I just got back from a great party, where a small subdivision of the group, including myself, discussed the ethics of non-fiction. OK, we’re dorks, whatever. But it’s important to me, as a non-fiction writer, to be clear about readers’ expectations and my own intentions. My contention is that if you’re promising, as the writer, a true story, you must deliver a true story. No fabrications. No embellishments. Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea, which I’ve read and love, came up. Apparently, some of the events in the book have been exaggerated for the sake of the story. Mortenson’s Website now claims that the book is based on real events. Well, I said to my friends, I don’t think I would call the book non-fiction, in that case. Some of my friends differed with me, giving a writer license if they craft an effective story that resonates with the reader. It is possible, they argue, to write something true, whether or not it’s factual. And to a certain point, I agree. I’ve read many great novels that have been true for me, if not factual. But there’s the rub. They’re novels. Fiction. They don’t pretend to deliver factual information. You know, as a reader, from the get-go, that you’re reading a tale.
And I’m generally fine with memoirs and other works of creative non-fiction imagining a scene or speculating on a history, as long as the writer is up front with the reader about his or her intentions. For example, I doubt that Jeanette Walls could remember in such exact detail conversations that occurred when she was three years old, as she portrays in The Glass Castle. But that doesn’t bother me. I trust that she’s conveying the conversations as reliably as she can, given the slippery substance of memory. Dave Eggars’ memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius also takes liberties, with scenes from pure fantasy. But he cues the reader to play along, and we know it’s a game of sorts, so we do. But my main problem regarding this issue has to do with transparency. If I feel that a writer is trying to trick me into believing an event actually happened when it didn’t, I feel betrayed, at the end of the day.
Blah, blah, blah. A bunch of literary mumbo-jumbo, right? Well. I’m writing my thesis, which is non-fiction. Part of my story is about my dad, his life and history. According to dozens of conversations and stories over the years, Dad was an operative for the CIA during the 1960s. He flew a two-seater plane in Laos. He monitored Soviet oil shipments from London. He did some kind of arms dealing in the Bahamas. He told me bits and pieces of this history, usually at my urging, over the course of my whole life with him. It is as much a part of him as his limp, which he had since surviving polio in the 1940s. I knew all of this to be part of who my dad is. And as time went by, and after my mother died, and after his work became de-classified, he told me more. He told me about the Laotian bar owner who tricked him into eating a poisonous spider because he liked spicy food: “Oh, you like spicy food? Try this!” Hooo-ee! What kind of pepper was that?! “Oh, that no pepper. That spider!” Until he died, Dad refused to eat any Southeast Asian food because it reminded him of those years in Laos.
Now that he’s gone, I thought I could probably include some of this information in my thesis, acknowledging that I don’t have all the facts and may not have remembered details accurately. Then I talked to my dad’s younger brother, who doesn’t believe any of it ever happened. He has a completely different timeline for my dad’s whereabouts in the 60s. He does remember Dad mentioning the London job was a CIA cover, but he doesn’t believe it. He has a list of other jobs Dad had, other places he was, during those years. He says, as a retired Naval officer himself, that there was no way Dad could have been trained to fly so quickly, and that the Ravens (for whom Dad told me he flew) were all active-duty Air Force pilots. Sure, my uncle was only a teenager when all of this was going on, but I wasn’t even born yet. So, what now?
At first, I felt disillusioned, like my father had been lying to me about this exciting life he never led. Then I rebelled. I have a book of my dad’s, titled The Ravens, in which there is a group photo including someone who looks just like my father, in the lower left corner. I also know a former Air Force pilot who did fly with the Ravens, and he admits that some of the pilots were CIA “contractors.” I can also e-mail an old family friend who worked with Dad in London. There are enough ways to check the story, that I am prone to believe it.
But ultimately, I have come to a place where it doesn’t matter to me if the facts are accurate or not. For me, it is true that my father did all of those things. He has woven them into the tapestry of himself, his life. Whether he borrowed the thread seems irrelevant to me now. I’ve said this before: My dad was a difficult person to know. He was full of contradictions and evasions. Always. Even about stuff I knew really happened. I’m convinced that everyone who ever knew him saw a different person. So, in my uncle’s universe, Dad never flew a plane, had never been to Laos, had never worked for the CIA. My uncle knew another person, another history, and that’s fine, that’s his.
But these stories are part of my life, factual or not. They are part of my relationship with my dad. They are, in a very real sense, true. So this is the man I will write about. I’ll be honest. I’ll admit to my own doubts and to conflicting stories. But the story I will tell is mine.