Christina Crawford, adopted daughter of the late Academy Award-winning actress Joan Crawford, published a memoir about her experience growing up with a woman she portrayed to be emotionally and physically abusive. She published the book a year after her mother died, and three years later an amped-up, overdramatic movie based on the memoir would be released, permanently going hand and hand with Joan Crawford’s reputation just after she was no longer allowed to defend herself.
While the claims Christina Crawford makes against her mother can only be validated by members of the household, two of her adopted siblings have protested against the book’s contents. One of the aforementioned siblings, Cathy LaLonde, went so far as to sue over what she deemed to be blatantly false statements that Christina Crawford had made whilst promoting a new edition of her book.
The issue that I personally take with Mommie Dearest is that it is written with such clear contempt, in a tone that is meant to make the reader want to delve further and further into this hidden Hollywood scandal. Christina Crawford did not show this book to her mother, which is not necessarily required, but in order for a narrator to be reliable, in my opinion, they need to have a certain amount of respect for people whose private moments they will be using in order to further their narrative. The narrator doesn’t need to have forgiven the antagonistic person upon writing the piece, however they ought not delve into the territory of completely slandering a person; nuances are more realistic and more believable and should be included, even if it makes an antagonistic character seem sympathetic when the narrator still hasn’t forgiven them.
A more in-depth look at more incidents involving accuracy among the Crawford family as well as the result of a 1999 court case that Cathy LaLonde filed against Christina Crawford can be found here.
“The standard non-fiction writer’s voice was like the standard announcer’s voice… a drag, a droning…”
“There was no ‘movement.’ There were no manifestos, clubs, salons, cliques; not even a saloon where the faithful gathered, since there was no faith and no creed. At the time, the mid-Sixties, one was aware only that all of a sudden there was some sort of artistic excitement in journalism, and that was a new thing in itself.”
In the introduction to his book The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe discusses how New Journalism came about, and how it overall frustrated the literary world at the time. The thought to include voice, setting, dialogue in non-fiction, let alone in journalism, was simply not an avenue of thought that had been pursued before the 1960’s; journalism was journalism and novels were the peak of literary excellence. The idea of non-fiction and, by proxy, truth, as anything symbolic or captivating lead to resistance in the literary world, and the first few to utilize New Journalism were often accused of making up the details they’d noted, making up the dialogue they included.
While sticklers for accuracy and truth would still push this issue and would claim that fabricated dialogue or setting description moves a piece straight into the realm of fiction, I personally wouldn’t agree. The truth is important, especially if the label of non-fiction is to be placed on a piece, and events should absolutely not be fabricated lest you lose the reader’s trust. However, if there’s a way to make the reading easier, or a way to make a scene stick in the reader’s mind without diminishing the truth in any way (i.e. adding bits of dialogue to facilitate the movement of the piece better or changing setting details for the same sort of reason), then there is no harm in pursuing that form of reporting. It makes the content more easily digestible, more impactful, and avoids the pitfall of a “droning” voice. Above all, it gives the writer more freedom to express their observations and does away with the often paralyzing fear of misremembering slight particulars, and that sort of freedom tends to result in great, fresh writing.