Archive for February 2012

In writing nonfiction, is it Fact=Truth, or Fact v. Truth?

This question has been around about as long as the chicken and the egg. Or at least since I started in journalism. In its newest iteration, there’s a suggestion that all depends on who is laying the egg.

If David Foster Wallace makes up quotes in a piece that purports to be nonfiction, hats off! He’s only doing it get to to a deeper level of truth.

But if Joe McGinniss does it, god forbid! Off with his fingertips!

By the way, I don’t.

On, in regard to Wallace fudging quotes in his piece about his experience of taking a cruise, (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”), Daniel B. Roberts says, “…if altering dialogue served to better crystalize and define that experience, then it’s still truthful, no matter what David Remnick or his fact-checkers would say.”

So if you’re a fiction writer dabbling in journalism and calling the result an
“essay,” then “massaging the facts” (Roberts’s term for what Wallace did in his nonfiction) is okay. Roberts writes, “…the idea that Wallace’s occasional use of invented dialogue makes him, by definition, not a journalist, is a laughable one.”

Pardon me for laughing.

Does anyone remember the brouhaha in 1984 when New Yorker writer Alastair Reid said he routinely (as Maureen Down reported in the New York Times) “invented characters, rearranged events and composed conversations in search of ‘a larger reality.'”)?

At the time, Reid told Joanne Lipman, then a Wall Street Journal reporter, “Some people write very factually. I don’t…Facts are only a part of reality…You have to get over this hump that it’s fact or else. There is a truth that is harder to get at…than the truth yielded by fact.”

Reid and The New Yorker were roundly pilloried.

Now David Foster Wallace (of whose genius I stand in awe) is celebrated for doing the same thing.

Does this show a decline in our perception of journalistic standards, or merely the decline of hypocrisy in regard to same?

I’d have a much easier time reporting and writing my next book, 15 GOTHIC STREET, if I fabricated the quotes and stretched the facts to suit my narrative needs.

But I’ve never done that, and I’m too old to learn new tricks now.

Sydney Writers’ Festival

I’m pleased to say that from May 14 to May 20, my wife, Nancy Doherty, and I will be appearing at the
Sydney Writers’ Festival in Sydney, Australia.

As its website says:

Sydney Writers’ Festival is Australia’s largest annual celebration of literature and ideas. Each year, we present over 300 events (half of them for free) and attract attendances of around 80,000 in venues that stretch from the Festival hub at Walsh Bay to the Blue Mountains. For one week every May we bring together authors of the very best contemporary fiction and writers of cutting edge nonfiction, including some of the world’s leading public intellectuals, scientists and journalists. With the finest literary writing at our core, our programming is driven by the ideas and issues that animate all forms of writing.

Nancy, now a freelance editor, who has worked at Simon and Schuster, Atheneum, and the Book of the Month Club, will conduct a day-long editing seminar.

I’ll be discussing my life and work from The Selling of The President 1968 to The Rogue and beyond.

Sydney is one of the world’s leading writers’ festivals, and Nancy and I are honored to have been invited.

For this, I’ll even take a week off from 15 GOTHIC STREET.

One never knows…

…what a jury will decide.

This is why every jury trial is a dramatic event.

The prosecution presented what I considered overwhelming evidence against David Fried Oppenheim, the founder of a community theater in Easthampton, Mass., who used his position as mentor and guru to sexually prey upon teenaged girls, one of whom was only 14 years old when the child rape began.

He’s a personable and articulate 38-year-old man, with a wife and five-year-old son.

Often over the past two weeks, I found myself engaging in small talk with his older brother, his mother, his mother-in-law and his father-in-law, as well as with other members of the extended Fried and Oppenheim families. (His name was David Fried; his wife’s name was Sonia Oppenheim; they began to call themselves Fried Oppenheim after their marriage.)

But sexual predators don’t lend themselves to racial or demographic profiling.

The guy next store, or your son’s or daughter’s drama coach, or football coach, or that charismatic
new priest in your parish might actually be (though seldom is) a predator, driven to rape your
less than sixteen-year-old daughter or son.

David Fried Oppenheim won the trust of not only children but parents during his years in charge of the Performing Arts Center of Easthampton (PACE.)

Undoubtedly, PACE was a home away from home for many kids whom Fried Oppenheim did not rape.

Unquestionably, many children (and adults) thrived at PACE. They were the lucky ones. They didn’t trigger his uncontrollable impulses.

But trial testimony made clear that in addition to the victim, there were other kids, sixteen or older, with whom he initiated sexual conduct under the guise of teaching them a new acting technique he’d developed, called “Primitives.”

And one student/intern/volunteer/performer seemed so delectable that he disregarded the fact that she was only 14, and he lured her into sexual encounters–vaginal, oral and anal, approximately a hundred altogether–that continued for more than a year and a half.

I’ll be writing about this case in 15 GOTHIC STREET, after I’ve spoken to many more of those involved, including the jurors, who deliberated for almost eight hours over two days before returning their guilty verdicts.

I say “verdicts,” because the indictment contained five counts, each specifying a different form of sex that Fried Oppenheim had with the underage victim:

–digital (i.e. fingers/vagina)
–oral (i.e. tongue/vagina)
–vaginal (i.e. penis/vagina)
–anal (i.e. penis/anus)
–oral (i.e. penis/mouth)

The jury today said Fried Oppenheim did these things to a 14/15 year-old girl more than a hundred times over a year and a half. Another witness testified to having had sex with him approximately a hundred times when she was a teenager, but sixteen or older when it began. Two more witnesses were prevented by the judge from detailing the full extent of Fried Oppenheim’s sexual exploitation of them.

I think there are a lot of fine people in both the Fried and Oppenheim families.

But were they all in denial?

Did any of them seriously doubt that he’d committed the offenses with which he was charged?

Or did they just rally round, in a show of tribal loyalty, and willfully refuse to consider the evidence
that proved sufficient to the jury?

And speaking of fine families, the parents of the victim in this case gave painful but compelling testimony, as did the victim herself, and as did her boyfriend, who was instrumental in getting her to press the charges that led to today’s conviction.

It wasn’t easy. It would have been much easier to let things slide. But these people stood up and spoke out, and because they did a child rapist will soon be heading to state prison.

Sentencing is scheduled for March 8.

In the meantime, Fried Oppenheim is free on $5,000 bail.