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My Daughter Lied in her Memoir

November 17, 2014
(image via wikimedia)

(image via wikimedia)

“I’m sorry for your loss,” my oldest daughter’s English teacher said to me after I introduced myself to her during Literacy Night at the local junior high.  The teacher seemed earnest, and her statement caught me off guard.

“Thank you,” I said hesitantly, out of politeness, as I thought: what loss?

I glanced at my daughter and noticed that her face was reddening, and she looked around the hallway at other parents and students wandering around the classroom.

I felt that asking about my loss would lead to an uncomfortable moment, and I do whatever is possible to avoid uncomfortable moments, so I moved on to another topic.  My daughter’s grades were good, the teacher said, she was a wonderful writer, and she talked a little too much in class.  That sounded about right, but I was curious about the loss I had suffered.

As we exited the teacher’s classroom, I asked my daughter, “Do you know what your teacher was talking about when she said she was sorry for my loss?”

“Yes,” she said, and then kept walking quietly, ignoring a couple of her friends waving at her.

I paused, annoyed (but I nodded at other parents and pretended everything was okay).  I knew I shouldn’t have to ask a follow-up question, but I did anyway.

“Would you please tell me why your teacher said she was sorry for my loss?” I asked.

Instead of explaining, she reached into her folder/portfolio and handed me her memoir assignment from a couple weeks ago.

When I read her memoir (I leaned against a set of lockers so nobody could sneak up from behind me), I learned that my daughter had a younger brother named Steve who died from a horrible disease when he was six.  I had never heard of the disease (just as I had never heard of my son Steve), but my daughter had the details down.  If there’s one thing that the internet is good for, it’s finding out horrible details about horrible diseases, and my daughter seemed to have done her research.  She described the disease, the effects on Steve’s ravaged body, how much she missed Steve, all the memories that she shared with him during his final weeks, and how much she would miss him.  She even wrote about how she keeps Steve’s favorite teddy bear on her bed with her to remember him.  It was heartbreaking, and I might have shed a tear if I had thought it was true.

“Your teacher believed this?” I said.

My daughter was new to the school, so her teachers wouldn’t know any better.  I found out later that the English teacher had shown the memoir to other teachers, and that they had cried over it in the faculty lounge.  I was jealous.  Nobody has ever cried over my writing, except me, in frustration.

It was my fault that my daughter lied in her memoir.  A couple weeks earlier, I had read her first version where she had described overcoming her fears on a rollercoaster ride.  It was well-written and funny (and true), but I told her that a lot of other students probably wrote similar stories.  My daughter’s English teacher probably read dozens of amusement park stories every year.  According to an English teacher friend of mine, this is what happens when you tell teenagers to write about a memory; amusement parks, concerts, and video games are what teenagers remember.

During the drive home, I explained to my daughter that it was wrong to manipulate people’s emotions like that.  I didn’t mention James Frey and how Oprah Winfrey felt betrayed and then got revenge on her TV show because even normal non-Oprah-like people don’t like to be manipulated.  It was probably fun to do as a writer, but that English teacher will influence her grade for the rest of the year and may (or may not) write recommendations to certain high schools or colleges.  Plus, outright lying in a memoir is wrong.

Her English teacher gave her a very good score for her memoir (the highest grade possible), but I don’t know how much of that was a pity score.  A teacher can’t give a bad grade to a student who writes about a sibling who died from a horrible disease.  It’s probably taught in English teacher college (if a student writes about the death of a family member, that student gets an automatic bereavement A).

I don’t want my daughter to get a pity grade.  It teaches her a bad lesson.  So I told my daughter that she has to confess.  She can choose the method of confession.  She can talk to the teacher.  She can write a note to the teacher.  And she has to accept whatever consequence her teacher decides for her. If her teacher decides to give retaliatory bad grades the rest of the year, that’s my daughter’s fault, and she has to accept it.

“I’m proud of you,” I said, giving my daughter a quick hug when we returned home.  Despite not having suffered much personal loss in her life yet, my daughter had described the grief very convincingly.  I had to give her credit for that.  “Now don’t do it again.  And you have to tell your mom.”

