Mary Karr continues:
Call me outdated, but I want to stay hamstrung by objective truth, when the very notion has been eroding for at least a century. When Mary McCarthy wrote "Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood" in 1957, she felt obliged to clarify how she recreated dialogue. In her preface, she wrote: "This record lays a claim to being historical - that is, much of it can be checked. If there is more fiction in it than I know, I should like to be set right."
IN the decades since, objective truth (a phrase it's hard not to put quotes around) has lost power; subjective experience has gained authority. For many in my generation, Michael Herr's hallucinatory Vietnam memoir, "Dispatches," has become a truer record of the war than the "official" reports, which are clotted with fabricated body counts and the White House's lies.
As subjective experience has gained clout, memoirists have begun to employ novelistic devices to improve the genre's literary prospects, increasing their readership in the process. Since memory is informed by imagination, what we write is innately distorted, which undermines any memoir's "accuracy" in historical terms. (A paradox to me, since historians value diaries and letters as "first-hand" evidence.) Readers understand, of course, that no one lives with a Handycam strapped to her head for research purposes.
While writing my first memoir, "The Liars' Club," I sought advice from autobiographers whose works gave me a reverence for the genre - Mr. Herr, Frank Conroy, Maxine Hong Kingston. As a graduate student at Goddard College, I'd heard Geoffrey Wolff read from "Duke of Deception," which he researched using a historian's tools: interviews taped with his mother and his conman father's jail and medical records. Still, he told me: "Documents are funny things. I'm looking at a copy of my dad's résumé right now. It says he holds degrees from the Sorbonne. It lists the head of the C.I.A. as a reference."
His brother Tobias's "This Boy's Life," drawn solely from recollection, was an act of memory, not history. But that in no way casts it in the same pit as Mr. Frey's fairy tale, where events were seemingly concocted with impunity.
Both brothers Wolff told me that the truth was elusive and hard won. Morally speaking, we memoirists occupy inherently muddy turf - cashing in on the misery of our loved ones and exploiting those who trust us. "Take no care for your dignity," Toby wrote to me in a letter. Their example convinced me that truth in memoir was possible, even if it's imperfectly wrung from flawed introspection. And for some 15 years, I have clung like a marsupial to that idea - well as I could.
So I rejected the strong suggestion of one publishing executive that I include a touching goodbye scene with my mother. "But I don't remember it, " I told him, and readers were left without what I'm sure would have been a narratively comforting farewell. Sometimes to forget an event may be the most radiantly true way of representing it.
Mr. Frey seems to have started with his perceived truth, and then manufactured events to support his vision of himself as a criminal. But how could a memoirist even begin to unearth his life's truths with fake events? At one point, I wrote a goodbye scene to show how my hard-drinking, cowboy daddy had bailed out on me when I hit puberty.
When I actually searched for the teenage reminiscences to prove this, the facts told a different story: my daddy had continued to pick me up on time and make me breakfast, to invite me on hunting and fishing trips. I was the one who said no. I left him for Mexico and California with a posse of drug dealers, and then for college.
This was far sadder than the cartoonish self-portrait I'd started out with. If I'd hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I'd never had to overcome - a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties - I wouldn't have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth.
After the Frey scandal broke, I spent the day pacing my apartment like a prosecutor, cursing him. But on "Larry King Live" the other night, he looked so cudgeled that all my talked-up piety dissolved into pathos. Mr. Frey was being forced to do in the klieg lights what so many others have been schooled to do on the page. The pain in his expression would fill a book - a true one, I hope.
Mary Karr, a professor of literature at Syracuse University, is the author of "The Liars' Club," a memoir, and the forthcoming "Sinners Welcome."