Monday, March 3, 2008

Caveat lector

File this under the literary deception du jour.

I was in Borders on Sunday and as I always do, I stopped by the table of new hardcovers. I'm often drawn to a cover, and I'll turn to the flap on the dust jacket to see what it's about. I remember looking at a book that had a picture of an older African-American woman with her arm around a young white girl. I skimmed the description, wasn't really interested, and moved on.

Well, I should have looked at it a little more closely. Margaret B. Jones, the author of Love and Consequences, a just-published and highly acclaimed memoir about growing up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, has admitted that she made it all up. It's a complete fake.

Apparently, Jones is not half white and half Native American. She never ran drugs for gang members and she was never a foster child. She never graduated from the University of Oregon, as it says on the book's dust jacket. Her real name is Margaret Seltzer and she graduated from a private high school in North Hollywood. According to the Times story detailing the deception, Seltzer's sister tipped off her publisher that the book was untrue.

In her review, obviously written before the fraud was discovered, the Times' Michiko Kakutani calls the book "remarkable." She wrote "Ms. Jones has done an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood." Apparently, Seltzer did a better job than anyone realized. The Times also published a glowing profile, including pictures of Seltzer at home in Oregon with her 8-year-old daughter. What a great role model for the kid, huh?

Here's her explanation: “For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to,” Ms. Seltzer said. “I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

Sadly, this isn't the only recent example.

Last week, author Misha Defonseca admitted that her 1997 memoir, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was a complete fabrication. In the book, Defonseca describes her experiences as a young Jewish girl in Belgium during World War II. She travels across Europe to flee the Nazis, accompanied by a protective pack of wolves. But it turns out that Defonseca isn't Jewish. Her parents were Catholic resistance fighters executed by the Nazis and she spent the war safely in Brussels with relatives.

Defonseca, who now lives in Massachusetts, released a statement through her lawyer: "Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish. . . . There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world. The story in the book is mine. It is not the actual reality - it was my reality, my way of surviving."

No doubt Defonseca did have a traumatic childhood. But fabricating a Holocaust memoir is a pretty repugnant thing to do. It denigrates the experiences of authentic survivors, and gives ammunition to the Holocaust deniers. And Defonseca isn't the only writer who's ever done it. Blake Eskin helped unmask an earlier deception, by an author named Binjamin Wilkomirski, which he writes about in Slate.

I don't think Defonseca or Wilkomirski are evil people. But somewhere along the line, they became unable to separate fantasy from reality. They needed help, not an advance from a publisher. But as Eskin writes, there's an inherent difficulty in unmasking this type of fraud. "Raising questions about the authenticity of someone's Holocaust testimony, however implausible it seems, is a joyless task."

And another author or two admitting that they faked their memoir shouldn't even surprise us anymore.

In January 2006, James Frey admitted altering large parts of his story of drug addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces, which had been featured as a selection of Oprah's Book Club. Oprah, who helped turn the book into a besteller, said later that she felt "conned" by Frey. "It's embarrassing and disappointing for me."

For his party Frey still maintains that the book is a memoir. "I think part of what happened with a number of the things in the book, is when you go through an experience like the one I went through you develop different coping mechanisms. I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was this image of myself that was greater than what I was."

In another famous case, Forrest Carter's 1976 Native American memoir, The Education of Little Tree, was unmasked as fiction in 1991. It turns out Carter was actually a white supremacist and former Klansman.

Dan T. Carter, a distant relative, wrote about how Carter became an author and remade himself in the process. "Unfortunately, "The Education of Little Tree" is a hoax. The carefully constructed mask of Forrest Carter -- Cherokee cowboy, self-taught writer and spokesman for Native Americans -- was simply the last fantasy of a man who reinvented himself again and again in the 30 years that preceded his death in 1979."

I guess we all embellish our lives a little bit at times, in fairly harmless ways. With each retelling of the story, the fish grows bigger, the obstacles we overcome get more difficult, our feeling of desperation increases. The difference is, most of us don't get book deals. And when you put your name on something, when you send it out for public consumption, well that's a whole different story.

One question that always gets asked whenever another one of these cases arises is, Why didn't the author simply write the book as fiction rather than pass it off as a true story? Maybe they think that a true story, or one with more harrowing details, will be more compelling, will sell better. In other cases, perhaps some authors, who've had deeply traumatic experiences, simply come to believe that what they've written is true. They can't tell the truth from a lie. In still other cases, perhaps they're just dishonest individuals who don't believe that they'll ever get caught.

Whatever the reasons, it's disturbing. These are stories that readers picked up in good faith, really wanting to believe that they were true, expecting that they were true. Sadly, I don't think the phenomenon is going to disappear anytime soon, so caveat lector.


Aaron Riccio said...

I was thinking about this today, having noticed the story about Margaret B. Jones breaking on my elevator's television. (I know, how swanky my office must be.) And I remembered the whole Frey scandal.

But what's the big deal? What makes the book any less well written with it being fiction instead of fact? Were you not still just as moved? The truth is, the people who lauded that book didn't do so BECAUSE it was memoir -- the fact that it was memoir just helped them to cover it (fiction being so heavily overlooked these days).

The crime, if any, that she committed is a harmless one. Heaven forbid she got someone to read something they would not have otherwise read. I went to see "Liberty City" last week. If it were all made-up, that would take NOTHING away from the emotions that it stirred up in me. And even if that were not her life, or Mrs. Jones's, it was still accurate enough, or people would have just ignored it.

I'm actually impressed that people can write fiction good enough to pass as memoir, detailed enough to evoke truth. I don't particularly think the "writer" is even nearly as important as the "reader" who translates that text into something intelligible for themselves.

Or, hey, how about "Passing Strange"? There's much in there that's admittedly not true -- but if you'd gone in believing it to be FACT and not FICTION, would you have liked it any less?

Esther said...

Hey Aaron,
Thank-you for the very thoughtful comment.

Well, as someone who works in journalism, I just feel that if something is presented as fact, it should indeed be true. As a reader, I do feel a little cheated if I'm told that this is the story of someone's life, the gospel truth, and it turns out to be completely made up. Not embellished, mind you, but a total fabrication.

It's one thing if you go in knowing that the story might not be 100 percent true. But this is different. Obviously, works of art mix fact and fiction all the time - there are historical novels, movies based on historical events that take liberty with the facts. Theater does the same thing - the whole first act of "Grey Gardens" was made up. The difference is, I can take things with a grain of salt if they admit that they're an amalgam. I don't expect a movie of an historical event to be 100 percent factual. But when someone writes about their own life, and says these things happened to them, I think I hold that person to a higher standard. And like I said, she made up her whole persona. She didn't just change a few facts.

I've read some of the comments about this latest case, and a few people have made the point that it's a little offensive for someone who apparently grew up in a nice Southern California suburb, went to a pricey private school, to pass herself off as a product of the ghetto. What happens to the people who really did live that life? Do they get to tell their stories? What gives her the right to take the story of someone else's life, a life she didn't live, and pass it off as her own?

I guess you could say, good for her for being so creative, and after all, she didn't really harm anyone. But she took that advance under false pretenses, she made fools of everyone who believed in her, who bought the book. What she did was dishonest.