That conversation went better than expected.  My wife is far more honest than I am (which isn’t saying much), and I had expected lots of lecturing about honesty and trust. Instead, when my wife read the memoir, she handed it back quickly to my daughter and said:

“Thank you for not killing me in your story.”

*****

What do you think?  Should I worry about a daughter who lies in her own memoir?  Should junior high students write memoirs?  What should students write about if the only memories they have are amusement park rides?  If you had ever had to write a memoir for school, what would you have written about?

43 Comments
  1. killer post

  2. Well, at the least you’ll know if your daughter ever chooses to kill either of you in her stories it will be greatly grieved and remembered for – that’s something you can put down in your list for people to cry for you about

  3. So on the one hand she passed off fiction as memoir. That’s a crime, and you addressed it. On the other, she writes great fiction at a young age, apparently. Sounds like you let her know that too. As long as she knows it’s okay to write great fiction so long as she doesn’t call it memoir, you’re golden.

    I made up a bunch of crap for a family history project I had to do in school. I didn’t pass it off as fiction, I was pretty straightforward about being me blowing off an assignment I thought was crap. So I lied, and I was an ass about it, too. If I had been my teacher, I would have hated me.

  4. Lying aside, it sounds like she has a bright future writing fiction. Just makes sure she doesn’t pretend it’s real, like James Frey or Dan Brown (not that anyone believed Dan Brown). I think I would have handled it like you did. So, what happened with the teacher?

  5. My middle daughter G2 did this is year 3. Her Grandmother was taking them to an air show that was cancelled at the last minute. Not according to G2’s recap of her weekend in her school Journal! They had a fantastic time at the air show, ice cream, balloons, the whole deal! Little fibber! Great imagination though, like your daughter! You’ll have to let us know how the confession goes. Good job in enforcing that by the way, tough lesson but an important one.

  6. Speaking on behalf of teachers, we are expected to believe everything. Just let your child confess to a wild imagination and she will be golden.
    Example? School choice? “White flight from public schools. Paid for by taxpayers.”
    See, we are trained to accept fictions as truth.

  7. I honestly don’t know how I would have handled that situation. I only have one daughter, and as an only child, she made it to adulthood without ever giving in to the urge (if it ever struck her) to kill me off (real or fictional) that I know of. There are so many shades to this that I’m completely at a loss as to what I would have done. Things seem to have worked out all right for you, so I guess you handled it just fine, and I thank you for sharing it. Otherwise, I may never have had a reason to consider such a situation, and I think it’s something worth reflecting on. I think there may be an important life lesson in here somewhere, and I’ll be sure to let you know if I ever figure out just what it is. Col (Chuckling out loud).

  8. Judy permalink

    I did a lot of laughing out loud at this article. Funny, funny, funny. I also loved your wife’s comment about your daughter not killing her in the memoir. Teachers need to be careful about creative writing assignments in junior high. My oldest got in trouble at that age with being creative and using another word for ….. oh, never mind., but his dad and I got to make a trip to the school to discuss it.

    Both you and your oldest daughter seem to be very good writers!

  9. I really liked this post. Most likely your daughter will always remember this incident in her life. I flirted with plagiarism in elementary school. I have since do my best to be vigilant and avoid any brush of it.

  10. Anonymous permalink

    She should confess to her teacher in the form of a memoir. It might be a good way to explain and perhaps make up for the grade if her teacher rethinks the original grade.

  11. I’m siding with your daughter on this one. The assignment falls under Creative Writing. Sure, memoirs, real memoirs, are based in fact, but the point here was for the children to practice writing a specific type of text. When I gave out assignments like these I always told my students to not let themselves be restricted by real life. It’s creative writing. Be creative. Make stuff up. Sounds to me like your daughter nailed the style and the creativity. Hopefully her teacher realises the same.

  12. When I was young and still in grade school, I was asked to hand an essay about what I did during summer vacation. I wrote my adventures as a female pirate sailing the seven seas. My teacher told me that though the article was very well written we all know that it was a lie. I have no idea what he did with the paper though and as far as I could remember, I didn’t flunk any subject back then. He must have forgiven my mistake.

