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After This American Life’s recent retraction of Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, we’ve been talking about the morals and merits of faux nonfiction. I read Life of Pi in high school and felt slightly betrayed when I realized it was not actually a true story. For those not familiar, the book contains an author’s introduction to “verbatim transcripts” of “interviews” with the book’s protagonist, Pi (I was pretty embarrassed that I had not realized that when I picked it out from Barnes & Noble’s fiction section). Some “memoirs” have taken liberties that were less obvious as the books were not labeled as fiction: A Million Little Pieces, for one, and another example that stands out to me is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, an account of Bryson’s hike of the Appalachian Trail with a hilarious and lovable friend, Katz, who I was very sad to learn does not exist outside of Bryson’s imagination. The argument Frye, Daisey and others make in defending themselves is, it’s a good story, you enjoyed it, why do you care if it’s true? Daisey even points out that everything he talks about in his monologue is true, it just didn’t all happen to him.
Daisey may be relieved to have two, arguably worse, offenders discovered this week and dominating the media coverage of hoax bloggers. The author of the Blogger site A Gay Girl in Damascus, years of compelling accounts of struggles faced by a lesbian living in Syria, turned out to be authored by a 40 year-old American man, Tom MacMaster. The person who assisted in exposing MacMaster, the editor of the news site Lez Get Real who went by the name Paula Brooks and presented “a gay girl’s view of the world,” turned out to also be a man, Bill Graber, age 58, living in Ohio. As a response to understandable backlash for co-opting the identities and experiences of gay females, both men make a similar argument to Mike Daisey–that they used these personas to lend their writing the legitimacy necessary to bring to light serious issues faced by oppressed groups. These men defend themselves by pointing out how effective they were in gaining audiences and inciting passion amongst fans. MacMaster’s persona Amina’s popularity was what caused the investigation in the first place. Macmaster posted that Amina had been taken in by the Syrian government, causing readers to launch an effort to help her.
(Clockwise from top left, Tom MacMaster, Bill Graber and Mike Daisey. Photos via the Washington Post and Bloomberg.)
“I do not believe that I have harmed anyone,” MacMaster wrote in a post, since deleted. “I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.” Daisey, in a conversation with Ira Glass, repeatedly relied on the fact that his show is traditionally presented as a monologue. “It’s theater. It uses the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc. And of that arc and that work I’m very proud. Because I think it made you care . . . and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is it has made other people delve.” Graber told the Washington Post he had presented himself as a gay woman with “the best intentions.”
In his interview with Daisey after the retraction, Ira Glass, a journalist with a 30-year career who has helped relay countless stories of the triumphs and pitfalls of men and women with various backgrounds, understandably took Daisey’s deception personally. “You’re saying that the only way that you can get through emotionally to people is to mess around with the facts. But that isn’t so,” said Glass on his show.
He’s right. Assimilating to someone else’s identity is a lazy way of gathering readers and hype, and when the farce is discovered, it does nothing but give detractors ammunition and harm the people and causes it was meant to support.