I remember reading James Frey’s drug-addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces in 2005, back when the book was still classified as “non-fiction,” and I could’ve sworn a lot of the details smelled fishy. So the following year, once Frey revealed the truth of his fictions, I felt a little happy about it. I wouldn’t call it schadenfreude; I got nothing personal against the guy. OK, maybe there was some schadenfreude. But for the most part, I simply felt nice knowing my suspicions had been validated.
Somehow I missed the similar controversy that arose just over a year later regarding Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier. In fact I wasn’t really familiar with the book at all. I saw it for the first time while browsing the shelves at my local library a couple weeks ago, and I thought it looked fascinating.* And until I’d finished reading it, I had no idea that its veracity had come under serious scrutiny not long after its publication. Which is not to say that I never suspected Beah’s account may have been significantly less than 100% accurate. From the beginning, I took it for granted that the memoir of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone would have to be at least a little fudgy, considering all the trauma and drug abuse that must’ve fogged up his rear-view mirror.
Then I got to page 51 and spotted this fat red flag:
“…Grandfather always gave us a special medicine that was supposed to enhance the brain’s capacity to absorb and retain knowledge. He made this medicine by writing a special Arabic prayer on a waleh (slate) with ink that was made of another medicine. The writing was then washed off the slate, and that water, which they called Nessie, was put in a bottle. We took it with us and were supposed to keep it a secret and drink it before we studied for exams. The medicine worked. During my primary-school years and part of my secondary school year, I was able to permanently retain everything that I learned. Sometimes it worked so well that during examinations I could visualize my notes and all that was written on each page of my textbooks. It was as if the books had been imprinted inside my head. This wonder was one of many in my childhood. To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.
Beah may as well have written “Just in case anything here seems too far-fetched, this harrowing true-life story is really truthfully true. All of it. Truly! Because my grandfather gave me Magical Memory Juice when I was a kid, that’s why.”
Reading this passage saddened me. The author doth protest too much, methought. And it didn’t feel like the passage was Beah’s idea, either. Throughout the book, his voice is humble, blunt, and fearless. I could be wrong, but I couldn’t help speculating that an editor or agent whispered the idea in his ear, told him to write about the memory juice to convince readers of something they didn’t need to be convinced of.
Yet Beah’s Magical Memory Juice didn’t spoil the rest of his book for me. I believe A Long Way Gone is true enough. I believe most of these things happened to Beah, and if any of those things didn’t literally happen to him, then I’m sure they either happened to someone not unlike Beah.
I guess the reason I’m more forgiving of Beah than I was of James Frey– aside from the fact that being forced to become a child soldier sounds far more terrifying than being a drug addict– is that except for the Magical Memory Juice, Beah’s details felt truer than Frey’s. Beah’s story captures what Werner Herzog would call “Ecstatic Truth.” And if Beah had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t, as Adam Kirsch would say, to “seduce the reader with an ostentatious display of soul-bearing,” it was to shine a light on the horrors of Sierra Leon’s civil war.
If I had been Beah’s editor, I would’ve whispered in his ear: “Sell it as a novel. Just say it’s ‘Based on a true story.’ If it turns out some things didn’t happen quite how you remember them, then so what? They’ll still call you the Sierra Leonean Hemingway. Oh, and lose that part about the Memory Juice. I don’t care if it’s real; I simply don’t buy it.”
* On the other hand, I did work in a large bookstore when A Long Way Gone was first published, so I admit there’s a chance that I had in fact heard of the book before and simply forgot. In my defense, I ingested many intoxicants in those days, and I never once ingested any Magical Mystery Juice.