  13. I really enjoyed the story! Your daughter is a creative type by definition. Now, when it comes to teaching young people how to deal with lying is always a challenging task. I face the same problem with my 10-year old cousin. Although I believe you handled with the best way possible!

    I’ll keep reading your stories. They are fun and valuable to me!
    See you around the interwebs
    Artemis

  14. I like your wife’s reaction 😀 We were asked to write a factual description on our most unusual experience in life. One of my classmates reproduced something about hallucinations and a cliff jump from the Twilight series and passed it of as her own. Since the teacher never read the book, she was quite moved with the piece.

  15. Love this. Sounds like your daughter is very creative, and that’s wonderful. I was an English teacher for fifteen years. This reminded me of the many times grandmothers “passed away” on the day an essay was due. I would call to pass along condolences. Those moments were always opportunities for parent-child talks about honesty. I’ll bet your daughter’s going to get high marks on the more creative assignments. Re your question about writing memoirs. There is nothing the matter with a great roller coaster story. Practicing the different genres just familiarizes students with creating tone and perspective.

  16. First question, was the memoir well written? I would never reprimand anyone, especially a child, for using her imagination. The class assignment sounded bogus. Everyone’s reaction will become part of your daughter’s memoirs, and especially your reaction to it. You’ve rung that bell.
    Second, if your daughter knows not to write about her lost cat when doing an evaluation of The Scarlett Letter, she has the necessary judgment. However, if the story is by Jack London, she can write about her goldfish which were flushed into the local sewer system.
    Third, your daughter should be advised hardly, that she has to keep her mouth shut about this. There is a historical example. Benjamin Franklin was setting type for his brother’s newspaper in Boston. There was extra space, so Franklin dropped in a Mrs. Do-Good letter. There were at least ten Mrs. Do-Good letters which caused a ruckus within the Massachusetts Colonial Government. Franklin never told anyone, until much later.

  17. As a writer you should be proud of her good work and her creativity. Her intentions did not seem to deceive, but to create a great story. How much proud could you be with that???? But you are correct in making her “tell the truth.” If she is that good of a writer..it should be easy!

  18. Truth: did this really happen? Or is mom/wife’s comment apocryphal?

  19. I think maybe one of the life lessons to take away from this is that you shouldn’t have criticized her first effort. Even if what she wrote about was “ordinary”, it sounds as though the way she wrote it was worth reading. If you tell her she can’t write about the stuff an ordinary teen finds interesting, and send her a message that her ordinary life isn’t enough, you pretty much set her up to invent something. Not to say that you’re a bad dad – I just don’t think she’s a bad kid. Certainly she’s a creative problem-solver!

  20. Honest congrets to that very creative daughter you are bringing up – you cannot be too bad a father, or writer, if you can inspire such persuasiveness. 🙂

    Writing true stories is a lousy assignment anyway. I had one of those back in elementary, a typical “what happened during hollydays”-one. I actually had happened to face a life-threatening situation. Teacher’s reaction: “The boy who brought you home afterwards should have played a bigger role in the story.” But in fact, he really hadn’t, hence everything had happend much to fast for anyone to react and I didn’t really remember much more of the day than cold water and hot bathing. So, when pure truth is not satisfying and imaginative events are prohibited: What are they up to, after all? Luckily, all the rest till A-level was either formal writings, interpretations or creative writing.

    Sorry for the disgression…Maybe you’d like to suggest to the teacher to assign rather creative stuff? Maybe, pupils can way easier get into literature at all when they are allowed to experience the godlike power they potentially posess as writers – and can communicate by comprehension with the other gods, the great old ones…no religious insult intended, but in adolessence this aspect of literature was quite intriguing – and no adult ever bothered to mention it. Result: Shakespeare, Tolkien, Goethe: boring to me. Until I managed to read them on an even more boring hollyday (other than beforementioned) tour. And maybe your daughter turns out to be a pioneer for a change to the better.

    Greetings from Germany (any mistakes due to English teachers over here…and Southpark)

    And thanks a lot for that Kishon-like story, whether true or imaginative.

  21. I am absolutely certain my daughter will be lying someday in her personal essay. And she’s six right now. Sometimes you just know.
    Wonderfully written piece!

