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Fake Memoirs and Literary Forgeries

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Fake memoirs form a category of literary forgery in which a wholly or partially fabricated autobiography, memoir, or journal of an individual is presented as fact. Often, the purported author of the work also is fabricated.

In recent years, there have been a number of such memoirs published by major houses, some of which were well received critically and even became best sellers, but which subsequently were shown to be partly or completely fabricated.

In Love and Consequences, published in March 2008 by Penguin Group USA imprint Riverhead Books, author Margaret B. Jones writes about growing up as a half-white, half-Native American girl in South-Central Los Angeles in the foster home of Big Mom. One of her foster brothers, she writes, was gunned down by Crips gang members outside their home. Jones also writes of carrying illegal guns and selling drugs for the Bloods gang.

Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is white and grew up in a well-off area of San Fernando Valley in California with her biological family, The New York Times says. She did not graduate from the University of Oregon as she claimed.

Papillon is a memoir written by convicted felon, Henri Charrière, in which he related the tale of his adventures in various prisons and penal colonies throughout French Guiana and its environs. The book was a runaway bestseller when it was released in France in 1969, was translated into over 15 languages, and was made into a 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. When Charrière shopped the book, it was intended as a novel, but he was convinced to sell it as a personal memoir by his publisher, Robert Laffont. Nevertheless, Charrière insisted to the public that the entire book was true for the rest of his life.

Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books that describe his training in traditional Mesoamerican shamanism, starting with The Teachings of Don Juan, University of California Press (1968). His 12 books have sold more than 8 million copies in 17 languages. It is disputed whether his stories are truthful or fabricated.

It is far less common for a forger to fake the biography of a person who is still alive. But that was what happened when writer Clifford Irving forged the "autobiography" of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, while Hughes was still alive. In 1971 Irving told his publisher, McGraw-Hill, that Hughes had contacted him after reading and enjoying one of his earlier books. Hughes, he said, wanted to write an autobiography in order to set straight all the lies and rumors that were circulating about his life, and he wanted Irving to ghostwrite the work. Irving produced letters from Hughes (all forged) to prove the offer was real. McGraw-Hill completely fell for Irving’s story. They eventually gave him almost $1,000,000 in order to secure the rights to the work, and in return Irving handed them Hughes’ “autobiography” a few months later.

One of the most recent and public false memoir scandals is that of James Frey and his manuscript A Million Little Pieces. Public because the author had fooled his agent and publisher, and then went on to fool not just the rest of his readers, but Oprah Winfrey. His subsequent admission of elaborating many of the events in his book became as notorious as the original lies in the book.

In 2006, Frey and his publishers announced they would append forthcoming editions of A Million Little Pieces. "I altered events and details all the way through the book. [One such embellishment] involved jail time I served, which in the book is three months, but which in reality was only several hours," Frey writes in a defensive three-page "Author's Note."

How much leeway does a disclaimer really give an author?

Take Frey’s second book, My Friend Leonard, which follows up his original memoir. It has been found that he had embellished most of that book, too.

The jury is still out on the issue of the publisher’s responsibility when they include a disclaimer reading “Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed. Some sequences and details of events have been changed.”

One problem is that book publishers have no real public setting for holding writers accountable. Magazines and newspapers issue corrections, and readers find those corrections in the same medium in which they read the stories and usually not long after the publication. Books don't have correction pages, and new editions are not issued with the frequency that makes newspaper-type corrections possible. Many editors think it's not economically feasible to fact-check every book; intellectually, it may not be feasible either, given the degree of expertise brought to certain subjects. The publishers' predicament is a real one.

Whether editors will show more due diligence in verifying facts is not known. In 2009, Berkley Books had to withdraw Angel at the Fence, written by Herman Rosenblat, from publication. Rosenblat’s story is a saga of heroic proportions where a young girl sneaks food to a young boy in a Nazi concentration camp, many years later the two meet up again on a blind date, eventually marry and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 2008. Once allegations that the author had made-up the story were verified, Rosenblat confessed he wrote the story so he could bring happiness to people.

Other authors have said they tried to get their stories published as fiction, but the editors involved told them they would sell better as non-fiction. Chris Ayres of The (London) Sunday Times wrote that "it’s a lot easier to sell nonfiction than fiction. Why? Because years of reality television, documentaries, mockumentaries, CCTV footage, blogs, televised trials and the like have devalued fiction."

Will there always be fake memoirs? Even the 1965 blockbuster In Cold Blood was not without critics who believed that Truman Capote changed facts, invented scenes, and made up dialogue. Capote liked to call In Cold Blood "a non-fiction novel." So, yes, there will always be writers who dramatize their personal stories, and believe they will get away with it.

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About Debbie Whittemore

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz Alan Kurtz

    The fake memoirs cited are child’s play compared to other literary forgeries, especially those involving purportedly “original” documents. In particular, recall the case of Mark Hofmann, now serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison for murdering two people with homemade bombs. In the early 1980s, Hofmann defrauded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by selling them manuscripts supposedly from Mormon history that he’d created with his own hand. Besides acquiring genuine paper stock and ink from the period to fool examiners, Hofmann mastered various literary styles so effectively that they were indistinguishable from their alleged sources. If nothing else, one must admire his ingenuity and audacity. It’s rather like art forgers who successfully market “long-lost” paintings by great masters. Counterfeiting something so skillfully that even the foremost experts are bamboozled is no small achievement.