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A Brief History of Modern Lying Authors

Last week we reported that Angel at the Fence, the Holocaust "memoir" about a love blooming on opposite sides of a concentration camp barrier, may have been a fake. Now Angel's publisher, Berkley Books, is pulling out of the deal after public criticism of the story's veracity by several Holocaust scholars. Oprah had already announced Herman Rosenblat's book as the love story of the century, a misstep that brings to mind the daytime queen's support of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, which also turned out to be slightly more fiction than fact.

In the last 10 years, "fake" memoirs have appeared everywhere, ranging in mendacity from "unverifiable details" to "totally fabricated." Below, the four biggest sham memoir writers and what brought their discrepancies to light.

Stephen Glass

Fabrications: Although not quite a memoir, The New Republic author and paralegal added cinematic flourishes to many of his articles, which didn't necessarily sync up to the facts. Some of the infringements were small, including a detail about whether a mini-fridge existed in the hotel room of a young Republican at the NRC; some were larger and involved entire fabrications of events and, in one case, an entire person: Ian Restil.

Example of his imaginative writing:

Ian Restil, a 15 year old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, is throwing a tantrum. "I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Men comic [book] #1. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy - and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!" …

Across the table, executives from a California software firm called Jukt Micronics are listening and trying ever so delicately to oblige. "Excuse me, sir", one of the suits says tentatively to the pimply teenager. "Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting you, sir. We can arrange more money for you…"

How he was caught: Competing writers over at Forbes found that "Jukt Micronics" never existed. When Glass was backed against a wall, he had his brother pose as an employee from Jukt named George Sims —as in The Sims, the game that was created in Palo Alto, where Glass' brother lived.

James Frey

Fabrications: Frey's 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces, reimagined the definitive druggie memoir and redemption story that landed him on Oprah's book club and her show. The book starts out with Frey's teeth smashed out of his head and ends with him finding his rehab crush hanging herself. His 2005 follow-up My Fried Leonard, dictated his (supposed) time in jail. Gritty and raw, A Million Little Pieces was called "The War and Peace of addiction."

Example of his imaginative writing:

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I'm in the back of a plane and there's no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.

How he was caught: The Smoking Gun searched a little bit into Frey's numbers, and cast a lot of doubt onto the length of jail time (which was under three hours), the people he met in rehab, and the friend that apparently killed herself. Oprah had Frey on her show and chewed him out for being the worst person in the world. (Who lies to Oprah!??)

JT LeRoy/Laura Albert

Fabrications: JT LeRoy, the young boy who acted as the Bonnie to his teenage mother's Clyde, raced around the country eating pills, sleeping with his mother's boyfriends, and dressing in drag. "JT" had been writing for Nerve since 2001, but when The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things came out in 2001, Laura Albert, the real author behind the alter-ego, paid her sister-in-law Savannah Coop to make public appearances as cross-dressing Jeremiah "Terminator" LeRoy.

Example of her imaginative writing:

I run my palm along the smooth leather of the belt and reach my hand in my pocket past the five-dollar bill, like I do at night sleeping on the foam bed in the front of the cab when I snake my belt out from my jeans loops and guide it gently under the fuzzy polyester blanket. It's Kenny, holding me from behind, breathing out in my ear, pressing into me, draping the belt over me, like I wish he would but never does, my grandfather preaching, his minty breath stinging and his face set like a stone carving so solid, so absolute, you know there's something between you and the bottomless pit….'Please punish me, please,' and I rub, so hard it'll hurt when I piss the next day. I rub with the belt, wrapping it and squeezing. I dig my nails deep into the tender skin of my thing until I cry, until I feel that point of breaking, but there's no one to fall into. I hold the belt close until I finally sleep.

How she was caught: Unlike the other people on this list, it wasn't objective facts that brought JT down, it was her appearance. A 2005 article in New York magazine by Stephen Beachy hinted that LeRoy might be the pen name of Laura Albert, after interviewing several people who had spoken to LeRoy over the phone and had come away with the conclusion that she was a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. In 2006, in an interview with The New York Times, Albert's manager confirmed that she was the real writer. Albert was later sued in civil court by a film company that had bought the rights to her first novel under LeRoy's name, Sarah.

Margaret B. Jones/ Margaret Seltzer

Fabrications: Truth and Consequences is the latest addition the faux-memoir genre. Ostensibly about "Margaret Jones'" thug life as a half white/half Indian foster child involved with the Bloods in South Central Los Angeles, Jones' memoir included harrowing details of gang initiation and drug abuse.

Example of her imaginative writing:

My job was to approach anyone wanting to buy drugs, see what they wanted, and check them out to make sure they weren't the police. Then, if I felt okay about it, I would take their money, tell them where to go, and gesture my approval to the homie who was holding the drugs. There were all kinds of people buying drugs in the area ???????? white suburban teens, college kids in nice cars, and even the occasional businessman in a big luxury Mercedes or BMW. Usually, though, it was just the neighborhood crackheads, whom we called baseheads or smokers. It was sad seeing the strung-out and desperate begging in front of their kids, but some of the other baseheads were funny to watch. They would tell wild stories, trying to get you to front them some drugs or offer to do just about anything for the smallest amounts of cash. Once I saw a younger homie pay a basehead two dollars to eat dog shit. We all laughed over that for a week. But mostly it was a boring job with a lot of time sitting around, waiting and shit.

