How often have you seen the term “Based on a true story”? It costs nothing to slap that onto the front of a book or movie when, in reality, the barest shred of truth is in the narrative. Heck, if the Amityville Horror can use that claim, anyone can. Still, I had a few qualms when it came to writing a book based not only on true events but the gruesome massacre of an entire family.
Would someone be offended by what I wrote? Am I just exploiting someone else’s tragedy for fun and profit? Curious, I went looking for accusations of exploiting tragedies in pop culture.
First thoughts ran to that old TV titan Law & Order, where the plots were routinely ‘ripped from the headlines’ to run their cops and lawyers through their paces. Although the writers were addressing bigger social issues raised by headline crime, the show was routinely accused of cutting too close to source material such as the Nicole Simpson murder, the Eliot Spitzer scandal and the Menendez brothers. Some victims of crimes recognized their own story on Law & Order and sued the show but the producers were shielded behind that handy disclaimer that this ‘is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental’. Interesting sidebar to Canucks; no less than three separate episodes invoked the crimes of Paul Bernado and Karla Homolka.
In the world of fiction, the first incident that sprang to mind was the brouhaha raised around James Frey’s admission that he had embellished his bestselling, Oprah-approved memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Although Frey was exploiting his own misery for gain, it was Oprah Winfrey who felt exploited and called Frey to the carpet for a public admonition on her show.
Seems small potatoes now, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t embellish their own stories? What is a writer if not a crafty liar? Jenny Rough, writing on the subject for Writer’s Digest cut to the core with a timely question. “Why do memoirists say truth is stranger than fiction, while novelists say fiction brings out greater truths?”
Maybe it comes down to the ability of the writer to transcend the tragic catalyst for their story. Irish-Canuck author Emma Donoghue’s novel Room was inspired by a modern-day horror story but the book ended up a finalist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Like the rest of us, Donoghue sat gobsmacked at the crimes of Josef Fritzl who locked his daughter, Elizabeth, in a basement for 24 years, raped her repeatedly and fathered her seven children – three of whom he imprisoned with her.
“A lot of people made out I was writing this sinister, money-making book to exploit the grief of victims,” she told The Guardian. “I was thinking, it's not like that, but no one will know until they read it." Rather than the sordid details of the crime, it was the human consequences that drew Donoghue in. "To say Room is based on the Fritzl case is too strong," she explained. "I'd say it was triggered by it. The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl [Elisabeth's son], aged five, emerging into a world he didn't know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me."
Framing the story through the POV of a five-year old boy trapped inside the prison, Donoghue removed any semblance to the real life horror story of Josef Fritzl, allowing her to craft the story she wanted to tell. "My conscience wasn't troubled," she says. "I knew that by sticking to the child's-eye perspective there'd be nothing voyeuristic about it.” Donoghue had her writerly sights aimed at something bigger than the tabloid headlines of the true story; the relationship between parent and child. “The idea was to focus on the primal drama of parenthood: the way from moment to moment you swing from comforter to tormentor, just as kids simultaneously light up our lives and drive us nuts.”
Lionel Shriver came to a similar conclusion about We Need to Talk about Kevin, her stunning novel about a detached mother whose son commits a Colombine-like school massacre. “I had already begun the book when the headlines from Denver hit - overshadowing the raft of similar shootings that led up to it,” she wrote in The Guardian. “Nevertheless, I imagined that the commercial "hook" would be its school-massacre climax. Post-publication, I discovered that, if anything, this element was a turn-off. Numerous readers have shared their initial reluctance to muck into this sickening subject matter, and I don't blame them. Instead it's the subject of parenthood that's proven the hook.”
Art Spiegelman took huge risks re-imagining the Holocaust for his graphic novel Maus, but the story was spurred by his father’s experience as an actual survivor of the camps. His risk garnered him a Pulitzer prize. Contrast that to Yann Martel, former literary golden boy for The Life of Pi, who was ripped a new one by critics for exploiting the Holocaust in his 2010 novel Beatrice & Virgil. The problem? He wasn’t Jewish. Martel chafed at being unqualified to write on the subject of the largest mass murder in human history. Bluntly told that he had no business writing about the subject, Martel responded "The tragedy of the Holocaust wasn't exclusively Jewish. It was non-Jews who did it. It was an act of two groups, so it's not just for Jews to be expert on the Holocaust.”
Author Lynn Crosbie was all but tarred and feathered when she published Paul’s Case, a work of fiction based on the infamous killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. One newspaper columnist threatened to scratch her eyes out, another sued her and a radio host gave out the address of her publisher, encouraging his listeners to ‘express their outrage’ in person. Crosbie rejected the charge of sensationalism.“I degrade Bernardo and Homolka so completely in the book that neither of them emerge in any way unscathed,” she stated. “They're very much reduced, I think, rather than made mythic.” Interestingly, Crosbie’s next novel was also based on a true crime. Dorothy L’Amour is written as a memoir by Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy Playmate murdered by her lover in 1980. And the accusations of exploitation and sensationalism this time? Zip. Hardly a peep.
Maybe it’s simply a matter of obscurity or the appropriate passage of time. In my own case, time helped. The events that inspired Killing Down the Roman Line occurred over a century ago in a small Ontario town. Still, leery of offending any descendants of that tragedy the principal names and set the story in a fictional town.
More than that was the story. I wasn’t writing non-fiction and didn’t want to be shackled by history. Fictionalizing the story allowed me to follow the narrative and dramatize the themes I wanted to explore. So far, there hasn’t been any outcries of exploitation but it’s still early days yet.
“Writers,” Emma Donoghue told the Guardian, “should be applauded for their ability to make things up."