James Frey’s Legacy: Authenticity needs to be authentic!

James Frey is an American author who has been in the news on and off over the last few years. He published a book called A Million Little Pieces, which purported to be memoirs of his struggle with addiction, association with criminals and time in jail. On the strength of this account of his fall and rise, and his defeat of his demons, he sold a lot of books, went on Oprah and probably got to dive, Scrooge McDuck-like, into a giant pool filled with money.

There’s only one problem. Despite being billed as autobiographical, it turned out that his claims that, minor details aside, it was all true were false. It was sold as a memoir, an account of the life of the subject, and it was not an account of his life, but that of, in his own words, “about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.

Many people claimed to find inspiration in James Frey’s work, including Oprah, and the backlash against the book was severe. Once it was established that the path to redemption outlined in the book didn’t start from a sufficiently dark place, or wasn’t really based on fact, questioning arose over what could be learned or derived from a semi-fictional work, rather that a true memoir.

The question here is one of authenticity. If you, as a recovering addict, tell me that the way to beat addiction is to dance the Lambada (the forbidden dance) 7 times a day because that’s the only thing that stops the cravings and I act on this, then I am depending upon your representation of how you beat your demons as being accurate. This assumes that you were actually a drug addict in the first place. That you did dance the Lambada. That it did, to the best of your knowledge, deal with your problems. If you were never an addict in the first place, your undisputed credibility is now disputed and you have no authenticity.

James Frey is a writer. Not one that I enjoy, being frank, but there is no doubt that he can write and produce a book. If he wrote a book entitled “A Million Giant Suckers: How I Turned a Nation’s Obsession with Suffering and Redemption Into Cold, Hard Cash“, I would probably buy it because his credibility is beyond doubt in this regard! (I really want that swimming pool full of paper money, too. Note: never dive into gold, it’s not that soft.)

So how does this apply to teaching? There are two important aspects of authenticity in terms of teaching, for me. Firstly, that when we talk about something from ‘the real world’ outside of academia, that we have either directly experienced it or we have trustworthy accounts of it being in use. (And, in the case of reportage, we clearly state that it is reportage.) Secondly, when we present students with ‘real-world challenges’ that are experiences that will prepare them for the world outside!

To me, this means that when I quote statistics in support of arguments – they are real statistics, with credible sources, in the correct context. This means that I try and get industry involved where possible, if I don’t have the experience myself, and talk to people to get informed. I used to work in industry but that was over 10 years ago and industry has changed a lot in that time. Yes, I’m still a sys admin and network admin at heart, but I’ve never had to implement BGP or MPLS or run a Lion server cluster, and that means that I need to keep reading and talking to other people to maintain my credibility.

For me, though, I have to careful what I claim. I’m the first to admit that, while I have a good skill basis, I’m now rusty at systems because I’ve spent all my time polishing my research, teaching and admin. I’m comfortable talking here, because I feel have sufficient credibility to discuss these matters, but you wouldn’t find me holding forth on the administration of Linux boxes any time soon.

I don’t want my students to learn a good lesson if I’m presenting bad information to them – that, to me, has always been the cold comfort of scoundrels, that someone learnt a valuable life lesson from their dastardly deeds. I don’t think James Frey ever set out to go as far as he did, I doubt he’s that calculating, but taking an unsuccessful novel and turning it into a successful memoir may make good business sense… but it’s a terrible, terrible lesson on the value of authenticity.

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