'Pieces' of Essential Truth James Frey continues to stand by the essential truth of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, even as investigators prove that parts of it are false. Humorist Brian Unger -- whose mind has sometimes been described as being in a million little pieces -- searches for meaning in the words, "essential truth."

'Pieces' of Essential Truth

'Pieces' of Essential Truth

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James Frey continues to stand by the essential truth of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, even as investigators prove that parts of it are false. Humorist Brian Unger — whose mind has sometimes been described as being in a million little pieces — searches for meaning in the words, "essential truth."

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And in today's Unger Report, Brian Unger finds the essential truth in the words of three prominent newsmakers.

BRIAN UNGER:

Write James Frey took it on the chin for representing his memoir of "Essential Truth: A Million Little Pieces" as non-fiction when it turns out some of the book's facts are fictional or non-factional. If a non-faction section does appear in a bookstore, Frey's book will look silly on the shelf alone, that is until someone starts fact checking other memoirs. But the essential truth of Frey's book, as he defended it, is, well, truthful aside from the non-essential parts, which apparently are so trivial and patently unessential they're fake. They don't need to be true because they mean nothing. Essentially this is the author's defense, and that is backed up by Oprah Book Club president Oprah.

From out of this mess is a lesson for all writers. If you are writing non-fiction and something is so ridiculously unimportant that it doesn't even matter if it's true, leave it out. This philosophy of essential truth is pervasive in our culture. Not only writers, but politicians, even judges claim to paint an accurate self-portrait by showing us a partial or embellished picture of themselves. Next to oil, America's biggest shortage is honesty. Frey's non-faction seems honest and candid, but if something is essentially true, it places an impossible laborious burden on the consumer to, first, weigh what's essential, then what's true.

Essential truth subordinates truth on a need-to-know basis. Take Ambassador Paul Bremer's "My Year in Iraq," which he promoted on Sunday's "Meet the Press." In this memoir, Bremer details how he privately begged the administration to confront problems of civil breakdown, insufficient troop levels and the insurgency in Iraq. Host Tim Russert challenged Bremer, suggesting Bremer's truth was essentially different when it came to the public.

(Soundbite of "Meet the Press")

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Host): But the America people are in a situation where they, too, deserve honestly. And if you're saying one thing in private and another thing in public, that this is no big deal...

Mr. PAUL BREMER (Author, "My Year in Iraq"): Tim, just a minute. I wasn't saying one thing in private and one thing in public. I was saying in private we've got to get a strategy to defeat the insurgency. I was saying in public effectively we don't really know what we're up against.

UNGER: So the truth about a growing insurgency was essential privately but was effectively unknown, making it unessential publicly. This, of course, is known as effectively unessential truth, therefore calling into question Bremer's book as essential reading.

Without complete honesty, the essential truth about anything can never be known because it is so subjective. In Senate hearings on Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, we learned that in 1985 Alito wrote that he was particularly proud of his legal arguments that the Constitution does not protect the right to an abortion. Candid? Yes. Despite this position he held at the time, Alito told senators on the Judiciary Committee that he would approach abortion issues with an open mind. Truthful? Essentially. And that is essentially today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

BRAND: And the Unger Report is now available as a podcast. Go to npr.org for more information.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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