Most of us are neither fabulously wealthy nor desperately poor. First-person books like Alice Goffman’s “On the Run” and Wednesday Martin’s “Primates of Park Avenue” can offer useful insights on worlds we may not know, whether the violence of a West Philadelphia neighborhood, or the riches of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
But now, with both works accused of inconsistencies and inaccuracies, we see the risks writers face when writing about communities that are either unknown or misunderstood — in particular, the temptation to adjust reality into versions that are more dramatic and memorable, or that are more consistent with the prejudices readers may hold.
Goffman, an academic sociologist, published “On the Run” to great acclaim in 2014. The story of her six years living in and studying an aggressively-policed neighborhood she calls 6th Street, where prison time for many young men is a fact of life, the book was hailed as “an ethnographic classic” by the New York Review of Books. But an extensive review by Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet drew particular attention to an episode, chronicled in the final pages, in which Goffman seems to admit driving the getaway car in what could have become a revenge killing after a member of their community, named Chuck, had been killed. Goffman’s friend Mike thought he saw the killer enter a restaurant, so he tucked his gun in his pants and waited for him in an alley. “I waited in the car with the engine running,” Goffman writes, “ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.” Even though no one was shot that night, Goffman admits that she wasn’t there merely to learn about violence. “I got into the car because. . . I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.”
When Lubet described her actions as fitting the definition of conspiracy to commit murder, Goffman responded that at no time did she intend to engage in criminal conduct, and that “talk of retribution was just that: talk.” Yet that description departs significantly from the far more intense and dramatic scene in the book, which I read as conveying the real risk of death, not just a man blowing off steam. As Lubet writes convincingly in the New Republic, “Goffman essentially admits that she embellished and exaggerated her account of a crucial episode, which should leave even the most sympathetic readers doubting her word.”
Martin, for her part, made a splash with her book detailing the lives she witnessed up close of New York’s glamorous stay-at-home moms, married to ridiculously rich hedge fund managers, being nasty to each other and collecting “wife bonuses” — cash prizes from their husbands as rewards for taking good care of their homes and kids. After Martin wrote a much-clicked piece in the New York Times previewing her book, the New York Post gleefully detailed a series of discrepancies involving how long Martin claimed to have lived in the area, shops that did or did not actually exist at the time she says they did, and the overall timeline of events. My Washington Post colleague Amy Argetsinger listed many other credulity-stretching moments in the book, many of which only make these awful rich people seem, well, even more awful. Martin later dialed back the wife bonuses in an interview with New York magazine: “I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend or widespread. It was just one of the many strange-seeming cultural practices that some women told me about.”
Martin’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, said future editions of the book would add a “clarifying note,” but still defended the work, saying it is “a common narrative technique in memoirs for some names, identifying characteristics and chronologies to be adjusted or disguised, and that is the case with ‘Primates of Park Avenue.'”
Yes, the book is billed as a memoir, but Martin wraps herself in the mantle and methods of academic research. “A social researcher works where she lands and resists the notion that any group is inherently more or less worthy of study than another,” she wrote in the New York Times. “I stuck to the facts.” In the book, she talks of her “fieldnotes,” highlights anthropologists Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall as influences and describes her enterprise as an “academic experiment.” There is little to suggest readers are embarking on an impressionistic work.
Similarly, Goffman apparently minimizes the importance of the passage about her driving the car the night Mike thinks he sees Chuck’s killer, referring to it as a “summary account” that “comes at the end of a methodological appendix.” Yet in Goffman’s hands, that appendix is a powerful and evocative portion of the book, and featuring this particular story at the end of it only heightens its impact — it serves as a coda to her entire experience. If, as Goffman later said, she had “good reason to believe that this night would not end in violence or injury,” why not say so there?
Both Martin and Goffman embrace the sociological and anthropological tradition of “participant-observers.” That tradition suffers — as do readers and communities being studied — when writers over-dramatize events or exaggerate the virtues or vices of their subjects. That is neither honest participation, nor true observation.
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