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Opinion A ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ scandal and the downsides of ‘lived experience’

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The desire for authenticity in the arts is understandable. Audiences want to feel as though something is plausible, that what is taking place onscreen or on the page is real on some level, even if the events are totally bonkers.

But we’ve gone badly off the rails when “lived experience” becomes the stand-in for authenticity. The term itself has made a fraught transition from “personal knowledge gained through firsthand behavior” to “unassailable truth as defined by how I have lived my life.” And prizing “lived experience” over other credentials makes it inevitable that fraudsters will invent backstories for themselves in an effort to game the system.

You see that at work in Vanity Fair’s two-part series on Elisabeth Finch, a writer for “Grey’s Anatomy.” Finch used the various dramas and illnesses she claimed to have suffered to fuel her career. But she has come under scrutiny following accusations that she essentially stole someone else’s life story in pursuit of that prized authenticity.

You really have to read the whole series, but the short version is this: A writer on Shonda Rhimes’s hit hospital drama seems to have invented not only having cancer but also having been the survivor of abuse, lifting the life story of a woman she met in therapy and then married. What was interesting to me was less the fraud — the world is a bottomless pit of petty fraudsters — than the way Finch used the initial health fraud to gain an upper hand in the “Grey’s Anatomy” writers room.

“Cancer afforded her certain privileges. She had an extra comfortable chair. From there, she tacitly claimed extra talking rights,” Evgenia Peretz writes. “When Finch had the floor, she was not to be interrupted, and took whatever time she needed drawing out her stories. Anyone else could lose their job for being such a room hog.”

Because it was a current and ongoing thing, Finch’s “lived experience” topped even that of other writers in the room, leading actual cancer survivors to avoid weighing in on potential cancer-based plotlines. The fact that she was “the only person [in the writers room] who identified as a person with a disability” was her trump card, an unassailable diversity play.

This sort of professional fakery pops up in academia from time to time. Who can forget the story of Jessica Krug, the associate professor at George Washington University who pretended to be Black to burnish her right to speak before confessing and melodramatically canceling herself. The less time spent remembering Rachel Dolezal, the better.

Elsewhere in the entertainment-industrial complex, lived experience has become a valuable form of PR. Jeanine Cummins’s novel “American Dirt” scored a huge advance, an initial print run of half a million copies and a coveted placement in Oprah’s Book Club. But a firestorm of controversy followed when it turned out Cummins might have exaggerated her life story.

While the book had defenders (rapturous early notice, the aforementioned Oprah imprimatur) and detractors (post-controversy reviews were frequently unkind), conversation about the book was only nominally actually about the book. Rather, it was about whether Cummins had any right to tell the story, whether her lived experience aligned with the book’s depictions of the refugees fleeing cartel violence in Mexico.

Cummins had leaned into her Latino heritage (a grandmother is Puerto Rican) and spoken of fears for her husband, an undocumented immigrant. Except, oops, she described herself as “white” in years past and the “undocumented immigrant” husband was Irish, which has a slightly different connotation in many of the United States’ discussions about immigration, legal and otherwise.

There are two entangled ideas worth separating.

The first is whether authenticity itself is something worth prizing. Some audiences certainly seem to think so, at least in a narrow way: “What X gets wrong about Y” is a perennial think-piece format. Filmmakers such as Robert Eggers go to great lengths to nail period details out of a belief that such care can help transport viewers to another era and mind-set. The job of “sensitivity reader” has emerged to help authors get cultural contexts right — or at least to avoid Internet firestorms. That said, the idea of a show as perpetually absurd as “Grey’s Anatomy” aiming for authenticity is at least a little ridiculous.

The second is whether the lived experience that claims to inform such authenticity is more valuable than, say, standard research. Reading as much on a subject as possible and interviewing those who have partaken in what you hope to portray both strike me as, potentially, more valuable than merely claiming to identify with those to be portrayed, assuming authenticity is, in fact, a value to be prized.

Whatever else it does, prizing “lived experience” over all else incentivizes a whole rash of terrible behaviors by unscrupulous people. Perhaps instead we should prize something a bit more concrete — such as an artist’s output.

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