Review: “Justifiable Conduct: Self-Vindication in Memoir” by Erich Goode

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Discussed in this review: Justifiable Conduct: Self-Vindication in Memoir by Erich Goode. Temple University Press, May 2013, 224 pages. Buy at Temple UP or Amazon.

Done something most people would consider deplorable or contemptible? No problem: write a memoir.  “That some – or many – members of the society violate one or more of its norms, or those of its constituent collectivities, is hardly news. That people who do so blab at length about their transgressions, and on the scale that currently prevails, is a fairly recent development.” This blabbing is an understudied phenomenon, according to the sociologist Erich Goode. He examines the transgressive memoir in his new book, Justifiable Conduct: Self-Vindication in Memoir.

Goode does not, for the most part, examine memoirs by those who have been tripped up in scandal and who are forced to explain their actions so as to try to wheedle their way back into society’s good graces. Rather, many of Goode’s subjects are perfectly content in their deviance. He says, “This book focuses on the process by which autobiographers and memoirists explain, justify, exculpate, excuse, and warrant their putatively untoward, transgressive, non-normative behavior.” Whereas some celebrity memoirists try to say, “I am not the evil person you think I am,” many of the memoirists Goode discusses take the attitude, “I am pretty much the slimy or troubled person you think I am, but that is not a huge problem and you need to get over it and like me anyway.”

Basics of the Book

Justifiable Conduct
“Justifiable Conduct: Self-Vindication in Memoir” by Erich Goode

Goode examines a cluster of American memoirs, most of them dating circa 2000 and most of them fairly well known. Among the memoirists he discusses are Susan Cheever, Roman Polanski, Charles Van Doren, and Elia Kazan. The memoirs he covers grapple with issues such as alcoholism, accusations of child sexual abuse, cheating on game shows, long-term incarceration, criminality, the mafia ethos, and cooperating with congressional committees (which Goode seems to regard as transgressive if it entails “naming names”).

Goode tells us that the aim of his book is to discuss the fact that, “not all persons who have offended others think that they have done anything wrong – nonetheless, they know that others about whom, presumably, they care in one way or another will object to what they did and said.” He employs the theory of deviance neutralization to discuss his chosen memoirs. That is a useful term to know – we seem to be living in an age when anything becomes acceptable, provided a memoirist is persuasive enough and reviewers are brought on board by the memoirists and their flacks.

Memoirs Make and Unmake the Man

Goode makes the point that memoirs are often written by people not otherwise notable up to that point and that the memoir itself results in the kind of fame that the memoirist could only have dreamt of in his or her early obscurity. Goode writes, “If adroitly spun out, a memoir, unlike an autobiography, transcends fame and even accomplishment; it is the book more than the life that attracts the reader. A well-written memoir may render its writer noteworthy and accomplished.” Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is an example of a memoir that came from a person not particularly well known up to that point.

Or, in the case of James Frey and his fabricated “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, the book  created the fame and exposure erupted shortly thereafter. In that case, the memoir came first and the infamy followed.

Sometimes a memoir can be mined for evidence of fabrication and thus general dishonesty after rumors arise about malfeasance in the running of, say, a nonprofit, as happened in the case of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea.

Much the same sort of downfall, though on a more spectacular scale, occurred to Lance Armstrong, to the extent that a group of readers filed suit contending that they had been duped into buying Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, by his protestations that he had never engaged in blood doping and other sorts of not so kosher performance-enhancing activities.

Thus, sometimes, a memoir can be the making of a man. Sometimes, it can lead to or facilitate his undoing. In Mortenson’s case, it was both.

And sometimes a writer can be castigated for writing a piece of fiction designed to exculpate his transgressions instead of simply writing a memoir, as in the case of serial fabricator Stephen Glass and his novel, The Fabulist. What a strange world this is, in which a noted liar is criticized for writing fiction about his real-life lies instead of telling the truth about them in a nonfiction form.

Goode discusses Frey at length but not Glass, Armstrong, or Mortenson – probably because Glass did not present his novel as a memoir, and Mortenson’s and Armstrong’s books portrayed the two men as upstanding individuals and not as “non-normative” and were published before the you-know-what hit the fan, not in reaction to the resulting uproar. Also, Goode is interested mostly in memoirists who are somewhat proud of their own deviance.

If you spend much time on Twitter, you get used to brouhahas and the rush into the fray by fans and friends in defense of the person being attacked (the latest being Woody Allen over accusations of child abuse allegedly involving his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow). So many tweets by so many partisans on both sides. I thought of all of this as I read Goode’s comments on James Frey, “Accused of lying and exaggerating, he indirectly expresses defiance in the face of withering attacks by his critics – by using his readers’ voices in his website and blogs.” Twitter is now the place where defiance is often orchestrated indirectly.

A So-So Reaction to the Book

Would I strongly recommend that you read this book? No, I would not go that far. If I were asked to sum up its main argument it would be something like, “Um, many memoirists make excuses about the various wrongs they have done and blame family or society as a whole for their own personal flaws.” That is pretty much the book, as far as I could tell.

Also, Goode uses “deviant” to cover such a broad swath of writers and periods that the term loses all meaning (he discusses, among others, Jack London, Norman Podhoretz, Pete Hamill, Jordan Belfort, and Jack Henry Abbott). Much of the book consists of Goode’s retelling of the gist of the memoirs of such figures with his own first-person versions of what he argues they actually meant in certain passages. And given that many of these people engaged in substance-fueled tawdriness, a little of this goes a long way.

An okay book, but it’s not the last word on memoirs.