Fictional Memoir: Faux Suffering Strikes Again

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy

A Family Tree of Literary Fakers
by Motoko Rich
New York Times
March 8, 2008

From top, the writers and their books: Margaret Seltzer, last month; Clifford Irving, left, in 1972; Laura Albert leaving federal court in Manhattan in 2007; and James Frey in an interview on "Larry King Live" in 2006.When the news emerged this week that Margaret Seltzer had fabricated her gang memoir, “Love and Consequences,” under the pseudonym Margaret B. Jones, many in the publishing industry and beyond thought: Here we go again.

The most immediate examples that came to mind were, of course, James Frey, the author of the best-selling “Million Little Pieces,” in which he embellished details of his experiences as a drug addict, and J T LeRoy, the novelist thought to be a young West Virginia male prostitute who was actually the fictive alter ego of Laura Albert, a woman now living in San Francisco.

But the history of literary fakers stretches far, far back, at least to the 19th century, when a slave narrative published in 1863 by Archy Moore was revealed as a novel written by a white historian, Richard Hildreth, and into the early 20th, when Joan Lowell wrote a popular autobiography, “Cradle of the Deep,” about her colorful childhood aboard a four-masted ship sailing the South Seas; in fact, she had grown up almost entirely in Berkeley, Calif.

Here follows a lineup of some of the past few decades”™ most notorious fakes, with proof that in some cases, there are second acts in American lives.

Clifford Irving

Mr. Irving, a journalist, spent 17 months in jail after he sold a bogus autobiography of Howard R. Hughes to the McGraw Hill Book Company in 1972 for a $765,000 advance. Nearly 30 years after the initial hoax, Mr. Irving published the book through an Internet publisher and also went on to write several novels and a play. “Hoax,” a movie starring Richard Gere and based on the Hughes incident, came out in 2006, although Mr. Irving, on his Web site, calls the film “a hoax about a hoax.” This month, John Blake Publishing, a British publisher, is releasing “Howard Hughes: My Story,” the fake autobiography, as a novel. Mr. Irving lives in Aspen, Colo.

Binjamin Wilkomirski (Bruno Doessekker)

Binjamin Wilkomirski”™s 1996 memoir, “Fragments,” described how he survived as a Latvian Jewish orphan in a Nazi concentration camp. But a Swiss historian debunked the award-winning memoir when he discovered that the book was actually written by Bruno Doessekker, a Swiss man who spent the war in relative comfort in Switzerland. Both his German and American publishers, who initially defended the veracity of the book, ultimately suspended publication. The last known address of Mr. Doessekker, who continued to insist that he was Mr. Wilkomirski even after he was unmasked, was in Switzerland.

Misha Defonseca

Ms. Defonseca wrote a book, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” about her childhood spent running from the Nazis and searching for her deported parents. She detailed terrifying episodes of living with wolves and killing a German soldier in self-defense. The memoir, published in the United States by a tiny press in 1997, was translated into 18 languages and adapted into a film in France. Last month the author, 71, who lives in Dudley, Mass., confessed that she was born Monique De Wael, the daughter of Belgian Catholics who were killed by the Nazis for resistance activities when she was 4 years old.

Nasdijj, or Tim Barrus

Nasdijj wrote three books that were supposedly based on his life as a troubled American Indian man who was raped by his white father, and who later adopted a Navajo child who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and cared for another with AIDS. An 8,200-word story in LA Weekly in February 2006 said that Nasdijj was actually a white man named Tim Barrus, who had previously written gay pornography. Efforts to find Mr. Barrus, whose last listed address was in North Carolina, were unsuccessful.

Laura Albert (J T LeRoy)

As J T LeRoy, Ms. Albert wrote a novel, “Sarah,” and a story collection, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” which became cult favorites after they were published, in 2000 and 2001 respectively. Ms. Albert, 42, originally from Brooklyn, wrote the books in the persona of the son of a West Virginia truck-stop prostitute, and then had the half-sister of her partner impersonate this fictitious character in public appearances. Celebrities became friends with the alter ego, and “he” was the subject of numerous media profiles, including one in The New York Times. After the deception came to light, Antidote International Films, which had signed a contract with Ms. Albert”™s company, Underdogs Inc., to blend elements from J T LeRoy”™s life with “Sarah” in a movie, sued Ms. Albert for fraud. A jury found Ms. Albert guilty and ordered her to pay $116,000 in damages and $350,000 in legal fees.

In a telephone interview from Paris, where she said she was attending a party in conjunction with the showing of a television interview, Ms. Albert was intermittently tearful, full of rage and expressing compassion for the other recently unmasked hoaxers. She said that she was not sorry and that since she published her work as fiction, she had done nothing wrong.

“To me it was trying to work out how to take these problems of soul and spirit and transform them into problems of craft,” said Ms. Albert, who claimed that she had been physically and sexually abused as a child and spent her adolescence in group homes in New York. Now living in San Francisco with her 10-year-old son, Trevor, she said she is working on a script and writing for psychoPEDIA, an online magazine.

James Frey

Mr. Frey rocketed to fame when his memoir was selected by Oprah Winfrey”™s book club in 2005. Then, the Web site discovered that he had embellished several details; for example, he wrote that he had spent nearly three months in jail after leaving an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in the mid-1990s, although he was only held for a few hours.

Although he was at least truthfully representing the fact that he had been an addict who had undergone treatment, the ensuing media fallout was fierce, and Mr. Frey was taken to the woodshed on Ms. Winfrey”™s show. Now, two years later, he has a novel coming out in May from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. The publisher is planning an eight-city book tour and has announced a first print run (although these numbers are regularly exaggerated) of 350,000 copies.

Emily Davies

A former fashion writer for The Times of London, Ms. Davies had signed a contract with Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to write a memoir tentatively titled “How to Wear Black: Adventures on Fashion”™s Front-line.” But according to Publishers Weekly, the book, acquired by Sarah McGrath, the editor at Riverhead Books who shepherded Ms. Seltzer”™s “Love and Consequences,” was canceled when a story in Women”™s Wear Daily discovered numerous fabrications and plagiarized passages in the book proposal.

thanks Steffani