Jennifer Lauck has had an amazing year.
Once an unknown face in Portland, she is now the bestselling author of last fall's breakout memoir, Blackbird. The book earned her a $45,000 advance, was translated into 20 languages and made the New York Times bestseller list. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey's and Rosie O'Donnell's shows and before worldwide fans on an international tour. Recently she moved from the Hollywood neighborhood to nicer digs in Irvington.
Blackbird joined the memoir parade that rolled out in 1997 with Mary Karr's The Liars' Club and was followed by Frank McCourt's wildly successful Angela's Ashes. Since then, memoirs have been the literary equivalent of Palm Pilots--everyone has to have one. In this month alone, Amazon.com lists 26 new memoirs on the market, many of them, like Lauck's, the personal stories of less-than-perfect lives.
Her book is the pain-filled account of a child who is abandoned by every adult in her life and encounters one trial after another, page after page of raw emotion delivered in the voice of an abused and baffled little girl. Some critics found the lack of humor or adult perspective off-putting, and many book reviews, including Willamette Week's, were unfavorable. But the gut punch Lauck delivered was stronger than any critical analysis, and readers loved it.
"I saw Ms. Lauck on Oprah and was inspired by her true story," writes J. Starke of Cicero, Ill., on Amazon.com. "I went out the next day and purchased her book and read it in less than one week.... It is both heartbreaking and inspirational."
Now, just one year after the publication of Blackbird, Lauck is back. Two weeks ago, at the Borders bookstore in Tigard, she kicked off the tour for the second and final installment of her life story, Still Waters. And with timing worthy of a novel, last week Literary Arts Inc. announced that Blackbird is a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards' nonfiction book of the year.
But not everything is rosy for this Portland writer. Her former stepbrother has come forward with allegations that key sections of Blackbird are gross exaggerations of the struggles of their shared childhood. The charges reveal one of the worst-hidden secrets in publishing: Memoirs don't have to be true.
It is undeniable that Lauck, 37, did not have an idyllic childhood. Her mother died when she was seven, her father two years later. His death left her under the charge of a hated stepmother, whom she calls "Deb" in Blackbird. Years later, her only remaining family member, her older brother, killed himself.
Blackbird is the story of the early years. It describes not only the pain of losing both parents but also how her stepmother literally deserted Lauck, leaving the little girl to fend for herself in a religious commune. Lauck's vivid recollections of the details of her life struck a chord with sympathetic readers.
Even Oprah, the fairy godmother of contemporary literature was moved to have Lauck on her show last year, not as part of Winfrey's book-club brigade, but, perhaps even more honorably, as a victim made good. Last October Lauck appeared on an episode titled "I Was an Abandoned Child," joining a Vietnam orphan and a man who had been found on the steps of a hospital as a crack-addicted baby.
Winfrey raved about Lauck's book and told the audience, "What happens next is almost unthinkable. Jennifer says her stepmother joined a religious group, abandoning her at the church's commune in central L.A.... It's beautifully written. I wish I would have chosen it for the book club."
According to Jonathan Lantry, however, Lauck's account of her childhood may make tear-inducing material for a daytime TV audience, but it's not the real story. A carpenter who lives in Lodi, Calif., Lantry is the son of Lauck's stepmother and lived with Lauck for three years. He has no personal knowledge of the details of her life before and after she left his family, but he says a number of events described in Blackbird are written to make her story more tragic than it actually was. It's true that Lauck's parents died when she was young and it's true that her life with Lantry's mother was unusual and difficult, he says, but it was not the Dickensian tale Lauck lays out.
"She went on Oprah Winfrey and accused my mother of a felony," says Lantry, who has not seen Lauck since 1975. "I know her pain is legitimate, but her memory is not."
Lantry says Lauck changed names and made up composite characters out of his family, stretching the truth to such a degree the book should be recategorized from memoir to a fictionalized account of her childhood.
He provided WW dozens of events and descriptions from Blackbird that he disputes. A number of them are minor, such as how much the family dog cost, the color of her father's car or the names of the towns they lived in. But others make up some of the key scenes in the memoir.
* Lauck writes that at the age of 11 she was abandoned by her stepmother at a Los Angeles religious commune called the Freedom Community Church. During the months she was there, she writes that she did not see her stepmother or siblings or even knew where they were. Eventually, in the memoir, she stops going to school and instead wanders the streets of Los Angeles alone, returning each night to an houseful of strangers.
"Is this where we are going to live?" I whisper.
Deb moves her face down and puts her green eyes on my face.
