Some of the drawbacks of ‘lived experience’ have been highlighted in a Grey’s Anatomy scandal
Artistic honesty is comprehensible, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Audiences want to believe that what is happening on television or in print is true, even if the circumstances are outlandish and absurd.
However, when “lived experience” is used as a substitute for authenticity, things go horribly wrong. The phrase “unassailable truth as defined by how I have lived my life” has undergone a difficult evolution from “personal knowledge obtained by direct behavior.” Because of the high value placed on “life experience” in the credentialing process, it is inevitable that fraudsters will fabricate their own histories in order to get around the system’s checks.
Vanity Fair’s two-part story on “Grey’s Anatomy” writer Elisabeth Finch demonstrates this. Finch fueled her acting career with a litany of crises and diseases that she claimed to have endured. However, she has come under fire after claims that she plagiarised someone else’s life narrative in an attempt to achieve the highly desired authenticity she sought.
To get the whole experience, read the entire series, but here’s a quick rundown of the main points: It appears that a writer on Shonda Rhimes’s popular hospital drama has manufactured not just cancer, but also the narrative of a lady she met in treatment and married, stealing her life story. In my opinion, the scam was less fascinating than Finch’s exploitation of the original health ruse to gain an advantage in the “Grey’s Anatomy” writers’ room.
“Cancer gave her a few advantages. She sat in a chair that was quite cosy. Evgenia Peretz says that “she tacitly claimed more speaking privileges” from that point on. As soon as Finch got up to speak, everyone knew she was the one not to be disturbed. A room hog’s employment might be threatened by anyone else.
Finch’s “life experience” surpassed even that of other authors in the group, forcing genuine cancer survivors to fear contributing to prospective cancer plotlines because it was a current and continuing event. An undeniable diversity move, a “trump card,” was her “only individual [in the writer’s group] who identified as someone with a handicap.”
It’s not uncommon for academics to fall victim to this type of academic deception. GWU’s associate professor Jessica Krug famously claimed to be Black in order for her speaking privileges to be enhanced before admitting and melodramatically canceling her appearance. Keeping Rachel Dolezal out of our minds is a good thing.
In other parts of the entertainment industry, relying on first-hand accounts has become an important part of public relations. In addition to a large advance, Jeanine Cummins’s novel “American Dirt” had a half-million-copy print run and a coveted spot in Oprah’s Book Club. However, the revelation that Cummins may have embellished her life tale sparked a whirlwind of outrage.
Despite the book’s advocates and opponents (rapturous early attention, the Oprah imprimatur), the discourse around the book was only nominally about the book. On the contrary, the debate was around whether Cummins had any right to tell this narrative, and if her own personal experiences matched up with the book’s depictions of Mexican refugees escaping the cartel violence.
As a Puerto Rican woman, Cummins had drawn on her background and expressed concerns about her husband, an undocumented immigrant. But, oops, she had previously characterized herself as “white” and her “undocumented immigrant” husband was Irish, which has a distinct meaning in many of the United States’ immigration conversations.
There are two intertwined concepts that need to be separated.
In the first place, it is debatable whether or not valuing authenticity is really worthwhile. At the very least, “What X gets wrong about Y” has become a recurrent think-piece genre for some audiences. Robert Eggers and other filmmakers believe that nailing down historical elements will help transfer viewers to a different time and mindset. The “sensitivity reader” has evolved as a way for authors to ensure that their work is culturally appropriate, or at the very least, avoid a social media backlash. At least a bit silly, though, is the concept of “Grey’s Anatomy” trying to achieve realism while being so ridiculously stupid.
When it comes to authenticity, there are two questions that must be answered. In my opinion, reading as much about a topic as possible and interviewing people who have actually participated in the subject matter is more beneficial than simply professing to sympathize with those to be depicted.
Unscrupulous people are encouraged to engage in all kinds of depraved acts when “lived experience” is valued above all else. Instead, perhaps we should focus on the artist’s product, which is more tangible.