From his boastful opening sentences ("While I have been blessed with a photographic mind...") to his concluding screed against President Nixon ("This attitude toward enemies ... marked the essence of Nixon's Mein Kampf"), Douglas offered a combination of political ranting and gossipy score-settling that still leaves readers slack-jawed. As his biographer, Bruce Allen Murphy, argued recently in "Wild Bill" (2003), many of Douglas's stories were made up, perhaps because his insatiable political ambition led him to write what were essentially campaign autobiographies for the presidential bid that never materialized. Douglas claimed to have had polio as a child, for example; in fact, Murphy writes, he had intestinal colic. And he claimed to have graduated second in his law school class, when, at best, he was fifth.Ha. Too bad Douglas didn't have a chance to get chosen for Oprah's Book Club. It would have been cool to see her scold him on TV.
And now Justice Thomas is working on a memoir. The man has fabulous material -- he grew up in poverty and his confirmation battle was a political and cultural event unlike any other. Does he dare to really use this material, to risk his slowly accumulating somber reputation by writing a real book for us to read? Rosen cautions him not to:
[L]ike Douglas, Thomas may inadvertently harm his judicial reputation among moderates (which is, at the moment, unfairly underrated) by revealing more than he intends.I say: either write a book or don't write a book, but don't write a fake book. Don't put your name on a book-shaped object just because you're a celebrity and you can get publishers to publish it and publicists to get you on talk shows and lure readers to give up their money and time. If you're going to write a book, you owe your allegiance to the reader above all. If you've got a conflict of interest, recuse yourself!
"Judges wear black robes because it doesn't matter who they are as individuals," John Roberts said during his confirmation hearings. "That's not going to shape their decision." Few people today, of course, believe that judges' personal experiences have no influence on their judicial decisions. But taken as a warning, Roberts's statement was prudent and wise. Too much revelation may undermine the public's respect for judges as apolitical authorities. And judicial celebrity can backfire: as any celebrity knows, those who live by publicity have to avoid overexposure, which can lead to the worst fate of all - oblivion.
(Please read David Foster Wallace's essay on Tracy Austin's memoir in "Consider the Lobster." He faults her for her allegiance to friends, family, and everyone else, and lays down the rule that the writer's duty is to the reader.)
It's one thing to embarrass yourself by making things up, like Justice Douglas and James Frey, quite another to put yourself out there and let readers see who you really are. I think the memoirist who fails to do that is the one who has embarrassed himself.
I said something similar back when Bill Clinton's book came out:
I see Clinton is getting a lot of grief for writing a boring book. But what did people expect? If you want to read a great memoir, read a memoir by someone who is in a position to follow the number one rule for writing a great memoir: tell your story without a trace of personal vanity. You have to be willing to make the character that is you look foolish, mean-spirited, selfish, petty, and everything else. There is simply no way that Clinton or any other political figure can follow this rule. So if you want to read a good memoir, read Augusten Burroughs' "Running With Scissors" or Mary Carr's "Liars' Club." If you want to read about grand historical events, don't read the story told by one of the key figures. How could that possibly be good? It would make more sense to read this as a memoir of the Lewinsky-impeachment events.I guess, according to that, I don't really think there's much chance at all that Clarence Thomas will meet my standard. But wouldn't it be incredibly cool if he did?
And by the way, do you think all those things in "Running With Scissors" really happened?