"Not we," Deb says, "you."
"What?" I say.
Deb holds her arms up to the windows and smiles.
"Home sweet home," Deb says. "Your home."
"You're leaving me here?" I say.
Deb moves forward, one foot back, and it's her mannequin pose, all hips and elbows.
"It's what you want," Deb says, "to be alone. You're getting what you want."...
"But," I say, "how long do I have to stay here?"
"That is up to you," Deb says....
"How will I know where to go?" I say.
Deb snaps her fingers in the air.
"Figure it out," Deb says. "It's called survival."
According to Lantry, there was no "Freedom Community Church." Instead it was the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center. After Lauck's father died, Lantry's mother (who declined to speak to WW) did move the family into an unconventional communal living situation with the Scientologists for about four months. But, he says, Lauck was not abandoned. The family members did split up, living in rooms in houses that were in a six-block radius from each other. But the children attended school together, the family went on trips together and his mother never abrogated her responsibility as a parent. His sister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirms his account.
Lantry says the house that Lauck lived in served as the mess hall and nursery for church members. He says that Lauck even worked in the nursery with his mother at times. "I saw her every day at breakfast and dinner" except for two weeks when he was at a distant church facility, he says. "She saw my mother every day, too."
* In the book, Lauck writes that, after months of fending for herself, her stepmother reenters her life and abruptly orders her to join the family at a new house on Figuero Street. In one of the more heart-wrenching passages in the book, Lauck describes her efforts to carry a set of bedroom furniture that her deceased father gave her to her new home.
It's twelve blocks, eight stoplights, and people look at me like I'm crazy.... Over my shoulder, I carry two metal bars that hold my mattress up. I carry them twelve blocks, eight stoplights.... I slide the box spring with my fingers curled under the wood frame, one end dragging over city cement. I drag my box spring twelve blocks, eight stoplights.... That's the way it is all day.
Lantry says Lauck had been living at 845 South Lake Street. The family moved to 929 South Lake Street, he says, which meant Lauck moved a distance of less than one block, not 12. He also claims that his mother hired church staff members to move the furniture. While he does not remember seeing them move Lauck's princess bedroom set, the idea that she moved it herself, he says, is ludicrous.
* In Blackbird, Lauck writes that when she lived with "Deb," her stepmother forced her to join the Blue Angels, a running club that was coached by Don DeNoon. Lauck writes of grueling training sessions that last for eight miles.
Deb stands with a bunch of other moms and waves her hands around in the air the way she does when she talks.
I wish Deb would just go home.
"We've got eight miles ahead of us, team," Coach Don says, "four long distance, four in wind sprints."
Lantry says Lauck did join the Blue Angels with the rest of her siblings, but that her description of the workouts was exaggerated. WW located DeNoon, who is living in Florida after his recent retirement as cross-country coach for Southern Illinois University. He remembered Lauck because one of her stepsisters was a national champion runner, but he said he never conducted training sessions for children that were eight miles long. The longest would have been half that distance.
Lantry took his claims to Lauck and her editors and said if Blackbird continued to be promoted as a nonfiction memoir, he would take his claims public. When they brushed him off, he says, he began contacting media. He started with Oregonian columnist Steve Duin, who had written a glowing column about Lauck.
"Blackbird is told from the point of view of the child who is watching everything that matters disappear in a broken promise or a hearse," Duin wrote last February. "It is the childhood memories of a childhood few could survive.... If her book is as genuine as its author, it should prove enduring company."
Duin wasn't interested in Lantry's story. "For now, I decided a review of the new book was the way to go," he told WW last week. (Two weeks ago, The Oregonian published a scorching, Duin-penned review headlined, "Where Blackbird soared, narrator drowns in self-pity of Still Waters.")
Lantry then contacted WW.
He is not the first to raise questions about the accuracy of Lauck's memory. "Consider that Lauck has said in interviews that until recently she didn't remember the specifics of these events," Jodi Kanter wrote in a New York Times book review last December. "Ungracious as it sounds, reading this kind of recovered narrative is like listening to testimony from a child-abuse survivor whose dormant memories have surfaced after many years. You want to trust the victim, but it's hard to eliminate suspicion that what you hear may not be entirely accurate."
Lauck wrote back to the Times disputing the challenge to the book's accuracy. "Blackbird," she wrote, "is the result of a lifelong journey and conscientious research. Any suggestion of a lack of credibility is unsubstantiated and artistically offensive."
When contacted by WW and asked about her stepbrother's charges, she offered a different defense of the book, saying that while Blackbird may not represent Truth with a capital T, it represents what she called "her truth."
