary community I have questioned how some stories presented as actual personal experiences are told as being factual even though most or all of the facts of the stories are embellished and/or fabricated. The teller often justifies this fabrication by saying that the embellishment serves the metaphorical truth of the story. When Mr. Frey stated the same basic principal in defense of his book Oprah said, "No," she said, "the lie of it. That's a lie. It's not an idea, James, that's a lie."

My questions about the responsibility of the teller to be accurate in a story that is presented as being an actual experience arose many years ago. After hearing a story I asked the teller if the story was about a real experience. His answer was basically the same as Mr. Frey that the story was metaphorically true but not necessarily factually true. The story was about a farm accident and it was very inspiring story. When I learned that the story was not true and mostly a fabrication I felt manipulated and duped.

There are many questions raised in both the storytelling and literary community because of the Frey controversy:

1) Can we embellish and fabricate parts of our personal stories and justify it as a device of serving the metaphorical truth of the story, and/or of moving the story along?
2) What are our ethical obligations to our audience and readers when we present a story as based on a real story?
3) What are the expectations of our audience and our self when we tell or write a story based on a real experience?

In my mind there is a level of authenticity that listeners expect self when we tell or write a story based on personal experience. People listening to a story presented as an actual experience are being invited into a relationship with another human being and to a real experience. Therefore when a teller or writer fabricates or embellishes the story there is a basic human betrayal of trust between the teller and the listener and/or the reader.

In experiential stories there probably is room to interchange the chronological order and emphasize various aspects of the story to enhance a certain thread of the story and room for a teller to say I am going to tell you in my voice the story of an experience of another. However, the listener understands and is clued into the intent of the teller. In this way the trust is not broken between the teller and the listener or reader. It seems however to fabricate and pretend something is real when it is not is questionable. The reader of a story based in personal experience is not preparing for a fantasy but is preparing to be touched personally. To suck a listener into a fabricated personal story or an experience is neither clever nor witty especially to the reader. Finally, my experience of tellers who make up personal stories is they soon loose their audiences. Somehow the listener detects the lack of authenticity.

This article was initially published "The Ethics of Telling Personal Stories," Grapevine: Northlands Storytelling Networks, Minnesota, vol. 17, No. 2 (1997) and reprinted in the Oklahoma Tattler, Summer, 1997 and Stories, Vol. 10, No. 4, Summer, 1997. And revised in 2006.

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