Best-selling author and “Girls” creator Lena Dunham is, by her own admission, “an unreliable narrator.”
With her best-selling essay collection, “Not That Kind of Girl,” published this fall, she waded into memoir territory, where writers are held to some standards of reliability and often subject to attacks if their stories defy verification.
Dunham is facing criticism, which she responded to Tuesday, for recounting an alleged college sexual assault, among the most divisive and debated issues in our culture and one that is dominating the news.
Her story, and the way she shaped it, also put her in the midst of an ongoing debate about memoir, the truth in details, and how writers choose to share their personal histories.
“Barry,” the purported assailant in Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl,” is characterized as Oberlin College’s “resident conservative,” suggesting that such a designation is rare at that Ohio bastion of liberal politics. He is described in considerable detail, sporting a flamboyant mustache and purple cowboy boots, working at the campus library and hosting a specific radio talk show. The book’s copyright page acknowledges that “some details and identifying details have been changed.”
While other names in the book are clearly identified as pseudonyms, Barry’s is not. Which became a problem, as there apparently was a well-known conservative named Barry on campus at the same time as Dunham.
This week, Dunham wrote an essay on BuzzFeed, clarifying why she chose to recount her assault the way she did. That followed a statement by her publisher, Random House, that it “regrets the confusion,” after an investigation by the conservative news site Breitbart.com failed to uncover any former student matching Dunham’s description, and UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh wrote a Washington Post blog post entitled, “Could ‘Barry’ sue Lena Dunham over her memoirs?” Attorney Aaron Minc threatened to do just that on behalf of the real Barry.
Random House, which reportedly paid more than a $3.5 million advance for Dunham’s book, has offered to pay all legal fees, but declined further comment on how the book’s facts were vetted. Future editions will state that Barry is a pseudonym.
“Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me. Rather it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun,” Dunham wrote on BuzzFeed. “Any resemblance to a person with this name is an unfortunate and surreal coincidence. I am sorry about all he has experienced.”
The criticism led Dunham to more explicitly describe her intentions in sharing the story of the assault. “I hoped I might inspire others to share, and that forming these connections would assist us in healing,” she writes. “There is no right way to survive rape and there is no right way to be a victim. What survivors need more than anything is to be supported.”
Leading memoir writers, including Anne Lamott and Mary Karr, defend Dunham’s book and worry that criticism of the “Barry” pseudonym and description obscures the more serious issue of assault.
“The woman can’t do anything without people cashing in on her celebrity by kicking her butt in print,” Karr says. “She’s the victim here. I am horrified by the hounds of hell running after her. This is another assault on a feminist who dares to succeed.”
Lamott says “I am 100 percent on her side,” and worries that continued criticism favors assailants. “The women they raped will never come forward now. The men are off the hook. They are all but offering goat sacrifices in gratitude and relief, maybe half of them swearing never to do it again, half of them smirking.”
“I completely believe her,” says memoir writer Kelly Corrigan. “It is to our great detriment that these things are so difficult to reveal, and it’s sort of tragic that everyone is jumping in and casting this terrific doubt on this story.”
Some of our nation’s most noted memoir writers concede that our memories are tricky, imperfect things. After the assault, when Dunham visited a gynecologist, “I could only mumble through a description of that night. After all, I had been drunk and high, which only compounded my confusion and shame,” she writes on BuzzFeed. Survivors of assault “are asked to provide an unassailable narrative when the event itself is hazy, fragmented, and unspeakable.”
How much unassailable truth do readers expect from a memoir — of trauma, or even a pastoral account of childhood?
There is a huge market for memoirs and personal essays, entertainment rooted in real life, great personal adventures like “Wild” and “Eat Pray Love,” whose authors often become celebrities in their own right. Shows such as “This American Life” and “Serial,” and documentaries on multiple cable channels present stories that are often stranger than fiction and more dramatic than most people’s lives.
Which can sometimes lead to trouble. Two years ago, “This American Life” started using outside fact-checkers when it experienced problems with contributor Mike Daisey’s reporting on Apple’s factories in China, as well as questions about the authenticity of David Sedaris’s humorous stories.
Beyond trauma or assault, which are often difficult for survivors to recall in accurate detail, memory can prove unreliable. And any story can lend itself to various interpretations. “We remember things differently, and each of us is as the center of our memories,” says writer Tobias Wolff. “We’re the leading actors. There is the utterly subjective character of memory that leads us into argument and tension with others.”
In the best of circumstances, writing a memoir is difficult. Dunham is an entertainer with a demanding job of “Girls” creator, writer and star, who seems to have written her first book under tremendous pressure, a huge advance and punitive time constraints. But when a charge of sexual assault is made, an alleged perpetrator is described in such minute detail, could experienced professionals have served their novice author better with a more thorough vetting process?
Memoirists, many of whom also write fiction, say the burden is on them to write honestly and clearly about their past. “Memoirs have become a fairly elasticized form for truths and untruths,” says Daphne Merkin, who has written openly in the New Yorker about family money, depression and even erotic spanking.
Geoffrey Wolff, Tobias’s brother, wrote “The Duke of Deception” about their father, a pathological liar, whose fantastical stories he investigated. “I’m going to write everything I believe to be true,” he says. “The writer knows memory bends, but everything I write I believe to have happened.”
Pseudonyms have their place in memoirs. In his acclaimed “This Boy’s Life,” Tobias Wolff changed the names of all the characters except members of his immediate family. Altering the names, Wolff says, “allows you to be more truthful because you’re not always looking over your shoulder.” In his second memoir, “In Pharoh’s Army,” about his tour in Vietnam, Wolff took out libel insurance, knowing that some people “would be very, very unhappy about what I wrote, but it was the truth nevertheless.”