  22. Reblogged this on My Blog.

  23. To me, the big question is whether the assignment was to write a true memoir or “a memoir”. And then, if it was to write a “true memoir”, what is the teaching value of that. I’d say if your daughter can write a fiction (=lie) convincingly, you should be proud. I would be.

    I know you probably don’t mean this, but I must say that the concept of “pity grades” and “retaliatory grades” wouldn’t go down well with me. I wouldn’t accept any retaliatory grades.

  24. Recallling myself in school, the biggest hurdle was just thinking of anything to write. Resorting to fiction is the least of sins (less than a misplaced comma). It was an exercise in writing, to see how well she could write. That should be all the teacher cared about.

    That “sorry for your loss” might have been the teacher’s way of letting you know about something she suspected.

  25. I would have written about the time a horse bit half my ear off – true story. Memoirs…yes I guess it must be truthful…but props to your daughter for writing so effectively about an experience she’s not had. Rather impressive ☺ I would suggest writing about the worst day they’d ever had and what they learned from it, maybe? I don’t know. I have a good story lol

  26. And your wife is hilarious too. Thanks for that.

  27. A fiction writer could be called a liar. I wrote something about my grandma (God bless her soul) that made her cry when she read it, but I had embellished the story. I had kept the essence of it, and the events had actually occurred, but the details were fantasized. (Not exactly the same thing, obviously, but I hope you get my point.) If she’s only doing it in her writing, I don’t think you should be worried. It seems like she’s honest with you. Hopefully, she’s honest with her teachers in other regards. If not, that seems like it would be more of a problem. You and your wife seemed to handle the situation in a manner that will encourage her to be honest in the future.

    Maybe encourage her to write fiction. Put that creative mind to good use.

  28. Your daughter has a good imagination. Maybe she is also good at writing. But don’t let it go too far. Of course, it depends on the circumstances. Last year in our country, there was a memoir catching media attention when the teacher posted it on Facebook. It was a very touching story about a student’s tragic life. Lots of people felt sorry for her, they even donated the money. That student didn’t promptly tell the truth before the story turned out to be made up.
    So, teach your daughter use use her creativity properly.

  29. Liar = a real writer!

  30. Was stalking Bloggers this afternoon and came across this post. I must say I very much enjoyed the read. I have no children so I am obviously not a parent, but I had parents as I was growing up. The thing that struck me most was your response and the response of your wife.

    You could have punished her for the falsehood of her memoir and by doing so may well have carved away a bit of her writing spirit that is apparently well developed, but you didn’t; not in a corporal manner anyway. Punishment was administered, but it was metered in a loving fashion to teach a lesson on consequence. I suspect this lesson will stay with her and may well play a part in her next memoir, except this time, the passage will be true.

    Well done sir, well done.

  31. Not to worry. Just put it down to creative writing. You like creative writing, right?

  32. She has talents to write a fictional books in a sense. The details she described in the memoir had the teachers crying over it. Sharpen her talent, she can go further.

  33. RobinLK permalink

    Ha! As a HS teacher, I’m laughing….. I say it all the time: Give them the time and space, and kids ARE creative. 😉

    Found your blog this morning via WP Reader/Suggestions. Glad I did! Skimmed your recent post topics. Following.

  34. Hysterical post!

  35. You make me feel like a Bad Dad. If my daughter did that, I would bake her a cake.

  36. I’m not so sure you need to worry. But you might want to keep a slight eye. I think maybe she wants to be a great writer and looks up to you.

  37. If my daughter’s only problem was overcoming her fear of roller coasters, I’d be pretty happy even if her memoir was cliche. Her story about Steve was moving but not real, thank god. Why does there have to be a sort of one-upmanship in the degree of fear to overcome?

    I’m enjoying reading this blog! Smart and witty. I had loads of fun with “The Word That Rhymes With Orange.”

  38. She has a bright future. Almost all memoirs have half-truths (or lies) in them. Most people don’t want to admit they’re heinous morons, even if it’s true.

  39. I’m from (which ever political party you hate) and I want to hire your daughter for our campaign.

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