My friend was fulminating about the Bushies: “So their lies are piling up, a huge pile of deceit, and what can we do about it? We just have to sit it out till the next election? Why aren’t people up in arms?” (Maureen Dowd’s Saturday Times column has a good compilation of recent lies, if you need reminding.)
I started to remind her how long it had taken during the Clinton administration or earlier, with Nixon and Watergate: the whole special prosecutor thing, the impeachment dance. These things take time.
But then I stopped myself, remembering that some things get people up in arms in no time flat. Tout le monde is abuzz right now over two literary scandals. James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard, memoirs of addiction and debasement (the first was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, a designation you can take straight to the bank, the real estate agent and the yacht broker), was exposed as having fabricated some of his most wrenching stories. (For example, his tale of three terrible months in prison turned out to have been puffed and fluffed out of an actual eight hours behind bars.) Oprah devoted a full hour to excoriating him before her vast viewing public, after which his agent dropped him.
At around the same time, JT LeRoy, author of Sarah: A Novel and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, was exposed as a fraud. This was one of those stories that comes around every few years: a mysterious demimonde character surfaces from a deeply damaged past into prominence as an edgy writer, saved by art. He makes a conspicuous to-do about protecting his privacy, parlays his afflictions and talents into many favors from trendy literary celebrities…till somebody gets burned. In this case, JT LeRoy, former drug-addicted male prostitute-turned-novelist turned out to be the invention of Laura Albert, who cannily managed to promote an impersonation so ambiguous that even JT LeRoy’s gender remained a matter of speculation until the hoax was exposed. Once it was, the author and her husband-accomplice split up; she’s in hiding and he’s pursuing a movie deal. Newspapers’ arts sections have been printing a lot of quotes from trendy literary celebrities upset at having been fooled.
Frey’s memoirs could have been written as novels, and Laura Albert could have penned LeRoy’s novels under her own name, each avoiding the whole occasion of sin. But these authors are not dummies. They understood that the appetite of the moment is for hope, and the most cathartic, redemptive story of all is a tale of personal debasement and hard-won salvation, even one that has been “novelized” by the author reputed to have lived it. When such an anodyne tale turns out to be a lie, people are outraged: the lie has milked their pity under false pretenses, cheating them of a happy ending. They are embarrassed and angry at being deceived, and just a little less inclined to hope again.
Especially now. In this cultural moment, we expect damaged people’s genuine, authentic shame, pain and wounding to generate unadulterated, 100-proof redemption. If they are caught fooling us by exaggerating or even inventing their brutal ordeals, they pay. James Frey and JT LeRoy were exposed and punished for presenting themselves as having suffered more, faced more hardships and transgressed society’s rules more than they actually did.
Unfortunately for my fulminating friend and the rest of us, the opposite is true when it comes to politicians who present themselves as more (rather than less) noble and honest than they actually are. Indeed, we expect elected officials to be liars. If they fool us by exaggerating their virtue or even fabricating evidence to support their claims…oh, well. They’re politicians, aren’t they? What did you expect?
Sometimes it really seems we have our wires crossed. And that we have lost all sense of proportion. What do you suppose it would take to generate as much active, buzzing outrage over Bush’s lies as over James Frey’s and JT LeRoy’s? What do you suppose it says about our culture that no clear answers come immediately to mind?
Wait, wait, I’ve got one! What if Oprah hired Bush and Cheney lookalikes to appear on her program for a good scolding? It just might work. Maybe I’ll go email her right now…