"My full obligation is not to get it right," she says, "but to, in fact, get my truth right."
At the same time, Lauck has made much of the fact that she comes from a journalistic background. She was a television reporter in Spokane, Wash., from 1987 to 1989, then moved to Portland and worked as a producer for KATU-TV. "I think my responsibility as a writer is to be as fair and to be as honest and to be as moral as possible," she told WW, "even more moral than I was as a reporter."
Lauck explains that, while the first section of her book was created by laying her own memories over the medical records of her deceased mother, the second section, which involves her stepfamily, was written differently.
"I started studying the creative aspect of writing to continue on with the memory and to purely trust this little girl's voice to tell me the story," she says.
Today, Lauck acknowledges that she saw members of her family during her stay at the commune (though only a few times). "Yes, I didn't write every single little detail," she says. "It's not interesting. It's not necessary. It doesn't mean that the story is not true and it doesn't have merit."
Lauck also says that she moved her bedroom furniture by herself.
"I did not exaggerate," she says.
While she can't recall exactly where the new house was actually located, she is sure she dragged her furniture more than one block.
"Was it 10 blocks or eight blocks?" says Lauck. "Was it seven blocks or 12 blocks? You know what? I wrote it as I remembered it, and I did the best I could possibly do."
As for how far her running workouts were, Lauck says she doesn't know or care.
"I just don't see a huge amount of import in the difference between four miles and eight miles." she says. "I don't think we didn't run eight miles. So what am I going to say, that memory's not right, now I have to rush off and go check this with somebody else? I didn't write that kind of book. That would be a different book completely."
On the surface, the differences between Blackbird and Lantry's account may seem trivial. But Lantry's challenge is more than a public he-said, she-said between family members. It raises the question of what exactly memoirs should be. They are not autobiographies, but they are not novels. They are labeled nonfiction, but they are not quite true. Memoirists are allowed gross liberties with their memories, mixing and matching with imagination to approximate a truth that makes a good story. Some say such a technique should be labeled fiction. Others say it offers readers an even greater truth.
Sallie Tisdale is an essayist whose books include The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, about the human relationship with food, and Talk Dirty to Me. In the recent issue of the literary magazine Tin House, Tisdale described how she, too, has come under fire from her family about her accounting of their childhood--but for her impressions and opinions, not for verifiable facts of geography. When she teaches writing classes, she tells students that composite characters, location changes and event rewrites are the stuff of fiction, not memoirs.
Tisdale has not read Blackbird and would not comment on it directly, but she says there are plenty of memoirs on the shelves that are so fanciful she calls them fiction.
"In some ways some of these are good books, and some of them are a good read," she says. "I've never understood why writers are not willing to simply say this is just a story."
Portland cartoonist John Callahan's memoir, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, was published in 1989. He says he was so determined that his grim life story be accurate that he not only taped oral histories with family members but hired researchers to check the facts.
"My memory was faulty," says Callahan, whose strip runs in WW. "I wanted to be as truthful as possible, just for decency's sake."
New York agent Richard Pine, who represents a number of Portland writers, says, "A lot of people are writing memoirs because they had a twisted childhood and they are trying to make their lives feel good."
It's important, he claims, that these books be as accurate as other works of nonfiction. If memory is faulty or names are changed to protect both innocent and not, Pine says the book should carry a disclaimer.
"You don't say eight miles if you don't know," he says. "You say, 'I ran what felt like forever.' This is not a gray area. If you write that on March 14, two people walked down the street and met a man who sold them a red hat, that better be what happened."
Brian Booth, Portland's lawyerly literary godfather, founded the Oregon Book Awards in 1986. While not currently affiliated with the organization, he is an institution in the Portland arts community. "I think there is a whole credibility gap in this genre if you're going to make up a memoir and call it nonfiction and let people read it for that, if you're dreaming up these semi-sensational memoirs," he says. "It reminds me of false memory syndrome."
"I do not mind about names being changed in a memoir, but dates, locations and other details I do expect to be true," writes one Blackbird fan contacted by WW after posting a good review on Amazon.com. "If the commune experience and the bedroom-suite experiences are not as reported in the book, then perhaps that actually makes the book fiction," the reader wrote in an email interview. "The image of her carrying the bedroom furniture is so harrowing (which of course makes it effective) that it happening in a different way would certainly change my (and I would think any reader's) perception of the events in the book."
