But, no, you're wrong. I neither love nor hate Clarence Thomas. I have some strong ideas about writing, especially memoir writing, and if I'm going to read a book, I'm going to impose my standards on the writing. I'm not about promoting or indicting the writer. I'm genuinely interested in writing as writing.
Here's a post I wrote back in January 2006 about the forthcoming Justice Thomas memoir:
Jeffrey Rosen writes about judicial memoirs, which are difficult to write, because they're either going to be bland -- like Justice O'Connor's, in his view, despite the incident with the testicles -- or embarrassingly revealing -- like Justice Douglas's....So did he? He revealed plenty of negative things — rage and gloom and a serious drinking problem. But these revelations do tend to work in favor of his credibility, when he gets to the part that really matters: whether he or Anita Hill told the truth at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. And the negative material could be seen as self-indulgence: He wants — he demands — your sympathy. He has suffered terribly and his anger is righteous.
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?
But to answer my question: Yes. It's a real memoir.
But what you really want to know isn't what I think of the book as a work of literature, right? You want to know if I think he lied — or Anita Hill lied — at his confirmation hearings. I really don't know. I want to believe him. It's hard for me to understand how Anita Hill could have manufactured the details of her story out of nothing and lied outright and under oath to the Senators and to the whole country. Thomas found himself in the middle of things, confronted with the accusations, and he determined not to give up. His memoir shows why he was the kind of person who would not give up under those circumstances.
But Anita Hill came forward and caused all the anguish. Thomas depicts her as a left-wing ideologue who was in league with other left-wing ideologues who would do anything to destroy him — as he puts it more than once: to kill him. Could individuals with that much professional status be that evil? Clarence Thomas knows the answer to that question. His book blazes with his righteous indignation. Could he be evil enough to write this if he knew he was lying?
I'm entertaining the notion that it is possible that neither one was lying — that is, neither blatantly said what he or she knew was not true. Maybe Thomas said a few little things that Hill remembered and inflated through a process of solitary brooding followed by vigorous prompting from anti-Thomas zealots. And maybe he forgot those little things. On page 221, he says that he couldn't remember whether he'd ever used illegal drugs. How can you not remember that? "I'd been a heavy drinker in college and had often been around people who smoked marijuana and hashish... I might possibly have tried them once or twice when I was drunk..." He was also drinking heavily in the period when Anita Hill worked for him. Maybe he had some alcoholic amnesia.
But he's Clarence Thomas. You've got to love him or hate him, don't you?