How she was caught: Seltzer's own sister blew the whistle on her. Margaret Jones, aka Margaret Seltzer, turned out to be an all-white valley girl from Sherman Oaks, who grew up with her biological parents. The book's publisher recalled every issue and offered refunds for anyone who felt like they didn't get their money's worth.

The New P.I's: With newspapers losing steam, who better to use their free time and zero dollar budgets to scour Google and find discrepancies in author's works?
Some may say the memoir genre might as well be dead and buried – if you so much as incorrectly recall the weather on a particular day, the Internet dicks will be on your case faster than you can say "subjective memory" – but looking through the list, the authors' more often than not exposed themselves in the large lies, rather than the small ones. No one would have found out about James Frey lying about rehab if he hadn't already fabricated an entire jail sentence for himself. Albert may never have been caught if she had just hired a believable drag queen to play JT. And Shattered Glass would never have made it to film if Stephen hadn't been cute and made up an entire persona based on a Sims character.

Verdict? If you're going to lie in a story that is ostensibly about your life, make it a million little ones, and leave the tall tales at home.

Comments (11)
No. 1 · jesus

That's unforgiveable.

Posted: Dec 29, 2008 at 10:38 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 2 · Bobby

Once something is written, it becomes fiction and open to interpretation.

Posted: Dec 29, 2008 at 2:49 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 3 · JudyE

What meta-dolt ever thought Seltzer's perfect syntax was born in South Central?

Posted: Dec 30, 2008 at 1:02 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 4 · Phil A. Sheo

Sheds a whole new light on the Bible, doesn't it kiddies? (See comment #2)

Posted: Dec 30, 2008 at 2:16 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 5 · Danny Bloom

Although as u know I was one of the first citizen journalists/bloggers who tried to alert the publishers that Herman's backstory was very likely highly embellished back in October — and got no email replies at all from any of them - (and maybe you heard I was the person who brought the "possible hoax" backstory "details" to reporter Gabriel Sherman in New York from my home in Cyberspace, and who then took my 8 weeks of notes and did his own fantastic digging, resulting in the cancellation of the book), I am now moving on and creating a national write-in campaign with a grassroots effort to ask Oprah to invite Herman on her show in future to apologzie, ask forgiveness, explain why he did and how and … to move on with his life quietly and out of the spotlight.

I have already been in touch with Oprah's producers and there is a good chance this might happen. Oprah will not attack Herman on air the way she did with James Frey after his deceptions were uncovered. In this case, she will allow Herman to answer to the public, explain himself, apologize and ask forgiveness, from Oprah and the public, for his literary faux pas.

to see the entire press release, and blog, and comments section free and open to anyone, even anon posters, go here

This is about forgiveness, accountability, apologies and moving on…..

Posted: Dec 30, 2008 at 6:34 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 6 · Michael Santomauro

In 1982, the Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, summarized his thesis before an audience of nearly 2,700 at Avery Fischer Hall in New York City: the entire German policy for the physical destruction of the Jews was to be explained by mind reading! No document attesting to this criminal policy could be found, because no such document existed. For several years, the entire German bureaucratic machinery operated through a kind of telepathy. As Hilberg put it:

"But what began in 1941 was a process of destruction not planned in advance, not organized centrally by any agency. There was no blueprint and there was no budget for destructive measures. They [these measures] were taken step by step, one step at a time. Thus came about not so much a plan being carried out, but an incredible meeting of minds, a consensus — mind reading by a far-flung bureaucracy."

Let me note again those final words: "an incredible meeting of minds, a consensus — mind reading by a far-flung bureaucracy." AMAZING!

Posted: Dec 30, 2008 at 10:50 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 7 · V

@JudyE: my thoughts exactly. by the way it's written, it's extremely obvious that wasn't a "Blood" from LA

Posted: Dec 30, 2008 at 11:11 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 8 · J du Bois

I'd pay more than two bucks to see any of these liars eat dog shit. Now that would be work my time and money.

Posted: Dec 30, 2008 at 12:26 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 9 · Peter D

Much of what you say about Laura Albert is true, but in all fairness it should be pointed out that 'J.T Leroy's' "Sarah" was in fact published as a novel - not a memior.

Posted: Dec 30, 2008 at 4:57 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 10 · M Hoop

Obviously, these are good writers. A better story would be, how many times their work was turned down by publishers before they figured out a way to make it to the top of the mss. pile.

Who believes most real memoirs anyway? I never have figured out how so many writers remember so much from years ago when i can hardly remember what i had for breakfast yesterday, not to mention what years did i travel back to the home country in the last 4 decades……

Posted: Jan 16, 2009 at 8:15 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 11 · Carol

There is a difference between a novel by an author using a fake persona, a fabricated memoir and fabricated journalism. You should make some distinction between these variations of deception because they are operating on completely different levels. "Truth and Consequences", for instance, could have been easily published as a novel and what would have been the problem? It's simply that she chose to call it true that's caused trouble but can anyone doubt now that is is just a novel? Perhaps the issue stems from a bizarre impulse some writers have to be taken seriously. They don't believe "fiction" will be given the same amount of attention, perhaps?

Posted: Jan 18, 2009 at 7:00 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
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