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In Which I Confess to a Corrosive Skepticism

When I read this excerpt from James Lasdun’s new memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, my first thought was simply: I don’t believe this story.

My second thought was: What a terrible person I must be, to doubt someone who has gone through such a nightmare.

My third thought was: But I can’t command my belief. And I can’t command it largely because of the trail of discredited memoirs that litter our recent literary landscape, from the fabricated Holocaust memoir of “Benjamin Wilkomirski” to the absurdly exaggerated tales of James Frey — and even to the baldface lies of Lance Armstrong. When I see that someone has published a memoir, my default assumption now is that it’s a pile of self-serving falsehoods. And I have found it increasingly difficult to achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary even to make it through such a narrative. I rarely read memoirs any more.

If even a small part of Lasdun’s story of being stalked mercilessly by a deranged former student is true, then he has suffered horribly, and it would be a bitterly ironic addition to his suffering to be disbelieved — and indeed his straightforward reckoning with inevitable skepticism is part of his story. And as a friend on Twitter said when I admitted my skepticism, if there is even the slightest bit of truth to the accusations “Nasreen” has been making against Lasdun over the years then it is deeply unwise for him to be calling our attention to the story — but then, I reflect, we often find ourselves responding to the revelation that someone’s tale is fabricated by the same incredulous questions: “Didn’t you realize that you’d be caught? Why in the world did you think you’d get away with it?” Or we just let Oprah ask those questions for us, as she has done in confronting Frey and Armstrong. Fabricators seem never to anticipate being caught; they weave their tales in blissful disregard of the consequences. (Else they would never be believed in the first place.)

Frey’s editor, Nan Talese, eventually admitted that she had done nothing to confirm the veracity of Frey’s narrative, and editors of other memoirs have admitted the same practice — but isn’t it time for that to change? I look at the publisher’s page for Ladsun’s book and wish that it contained something, anything, to tell me why they believe his story to be true. Did they fact-check any of his claims? If so, how? Presumably they would want to avoid the humiliation inflicted on previous publishers — or was the lure of a powerful story beautifully written too strong to resist, as it has been so often in the past?

Perhaps I am alone, or nearly alone, in being so suspicious. I see that Scott Bradfield’s review of Lasdun in the New York Times Book Review accepts the truthfulness of the account without even the hint of a question. Am I just horribly cynical? If you think so, then ask yourself this: How surprised would you be if you learned, a year from now, that Lasdun had fabricated the whole story?

Let me be clear: I do not think Ladsun is lying. If I had to bet, I’d bet that he’s generally telling the truth about what happened to him. But I am not sufficiently confident about this that I would buy, or even read, his book.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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