To others, fact-checking on memoirs is the worst kind of literal and small-minded nitpicking: Of course Mary Karr manufactured dialogue in The Liars' Club, they argue, and Angela's Ashes is an obvious literary interpretation of Frank McCourt's life. Defenders of the figurative truth say such leeway is crucial to the form.
Lauck's editor at Pocket Books, Kim Kemmer, said she did no fact-checking of her own, trusting that Lauck was telling the truth. She still believes that she is.
"This is the story of Jennifer's childhood as she remembers it. The truth she yearned to tell was the story of how she felt at that time and what it was like," she says. "It's an emotional story that has touched hundreds of thousands of people. As opposed to biography and autobiography, where the ultimate goal is the obvious linear truth, the ultimate goal of memoir is something much more emotional and creative and interpretive."
Tom Spanbauer, the author of The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon and this year's In the City of Shy Hunters, is the head of Portland's Dangerous Writers, of which Fight Club writer Chuck Palahniuk is an alum. He took Lauck into his circle in spite of the fact he'd never worked on a memoir before. Fiction, he is often quoted as saying, is the lie that tells a greater truth.
"I told Jennifer that what's really true for her may not be factually true. Something might have taken 2.5 instead of two years to happen, but what's important is that the emotional truth is there. Besides, as soon as you open your mouth, you start lying. Writing is an interpretation of an experience."
David Shields, who teaches writing at the University of Washington, says that arguments about truth in memoir miss the essence of the genre. He has written a memoir, Remote, and in the spring will publish Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography.
The actual distance Lauck moved her furniture would matter only to a journalist or a historian, says Shields. What matter more are the emotions that surfaced for the writer when she conjures the event up to memory or its meaning to her larger story.
"The moment you start to remember and compose, you are in the realm of the imagination," he says. "I reject the distinction that there is this very fabulous thing called fiction and this other thing called nonfiction, and if we slap a memoir label on it, a story must be absolutely true."
It is evident that Lauck took some liberties with her new book, Still Waters, but it isn't clear whether they are as significant as those in Blackbird.
Much of it is set in the fictional town of St. Helens, Wash., and describes her life after being saved from her stepmother. It recounts her teenage years with her father's sister, whom she correctly identifies as Marge in the first book but changes to Peg in the second. She writes of years of loneliness living with her cold aunt, who, she charges, adopted her in order to get the Social Security and Veterans Administration benefits left from her dead father. In Still Waters, Lauck marries young; moves away and starts her life afresh, first in Spokane and then Montana; divorces; comes to Portland; marries again and is finally happy.
Lauck's ex-husband, Jeff Means, lives in a suburb of Spokane. Last summer, Lauck visited him while she was on tour for Blackbird. She read him part of Still Waters, a section where the two meet while students at Spokane Community College. She wanted to make sure it was true, he says, and he agreed it was.
What she didn't read him was a scene later in the book where she has a final showdown with Peg about moving out of the house to live with him. In the book, he is there, a silent witness to the family drama.
"She didn't read me that part," he says. "I wasn't even there that night. If she'd read me that, I would have said to her, 'Now Jenny, you know that isn't true."
--Marianne Reid contributed to this report.
Lauck says that she graduated from Montana State University in Billings. MSU confirms her attendance from the fall of 1985 to the fall of 1986 but has no record of her receiving a diploma.
Scientology was created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1950.
Memoirs have a long and shady history. The 1977 Academy Award-winning movie Julia was based on playwright Lillian Hellman's memoir Pentimento, which was later discovered to be largely made up.
Nonfiction isn't always non. After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made the finalist list for nonfiction in 1995, questions were raised about the fact that its author, John Berendt, freely admits he made up dialogue to improve the story's flow.
Jennifer Lauck originally intended to write her life story in three book-length installments but has settled on two.
Author Peter Ho Davies hosts the Oregon Book Awards' 15th annual ceremony Thursday, Nov. 8, at the Scottish Rite Center (709 SW 15th Ave., 227-2583). Tickets are $15.
The other OBA finalists for literary nonfiction for 2001 are Larry Colton of Portland, Counting Coup; Chanrithy Him of Eugene, When Broken Glass Floats; Lauren Kessler of Eugene, The Happy Bottom Riding Club; Sidner Larson of Eugene, Captured in the Middle.
Him, originally from Cambodia, has faced controversy for her book as well. Eugene writer Kimber Williams threatened to sue Him, saying that she was a co-writer for the story but was given no credit. The matter was settled out of court with a cash payment and a statement signed by both parties acknowledging Williams' contribution to the book.
Patty Wentz's review of Blackbird appears here www.wweek.com/html/leada100400.html