To Tell the Truth
Opening thesis: Every work of fiction contains at least little bit of truth; every true story has parts that are fictional. Storytelling, therefore, is a continuum.1
Exhibit A: Bad Vegan on Netflix.
The story is bananas.2 Vegan restauranteur Sarma Melngailis winds up stealing/defrauding/embezzling millions of dollars from her very successful eatery3 and its investors and staff because a man named Shane Fox convinced her that he could make her dog immortal. And that, my friends, isn’t the most bananas part — but I don’t want to spoil some genuine “wait. what?” moments so just trust me.
While the story itself is a testament to just how strange real life can be, what’s hardest to parse is how many times Sarma had the opportunity to disentangle herself from someone who is clearly a con artist. Rather than cut her loses and run, she simply doesn’t and doubles-down when shit gets truly deep. What’s missing from this documentary is the part of the story that explains why.
That’s the biggest question that remains after the last episode.4 I wanted there to be some kind of easy answer that tells you why this smart woman bought into Shane Fox’s clearly made-up story. I wanted her to be drugged or physically threatened into believing it. I wanted something tangible to point to that explained how she let herself become so thoroughly immersed. The filmmakers offer some weak sauce hints like “she was a free thinker” and “she needed the cash so was conning him” but they aren’t at all satisfying. I mean … maybe? Not even Sarma herself can explain how she let it go so far. Or she’s unwilling to admit it to herself and us, which is sort of the same thing.
If this were a work of fiction, this unresolved question would alienate most viewers. You’d need to give your audience a satisfying motivation for your main character’s choices; otherwise, the ending lacks enough impact to make the story whole. But human behavior in real life is almost never made up of clear motivations. There will always be loose ends if you stick to reality.
While both The Dropout and WeCrashed are billed as true stories, they have been manipulated by writers to smooth out the problems actually true true stories have. The Dropout bends its story over backwards to explain how Elizabeth Holmes convinced herself that it is A-OK to manipulate text results for real people and defraud investors.5 WeCrashed does the same for Rebekah Neumann.6 This is what has to happen when you start manipulating a true story so that you can tell it in a more traditional way with actors. Real people become characters and characters need satisfying story arcs, even if that isn’t what we would get if we stuck to people talking about themselves.
Which you can tell if you listen to the podcasts these dramas use in their source material. Neither Wondery’s WeCrashed or ABC’s The Dropout are able to explain all of the hows and whys people did what they did. They can’t — unless they are willing to drop some fiction into their reporting. You need an outside hand to take the big ball of tangled accounts reality provides and knit it into something that will keep you warm.7
Having said that, both series8 are great fun to watch and well made. Both Amanda Seyfried as Holmes and Anne Hathaway as Neumann9 catch the ineffable core of their subjects without ever tipping over into parody. There are moments where these actors find a searing emotional truth that proves just how good they are at this. And each is surrounded by stellar supporting casts.
Both shows also do a great job of pointing out how the gatekeepers to capital are terrible at gatekeeping, choosing instead to jump on a bandwagon even after its clear said wagon only has one functional wheel and is on fire.10 What is also clear (if more subtle) is how very, very white these stories are. Non-white people don’t really show up in the board rooms or C-suites. In WeCrashed, they only appear as front line staff, who were the ones whose labor was exploited by Adam and his bros., then left to with nothing after the money is gone.
Conclusion: Rather than our polar categories of “fiction” and “non-fiction,” we need to realize that storytelling exists on a continuum like gender and sexuality.11
Agree? Disagree? Were you personally swindled by any of these folks?
Adrienne writes books. The most recent Somebody’s Gotta Do It: Why Cursing at the News Won’t Save the Nation but Your Name on a Local Ballot Can is available where ever books, ebooks, and audiobooks are sold.
To quote the youngs, yes I am back on my bullshit.
(and I chose a fruit to compare it to for obvious reasons)
Some smaller questions: Is Leon okay? How is Sarma supporting herself now? What is her arm workout, because she looks fantastic?
Possible reasons, all of which have a grain of truth maybe: she was sexually assaulted in college, she was a nerd who didn’t realize other people had emotions, she was manipulated by an older man, she believed her own press, she really wanted to build something for the benefit of mankind, she didn’t understand that wishing won’t make it so, etc.
Her father spoiled her, her father was also OK with fraud, she grew up in the shadow of a famous cousin, her boyfriend broke her in some fundamental way, etc.
This is the first terrible metaphor of this post. Buckle up for #2.
Is there a plural for “series?”
This might also be true for Jared Leto’s Adam Neumann — but those episodes aren’t live yet.
There it is.