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Lying Isn’t So Bad if it Makes You Feel Good

January 22, 2006

Of course Oprah took the side of veracity-challenged author James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces.” She is in the feelings business, and you don’t succeed in her line of work by favoring facts over deeply felt but untrue stories. The tears that she and her staffers shed while reading Frey’s largely concocted tale of crime and addiction made the book important to her.

When Frey appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Oprah made things worse by phoning in to say, “The underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me.” Apparently this meant that she was so moved by the book that she doesn’t care that it contains many untruths. Resonance makes lying defensible.

She has a lot of company. Bill Bastone, the talented investigative reporter whose Web site, The Smoking Gun, broke the news about Frey, says 40 percent of e-mail consists of “How dare you” messages defending Frey. Patti Davis, President Reagan’s daughter, expressed sympathy for Frey, and some bloggers have abandoned coherence in order to come down on Frey’s side. (“I believe that much of his fabrications are collective memories, splintered memories and probably recovered memories,” one wrote.)

Various publishing types help justify the fraud by arguing that memoirs are never 100 percent accurate and almost all autobiographies contain evasions and lies. Doubleday pointed to the “overall reading experience” of Frey’s work, which is probably better than saying, “It’s a pack of lies and you’ll love it.” In 1972 the writer Clifford Irving went to prison for creating and selling a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Now Oprah and his publisher might defend him as an emotional truth-teller.

The willingness to accept “emotional truth,” even when packaged in lies, is hardly new. What’s new is that those who insist on factual truth are now on the defensive, pictured as fuddy-duddies who don’t understand that the self recognizes the highest truth in feelings.

College speech codes have long been written in feelings language. Hurt feelings are evidence of an offense. These codes reflect, and reinforce, the rise of feelings over facts and standards. The emotional impact is what counts. Brown University, for instance, banned “verbal behavior” that “produces feelings of impotence, anger or disenfranchisement,” whether “intentional or unintentional.” In other words, you can’t say anything that makes anybody feel really bad.

The many hoaxes on colleges campuses, mostly involving untrue reports of rapes and racial attacks, often turn out to be teaching instruments of a sort, conscious lies intended to reveal broad truths about the constant victimization of women and minorities. After the Tawana Brawley case, an article in the Nation magazine said the faked kidnapping and rape she reported were useful because they called attention to the suffering of blacks, so “in cultural perspective, if not in fact, it doesn’t matter whether the crime occurred or not.”

Many of the campus hoaxes owe something to the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel? This attitude seeps into therapy, often through therapists who guide patients to the feeling that parents must have abused them. After one California patient sued her parents, her therapist said, “I don’t care if it’s true. … What actually happened is irrelevant to me.”

Certainly our culture is awash in lies — politicians, professors, reporters, columnists, scientists, etc., so much so that numbness has set in. “Emotional truth” seems to take advantage of this numbness over a culture saturated in lies. If you can’t believe the literal truth anymore, why not trust your own emotional response to stories?

Press coverage of Hurricane Katrina was loaded with stories and claims that turned out to be wildly untrue. But the emotions stirred by TV’s often fanciful coverage were powerful, and the most emotional of the media stars — Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper — strongly advanced their careers. If emotional impact keeps advancing at the price of truth, we will all be in trouble.

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