Does the Truth of Dreams Matter?

Noting the discrepancies between Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, and David Maraniss’s newly-released biography of Barack Obama, Barack Obama: the Story, James Rosen writes:

That process has now reached a kind of zenith, with the publication last month of Barack Obama: The Story, a deeply researched, 600-page study of the president’s ancestry and early life by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Washington Post editor David Maraniss. The result reflects the hyper-scrutiny that attaches to our chief executives. It also offers a window into how much of the life story of this self-made man may have been made up.

By some counts, The Story presents more than three-dozen instances of material discrepancy where Dreams fails to align with the facts as Maraniss reports them. Case in point: Maraniss confirmed that Mr. Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, left his father, Barack Obama, Sr., a volatile bigamist, and not the other way around, as related in Dreams.

Dreams also related the tale of Obama’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango, who was said to have been detained and tortured in a prison outside Nairobi for six months because of his brave defiance of British colonialists. But after a half-dozen interviews and other research, Maraniss deemed the tale “unlikely.”

Maraniss did not respond to several calls requesting an interview, but Fox News caught up with him outside a Washington book signing. “I think there’s a difference between a memoir and the serious, rigorous factual history of a biography,” he said. “Some of what he did was the result of mythologies that were passed along from his family, and some were for the purposes of advancing themes in his book which had more to do with finding his racial identity.”

Does it really matter whether Dreams was fact or fiction or, as movies sometimes characterize themselves, “inspired by real events”? That’s a question not an answer. I don’t really know the answer. It doesn’t much matter to me.

I think that most of us recall our own histories with a mixture of truth and myth and, the farther back in our genealogies we go, the more myths, inferences portrayed as fact, downright mistakes, and flat-out lies accumulate. Prominent people are particularly susceptible to this.

About two centuries ago Mason Locke Weems, better known as “Parson Weems”, wrote a hagiographical biography of George Washington. It’s the source of the famous “cherry tree” story about him (“I cannot tell a lie, father, …”). I’m not outraged that President Obama is his own Parson Weems. His real-life story—abandoned by his parents, reared by his grandparents after a series of early life travels—is virtually an exemplar of the archetypal “Hero’s Journey” and I think he can be excused for viewing it that way.

Around here I do my level best to tell the truth about myself and my family’s history, as well as I’ve been able to uncover it. I think it’s fantastical and remarkable enough without embroidering it. I’m not embarassed about the same things my parents were. In my researches I’ve discovered a number of mistakes, misconceptions, or glosses that my parents or others told me at one time or another. For example, my mom’s paternal grandfather didn’t die as a result of driving a team of horses into the Mississippi (although it’s possible that his brother-in-law did). And I don’t honestly know whether my father’s uncle died of gonorrhea—his death certificate says tuberculosis but his family did have pull, so who knows?

Not everyone feels that way about their own histories. I think that, properly considered, they should.

7 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    Autobiography will always come with a dose of b.s. If you read it that way it’s not a problem.

  • That’s certainly the way that I see it.

  • sam

    “Autobiography will always come with a dose of b.s.”

    Of course it does.

    “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes. A large part of which I made up when I wasn’t looking.”

  • It’s funny you should mention that, sam, because I used that quote in a section of this post that ended up on the cutting room floor.

  • PD Shaw

    I think I’ve told my kids that the Washington story about the tree was true though it didn’t happen. Historians describe a man as placing great importance on his appearance, and the appearance of honor and self-restraint.

  • steve

    I know that I have stated things as truths that are probably family myths that I have never bothered or cared to pin down. I will also confess to embellishing a few old war stories just a bit (only the funny ones), just because they come out much funnier. Meh. I take autobiographies with a large grain of salt anyway, so I cant say this is surprising.


  • PD Shaw

    Lest there be seen as no honest men, here is Lincoln’s first autobiography:

    Born, February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky.
    Education defective.
    Profession, a lawyer.
    Have been a captain of volunteers in Black Hawk war.
    Postmaster at a very small office.
    Four times a member of the Illinois legislature, and was a member of the lower house of Congress.

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