Memory, Autobiography, and The Road Not Taken

By now just about everyone reading this blog (yeah, all three or four of you) has heard about the big scandal involving best-selling author James Frey and his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. In a lengthy exposé, The Smoking Gun confirmed what others had suspected: Some events in the book were either creative embellishments or complete fictions—in other words, lies.

A Million Little Pieces

Since then, Oprah phoned Larry King to defend Frey, after which she invited Frey back on her own show to give him a public spanking. A lot of journalists and bloggers have joined the growing chorus of those condemning Frey for his falsehoods and his publisher for her laziness or incompetence (and Oprah for her support).

To me, the biggest mistake Frey made was carrying on about the cold, hard facts of his life and about how important honesty is and how we all need to cut the crap and face reality. We’ll never know if publisher #18 would have accepted A Million Little Pieces as a work of fiction after the first 17 rejected it, but there’s no doubt that a lot of the power in the book came from the idea that it was a true story of a real person’s struggle through a devastating addiction.


Witness for the Defense

Still, there’s an arrogance on the part of a lot of the Frey bashers regarding how easy it is to reconstruct past events. Forensic psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and others have demonstrated the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, even though it is often one of the most important factors in a jury’s decision. John Kotre, psychology professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, claims that memory is even more slippery when we try to recall important events of our own lives:

Autobiographical memory is interested in specific events, but only insofar as they contribute to meaning. Ultimately, meaning will arise in a comprehensive story of the self, a story replete with wishes and prophecies, a story that puts the self at center stage. By day, autobiographical memory may be a keeper of archives, but by night it’s a maker of myth.

White Gloves

So, how much more accurate would I be if I were to write my own personal narrative? I hope I’d be able to tell the difference between three months in jail and three hours. But then again, my identity isn’t based on the archetypal bad boy, as James Frey’s is. (If you must know, it’s based on the archetypal geek.)

The Road Nobody Wants to See

This whole truth-in-memoir controversy reminds me of the little trick in Robert Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Most people, when they read the poem, fixate on the last two lines: “I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.” After all, isn’t that what it’s all about? Non-conformity, being self-reliant, accepting the consequences of right over wrong, good over bad, crunchy over smooth? Well, no, probably not.

The Road Not Taken - full text

The speaker is actually projecting into his future (“Somewhere ages and ages hence”) and foreseeing how he will recast his life. In other words, the last two lines are about what he will someday want to believe about his life, not what his life was actually about. He doesn’t really take the road “less traveled by.” For all he could see at the time, the two paths were “really about the same.” The great irony here is that Frost’s speaker recognizes the painful truth about himself, his memory, and his inevitable attempt to reshape his life into something meaningful; yet Frost’s readers typically do not see it at all.

Both Frey and Frost’s speaker may be experiencing some sort of cognitive dissonance: Having defined themselves in specific ways—Frey as the unflinching, hard-core bad boy who overcomes adversity by sheer bull-headed willpower; Frost’s speaker as the lone traveler who acts on principle, not popularity—they both are faced with the dilemma of either changing their self-perception or adjusting their memories of past actions. Seth Mnookin, in his article for, describes Frey’s cognitive dissonance this way:

Based on all the evidence, it seems Frey’s weird, macho fear of seeing himself as a “victim” led him to fabricate a life that was painful and extreme enough so as to explain the sadness and despair he felt. Instead of a crack-binging street fighter, ostracized by both his peers and society, the Smoking Gun investigation indicates Frey was more likely a lonely, confused boy who may or may not have needed ear surgery as a child and felt distant from his parents and alienated from his peers.

“The Road Not Taken” is clearly metaphorical. Of course, nobody would argue that the poem is really about some guy taking a walk in the woods. But it’s also metaphorical in that the speaker’s situation, both the decision itself and the recollection of the decision, represents a universal human condition. Maybe it’s no surprise then that Ronald Reagan “couldn’t recall” anything about the Iran-Contra deals. Or that Bill Clinton said he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Or that George W. Bush seems to lie about nearly everything he’s done. Or that James Frey tried to write a memoir but ended up creating a fictional character “inspired by” a true story instead.

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4 Responses to Memory, Autobiography, and The Road Not Taken

  1. Sarah G says:

    >>But then again, my identity isn’t based on the
    >>archetypal bad boy, as James Frey’s is. (If you
    >>must know, it’s based on the archetypal geek.)
    No! Really?! :)
    I like how you brought “The Road Not Taken” into your post and your explanation of the poem. I had one of those “Aha! That really seems to be the right way to look at it, but I never thought about it that way” moments.

  2. Cynthia/Gram says:

    Karl, that’s pretty heavy reading for a Wednesday morning! I recall our having this conversation about Frost’s poem during our holiday visit, totally unrelated to the Frey book, which, at the time, was still being ballyhooed as amazing true confession. I recall thinking
    at the time how disconcerted I felt that, as a former English teacher, I’d led my students down the wrong road in interpreting that poem. (I still think one can get a great deal of meaning from that way of looking at it, however.) I suppose I could write my own revisionist history and say I taught them your interpretation all along, but that would put me in the company of lying presidents and authors, when I’d rather be in yours :-)
    Thanks for all the imagination and thought you put into your blog – it’s a pleasure to find in my mailbox.

  3. tammy says:

    dear karl,
    see, this is why i visit your website nearly every day…..can i tell you just how glad i am that you are (in your own words, mine just echoing) “the archetypal geek”…what a cool way to start my day today. i am quite sure i never would have read “The Road Not Taken” today, but now, because i have, perhaps my day will take a little unexpected twist somewhere. buon giorno.

  4. Andrew DeBoer says:

    I think James Frey presents a great lesson in how to write. Sure, he cobbled up a work of fiction and passed it off as truth, but he apparently put together quite a tale. So that’s one way to do it: put yourself in the shoes of a colorful character and illustrate his or her life.
    I haven’t read the book; some pilot magazine or other comes to our house about every two weeks and that’s about all I can manage these days. I’m sure plenty of pilots stretch the truth in their articles too. Each time a pilot story gets told, the fuel state becomes more dire, the weather more rotten, and the flying more heroic. Ask me – I’ll tell you a great story! All true!

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