There are Memoirs and Then There is the Truth

Last fall I worked with a class on how to be information literate when it comes to biographical sources. Autobiographies, biographies, and memories are often filled with half-truths, altered-truths, or none-truths (lies). It is a matter of getting students to figure out the author’s bias and when to be critical of what they are reading.

Information literacy is about making savvy information consumers. In the literature there are lots of examples of hoax websites that get cited over and over again. While they can make for a fun day in the classroom, most online examples are laughably obvious. Websites like: Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus or RYT Hospital. The truly dangerous and hard to identify stuff comes from professionals in the field, academics, and popularized researchers: Those who publish “real” books through “real” publishers.  Examples of this nature make students stop laughing and sit up.

The example that I use in my classes is that of Stephen Ambrose; the popular historian that every American has heard of, if not read. In the April 26, 2010 New Yorker, the article Channelling Ike lays out a detailed case for made up interviews and facts in Ambrose’s biographical books on the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the Slate, the article The Plagiarist: Why Stephen Ambrose is a Vampire explores his long history of plagiarism.

National Public Radio (NPR)  aired a piece last week on memoirs and their “murkey” nature. Entitled ‘Tea’ Debacle Reflects The Murky Waters Of Memoirs,1 this piece explores a broad range of current authors who’s memories are faulty. NPR followed this up with a piece that explores the responsibility of the publisher when it comes to the facts.2 (See below to hear both.)  Some authors are much more interested in a good story than the facts, that is something we all need to keep in mind.


‘Tea’ Debacle Reflects The Murky Waters Of Memoirs


Vetting Memoirs A Tricky Problem For Publishers:NPR

  1. Neda Ulaby. (2011, April 19). ‘Tea’ Debacle Reflects The Murky Waters Of Memoirs : NPR. National Public Radio. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from
  2. Talk of the Nation. (2011, April 25). Vetting Memoirs A Tricky Problem For Publishers : NPR. National Public Radio. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from