Reviews | ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ writer Elisabeth Finch is accused of stealing his wife’s life story for profit. She’s not the only suspected fraudster.

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The desire for authenticity in the arts is understandable. Audiences want to feel like something is plausible, that what’s happening on screen or on the page is real on some level, even if the events are totally bonkers.

But we are badly derailed when “lived experience” becomes the substitute for authenticity. The term itself has made a difficult transition from “personal knowledge acquired through first-hand behavior” to “unassailable truth as defined by the way I have lived my life”. And prioritizing “lived experience” over other credentials makes it inevitable that fraudsters will make up stories for themselves in an effort to cheat the system.

You see this at work in Vanity Fair’s two-part series on Elisabeth Finch, writer for “Grey’s Anatomy.” Finch used the various dramas and illnesses she claimed to have suffered from to fuel her career. But she has come under scrutiny following accusations that she essentially stole someone else’s life story in search of that prized authenticity.

You really have to read the whole series, but the short version is this: a writer of Shonda Rhimes’ hit hospital drama seems to have made up not only about having cancer, but about being abused, raising the issue. life story of a woman she met. in therapy and then married. What interested me was less the fraud — the world is a bottomless pit of petty fraudsters — than how Finch used the initial health fraud to gain the upper hand in the “Grey’s Anatomy” writers’ room.

“Cancer granted him certain privileges. She had a very comfortable chair. From there, she tacitly claimed additional speaking rights,” writes Evgenia Peretz. “When Finch had the floor, she shouldn’t be interrupted and took all the time she needed to write her stories. Anyone else could lose their job for being such a room hog.

Because it was a current and ongoing thing, Finch’s “lived experience” surpassed even that of the other writers in the room, causing real cancer survivors to avoid weighing in on potential cancer-based storylines. The fact that she was “the only person [in the writers room] who identified as a person with a disability” was her trump card, an unassailable diversity game.

This kind of professional trick shows up from time to time in academia. Who can forget the story of Jessica Krug, an associate professor at George Washington University, who pretended to be black to get her right to speak before confessing and melodramatically canceling herself. The less time we spend remembering Rachel Dolezal, the better.

Elsewhere in the entertainment industrial complex, lived experience has become a valuable form of public relations. Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt” scored a huge breakthrough, an initial circulation of half a million copies and a coveted placement in Oprah’s Book Club. But a storm of controversy ensued when it emerged that Cummins may have overstated his life story.

While the book had defenders (enthusiastic notice, Oprah’s imprimatur mentioned above) and detractors (post-controversial reviews were often nasty), the conversation about the book was only nominally about the book. Rather, it was whether Cummins had the right to tell the story, whether his lived experience matched the book’s descriptions of refugees fleeing cartel violence in Mexico.

Cummins had reflected on her Latino heritage (one grandmother is Puerto Rican) and spoke of fears for her husband, an undocumented immigrant. Except, oops, she’s described herself as “white” in the past and the “undocumented immigrant” husband was Irish, which has a slightly different connotation in many US discussions on immigration, legal and otherwise.

There are two intertwined ideas that deserve to be separated.

The first is whether authenticity itself is worth appreciating. Some audiences certainly seem to think so, at least in a narrow way: “What X is wrong about Y” is a perennial format for reflection. Filmmakers such as Robert Eggers go to great lengths to flesh out period details, believing that such care can help transport viewers to another time and another state of mind. The work of “sensitivity reader” emerged to help authors fully understand cultural contexts – or at least to avoid internet firestorms. That said, the idea of ​​a show as perpetually absurd as “Grey’s Anatomy” aiming for authenticity is a little ridiculous to say the least.

The second is whether the lived experience that purports to inform such authenticity is more valuable than, say, standard research. Reading as much as possible about a subject and interviewing those who participated in what you hope to portray both strike me as potentially more valuable than just pretending to identify with those to be portrayed, assuming that authenticity is, in fact, a value to be prized.

Whatever else he does, prioritize “lived experience” above all else incites a whole host of terrible behavior from unscrupulous people. Perhaps we should rather value something a little more concrete, like the production of an artist.