Lance Armstrong was sued this summer by readers who had read his memoirs, It’s Not about the Bike (2001) and Every Second Counts (2003) and felt scammed when investigations into Armstrong’s doping revealed that the memoirs were untruthful. The $5 million consumer-protection suit “accused Armstrong and publishers Random House and Penguin Group of committing fraud, false advertising and other wrongdoing for publishing the cyclist’s vehement denials that he wasn’t a cheat. They also claimed the books should have been labeled as fiction instead of non-fiction,” as reported in the Washington Post. Last week, a federal judge decided that Armstrong’s memoir was protected as “free speech” and sided with Armstrong.
What does this mean for memoirists, and what does it mean for the genre of nonfiction? Does it mean that we’re off the hook, and if we make a mistake or commit systematic obfuscation, we’re protected by federal law and the first amendment? Does it mean that memoir as a genre can’t be trusted? (Uhhh, that last one is a joke. This doesn’t mean anything about a genre any more than one ski accident means skiing is done for all of us forever and skiing sucks. I don’t like skiing myself, but that statement is totally irrelevant. As irrelevant as novelists saying, I don’t like memoir. Who asked you? Oh, probably some major editor at a major publication who also doesn’t like memoir. Sorry, that sounded bitter.)
Before I jump into any of those guesses and abstractions, I think it’s important to first understand why readers get upset when a memoir turns out to be a lie. We share reality, you and I and everybody else around us. Lying upsets us to the core because it breaks one of the fundamental social contracts. Even if we’re cynical and say that people can’t help lying, that the reconstruction of memory is fiction, or that there’s no hope of being truthful in any statement, we arrived at that cynicism after an expectation that people would be honest, and that expectation was shattered in some way. Maybe the expectation of honesty is a child’s naivete, but it’s where we start, and the slim hope of honest communication between people is what makes the world function. Our obsession with what is true and what can be known is not about memoir–it is a larger universal about truth claims, about what holds societies together, and these issues inevitably brings up questions of justice.
Armstrong’s story and his very being were incredibly inspiring to two huge groups of people: sports fans and cancer survivors. Readers’ lawsuits express, I think, not a manipulative desire for cash but a serious outrage at the manipulation a reader experiences when they closely identify with the subject of a true story. We make ourselves uniquely vulnerable in the reading and identification with a memoir because the subject of the memoir is real, and after reading it, we transfer our feelings about the person’s journey onto reality itself. If Armstrong can do it, X in my own life is possible. That’s serious juju. For a brilliant discussion of this, see Dan Lehman’s book Matters of Fact: Reading Nonfiction Over the Edge.
After that true and meaningful reading experience and identification followed by a real sort of friend break-up, we want justice. (Maybe it’s sort of an American phenomena to want monetary damages, but maybe that’s because there is so little else in the way of public censure or decorum that might function as punishment.) As everyone is tired of hearing about, James Frey was sued by his readers, too–a case that was settled out of court. Frey affected and manipulated another heart-twisting group who should have been outraged: anybody who loved an addict or was an addict, together making up a good chunk of the population. Readers identified with Frey’s story and went on a journey with him that turned out not to be true. Or it was his version of truth. Or whatever his excuse was.
This doesn’t mean that memoirists are liars. What it means is that some humans lie to themselves and lie to the world. Is that so surprising? No.
What this indicates is the power of memoir, a power that should–and usually is–taken very seriously by writers. The life story is a kind of testament, a witnessing, and relaying one’s travails and triumphs is a central way we understand and learn about ourselves and each other. Addicts–whether you’re doping and addicted to fame and success, or whether you’re blasting yourself to the moon with whatever you can get your hands on–have a particular relationship with the truth that is often confounding to those around them. This is what’s fascinating, and here’s where the complexity lies: not with the genre of the final product but with the process that lead to the creation of the text and the reasons an author might claim it was true.
I’m no lawyer (which is probably better for everyone), but I think the judge made a wise move in refusing to award monetary damages. I read this not as “Armstrong was right to lie” but as a refusal to open to door to legislating literature. As much as I hate falsified memoirs, I have to admit I don’t want my genre’s boundaries set up in a court of law. If memoir were bound by the genre tag to be legally true, we would be playing a different game–not exploring, wondering, and wandering into truth, but committing onto paper only what can be verified in a court of law.
If every reader could bring every memoirist to court, the experience of reading would be in some senses equated with the experience of being a person. The two overlap, sure, but you can’t sue Stephen King because reading Cujo was scary. For the reader, memoir is so powerful because it gives us the ability to step out of one’s own life and into the life of another as lived in this world we share. As Dan Lehman says, we come back from that journey with new information about reality.
For the writer, a memoir can be about self-aggrandizement and denial, or it can be about ruthlessly pursuing the truth and sometimes failing to see it all–a universal human experience. Should both failings be equally punished? What distinguishing a memoir that works from a memoir that isn’t a good example of the genre is, in my opinion, the motive of the author. Was Armstrong’s motive to make a lot of money, or was it maybe to inspire his fans with the fiction he’d trapped himself in but felt powerful enough to maintain? I don’t know the answer to that. Whatever his motive, he hurt people’s feelings. And that’s wrong for a memoirist to do, not legally, but on some higher level. He profited hugely in the process, and sure, that’s totally wrong, but welcome to America. We have other issues on that subject to work out.
To contradict myself here, I’ll admit I am always gleeful in class when I talk about James Frey and mention the publishing house’s settlement. To me, the publishers in the Frey case were much more complicit in the debacle than the Armstrong publishers might have been. I don’t know anything about that for sure (so don’t take me to court) but if the Armstrong case was debated and investigated for so long, why would he have admitted everything early on to the publishers? They probably bought the same bill of goods Armstrong was selling everyone.
I haven’t read the judge’s 39-page ruling, though I will look for it. What’s confirmed is that First Amendment does allow one to be an ass and to be self-deluding and to lie and make money off of lying. For proof of that, see everything.
A publicist for Armstrong was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “The fact Lance didn’t tell the truth about whether or not he doped, does not make the entire story of his life fiction.” This is both a dumb argument and a very smart one. It’s obvious that Armstrong lied significantly about a central theme in his life, but at least the readers got some correct facts. Maybe memoirs should come with warning labels: “This memoir is 78 percent true, but the 22 percent you’re getting fooled about is the important part.” Yet at the same time, readers did pay for an experience of getting close to Lance, and they got it. They were lied to, so maybe the harm done was less done by the memoir than the man who let his fans down in real life with the fiction he had constructed for himself to live in.