It’s been practically weeks without news about a memoirist’s faulty memory, so you can imagine my relief upon learning that some women are challenging the veracity of Deborah Rodriguez’ Kabul Beauty School (“Shades of Truth: An Account of a Kabul School Is Challenged,” by Abby Ellin, New York Times):
But Crazy Deb has raised the ire of six women who were involved at the founding of the Kabul Beauty School. The women say the book is filled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. They argue that events did not unfold the way Ms. Rodriguez depicts them, and that she exaggerated her role in the formation of the school.
Though Random House notes on the copyright page that some personal, place and organization names have been changed, and some chronological details adjusted, the women believe that the discrepancies are too vast to call the book a memoir. They even question whether the stories Ms. Rodriguez tells about Afghan women – disturbing, heartbreaking tales of abuse – are real.
And they object to Ms. Rodriguez’s explanation of how she came to be in charge of the school, as she is today. They say that, instead of being its savior, as she represents, she plotted to move the school from the Women’s Ministry to the house she shares with her Afghan/Uzbek husband, Sher (called Sam in the book). And, they said, she did it for personal gain.
This isn’t James Frey territory — darn it — as Ellin points out, but still, it raises the question that I sometimes feel we’ll be debating until writing is replaced with mind-reading:
How close to the truth must a memoir be?
One source for the story suggests that, when reading memoirs, we must consider the source:
Yet Ms. Rodriguez provides an incomplete history of the beauty school. In a memoir, was she obligated to do more?
Richard S. Pine, a literary agent and partner at InkWell Management LLC, in Manhattan, said she was not. "Journalists know about fact-checking," he said. "Beauticians know about hair dye and shampoo."
It’s a good point. Much as I love Wikipedia, I don’t view it as an authority equal to Encyclopedia Britannica (excuse me: Encyclopaedia). A book by a beautician who calls herself “Crazy Deb” clearly doesn’t carry the same weight as a book written by the late David Halberstam.
But does the general public make that distinction? I’m not so sure. I think that most people imagine there’s a frenzied team of overachievers that goes to work on every author’s manuscript, doing everything from line- and copyediting to fact-checking, legal vetting, and proofreading. That may be true for publishers’ lead books, but, from where I sit, many authors can count themselves lucky to get the copyediting and proofreading. Most books seem to get most of their attention in the marketing phase.
But that still doesn’t answer the question. I haven’t read Kabul Beauty School, so I need one important question of my own answered before I can weigh in on this particular book flap: how funny is it?