Reading Between the Lines: The truth about truth

Jerzy Kosinski is a name you don't hear much anymore, but he was a fascinating literary figure. His 1968 book 'Steps' won the National Book Award and was cited by novelist David Foster Wallace as one of five most underappreciated works of fiction since 1960.

February 23, 2006 11:00
3 minute read.
kosinski book 88 298

kosinski book 88 298. (photo credit: )


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A few weeks ago the scandal over James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces reached a fevered pitch. It happened, of course, on what has become the primary arena for American literary happenings: The Oprah Winfrey Show. This was Frey's second visit to Oprahville. The first came in October 2005, when the talk show host invited the former drug addict to usher Pieces into her famed book club. Frey appeared, and with Oprah's stamp of approval, Pieces became the bestselling book of 2005. Yet from the time it was released in 2003, Frey's book had its skeptics, and last month The Smoking Gun, an investigative Web site, published proof that some of Frey's bad behavior was fictionalized. Despite this report, Oprah, originally, stood by her man, calling in to Larry King Live to say that "the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates" and that the scandal was "much ado about nothing." But soon Oprah did an about face, and she called Frey to task on camera. Turning herself into a repentant martyr, Oprah offered her sincerest regrets for implying that, "the truth doesn't matter." "The truth does matter," said Oprah. And why does the truth matter? According to many of the professional moralizers featured during Frey's public flogging, there was an oddly unanimous answer: the Holocaust. Indeed, one of the most surreal and disturbing elements of this whole affair is the way the Holocaust has been used. Once it was revealed that Oprah's next book club selection was Elie Wiesel's Night, some of this was inevitable, even sensible. Wiesel has stressed the importance of memory as a moral force. Obviously for this to apply, memories need to be truthful. But noting the irony of Night's selection and the role it played in Oprah's penitence was not the end of the story. It wasn't even the beginning. Appearing on Larry King, James Frey responded to accusations against him by citing another work of Holocaust literature. "I think you could probably find people who would dispute every memoir that was ever published. And a lot of them have been disputed. When Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird came out and became a big success several years afterwards, people said, 'You know what? Jerzy Kosinski never went through the Holocaust.'" JERZY KOSINSKI is a name you don't hear much anymore, but he was a fascinating literary figure. His 1968 book Steps won the National Book Award and was cited by novelist David Foster Wallace as one of five most underappreciated works of fiction since 1960. In 1971, Kosinski published Being There, which was later made into a film starring Peter Sellers. It was The Painted Bird (1965), however, that launched Kosinski's career. The book details the Holocaust-era wanderings of a young boy who drifts from village to village suffering sadistic brutalities at the hands of the Polish peasantry. Frey mentioned The Painted Bird because Kosinski's authorial integrity was eventually questioned. In 1982, The Village Voice published an article revealing that The Painted Bird did not authentically reflect Kosinski's experiences during the Holocaust. Additionally, Kosinski was accused of plagiarizing from obscure Polish sources. Larry King correctly pointed out the irony of Frey's Kosinski reference: in despair, Kosinski committed suicide in 1991. But King failed to make an even more important point: The Painted Bird was published as fiction, even if Kosinski implied that it had autobiographical inspirations. The Painted Bird - and all of Kosinski's work - is worth revisiting, but Frey's citation of it was ridiculous, and Oprah and her guests further confused matters by continuously bringing their conversation about truth-telling back to the Holocaust. Telling the truth is important, of course, and given the Holocaust deniers out there, telling the truth about the Holocaust may be doubly important. But the Holocaust should not be made into a symbol for truth-telling. Not because it's not important, but because the Holocaust shouldn't be made into a symbol of anything - particularly something inspired by anti-Semitic historical revisionists. Oprah's real disrespect wasn't making it seem like truth didn't matter, it was using the Holocaust for her infomercial about why it does. The writer can be reached at

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