Based on a True Story
Ben Mezrich's BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, the basis of this weekend's
top movie release 21, is a good story, but it's not exactly a true
story. The Boston Globe says the book "is not a work of 'nonfiction'
in any meaningful sense of the word. Instead of describing events as
they happened, Mezrich appears to have worked more as a collage
artist, drawing some facts from interviews, inventing certain others,
and then recombining these into novel scenes that didn't happen and
characters who never lived. The result is a crowd-pleasing story,
eagerly marketed by his publishers as true - but which several of the
students who participated say is embellished beyond recognition."
Among the many people contacted by the Globe is MIT grad John Chang,
one of the inspirations for the character Micky Rosa, the teacher and
team leader in the story. "I don't even know if you want to call the
things in there exaggerations, because they're so exaggerated they're
basically untrue," Chang says.
The book has always carried a copyright page disclaimer "warning that
the names, locations, and other details had been changed, and that
some events and individuals are composites, created from other events
and individuals." The paper adds, "Nearly all the details and facts
in the book were culled from his research, Mezrich says, and where
they were compressed or creatively rearranged, the fundamental truth
of the story he tells is undiminished.... Yet Mezrich freely admits
that only one of the book's main characters is based on a single
actual person.... Whatever readers expect from a work of nonfiction,
it is unlikely to be this."
The Globe itself has used disclaimers in publishing work by Mezrich,
including a 2004 Globe Magazine article that called his piece
"imaginatively enhanced nonfiction."
On the subject of composite characters and altered timelines, Norton
Robert Weil says, "I just am not comfortable with that, and I can't
recall a case where I've done it." Dominick Anfuso, editorial
director at Free Press, which published Mezrich's book, said some of
those changes were driven by "an obvious need for privacy of some of
the people involved." At the same time, Anfuso says, "I don't think
you should make the plot more exciting at the expense of truthfulness, ever."
The paper says: "Mezrich's response to these specifics is to say that
everything he describes is accurate, only that it didn't necessarily
happen to the people, in the places, or at the times it occurs in the
book. He had to change things, he says, in part to protect the
identities of the people he wrote about. But he also admits that, as
he puts it, 'I took literary license to make it readable.'
"'The idea that the story is true,' he adds, 'is more important than
being able to prove that it's true.'"
There are any number of things in there that might be labelled "money quotes"; here's an example that makes my head spin:
"[the author's] response ... is to say that everything he describes is accurate, only that it didn't necessarily happen to the people, in the places, or at the times it occurs in the
So things happened to people in places and at times. These things were real, and accurate. Then the author comes in and puts the entire thing in a literary blender, mixes it all up (in order, apparently, as he maintains in the article, to "protect the identity" of the people, times and places involved), and the resulting dog's breakfast of facts, people, places and times is STILL supposed to be labelled as... accurate? As truthful? As a work of NON-FICTION?
First Frey. Then that woman who grew up as a white middle class princess and wrote a "memoir" of running with a street gang.
Why do we fiction writers bother twisting our brains into pretzels to invent stories? It seems that the "memoir writers" are taking over that niche...