As Smith writes, that story had a firm “narrative goal,” one based on a story of race and identity in the 20th century. The falsehoods in Obama’s memoir include his mother’s claim that she experienced racism in Kansas, and stories about the colonial brutality suffered by his grandfather in Kenya and by his Indonesian step-grandfather. To quote Maraniss, it paints Obama as “blacker and more disaffected” than he was in real life, and hence Obama “accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles in his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happen to be white.”
Having written these lines, Maraniss suddenly has seen the devastating impact they could have in souring people on the president’s truthfulness. Since he is himself a good liberal and supporter of the president, David Maraniss is in effect apologizing for the truthfulness of his own account.
Maraniss finds that Obama’s young life was basically conventional, his personal struggles prosaic and later exaggerated. He finds that race, central to Obama’s later thought and included in the subtitle of his memoir, wasn’t a central factor in his Hawaii youth or the existential struggles of his young adulthood. And he concludes that attempts, which Obama encouraged in his memoir, to view him through the prism of race “can lead to a misinterpretation” of the sense of “outsiderness” that Maraniss puts at the core of Obama’s identity and ambition.
The problem that Maraniss acknowledges is that Obama’s composites and rearrangements are not only that of style, but “are also substantive.” Hence he sees Dreams as a work of “literature and memoir, not history and autobiography.” The key example is the woman named “Regina” that Obama treats as a symbol of an authentic African-American experience that Obama wanted for himself, and that he found in the woman he eventually married. But Maraniss found out that Regina was an Occidental College student leader who was white and not African-American! Her real name was Caroline Boss, and Regina was the name of her Swiss grandmother.
Other fabrications found by Maraniss include that Hussein Onyango, Obama’s paternal grandfather, was not whipped and tortured by the British. Nor was his Indonesian stepfather killed by Dutch soldiers in the fight for independence. Maraniss calls it a “concocted myth in almost all respects.” The truth was far more simple and hardly one to call up reverence: he “fell off a chair at his home with trying to hang drapes, presumably suffering a heart attack.”