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The Memoirs That Weren't - Mo's Journal
March 24th, 2008
04:28 pm

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The Memoirs That Weren't
I want to do a new "Recent Reading" post and in this case it's historical fiction. But while I was thinking about the book I just read - and in particular what in it is history and what's fiction - my mind wandered to the recent news stories about debunking fake memoirs, so I thought I'd post about that first.

I've long been interested in made up memoirs. Not so much in the books themselves as in the whole process of how the authors get found out, of what's true and what isn't, of the people who are fooled - editors, readers, reviewers - who ought to know better. I thought Carcaterra's Sleepers was a pretty good novel, but I found the controversy over it a much better story. And I certainly feel it was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that he made it up. I never read the faux memoir A Rock and a Hard Place but I followed the debunking avidly. And I think Armistead Maupin's novelization of his involvement in the hoax (as one of many literary dupes), The Night Listener, is a truly brilliant book. To complete the circle, I found myself wondering a lot while reading The Night Listener which episodes were based on reality and which were fiction.

The two most recent debunkings made for interesting stories, too. The most interesting part about one of them, to me, is that it took so long to be found to be a fraud, and the other that it happened so quickly. Misha: a Memoir of the Holocaust Years tells the story of a young Jewish girl saved from the Nazis by a pack of wolves who adopt her and accompany her on a journey of 1900 miles across Europe. It took 10 years for someone to look at this and decide it wasn't that likely that it happened? The author of the memoir, as it turns out, was not only never adopted by wolves but is not even Jewish.

And then there's Margaret Seltzer, aka Margaret Jones. According to her memoir (now recalled from bookstores and refunds available to those who bought a copy), she was a half-white, half-Native American foster child/gang member raised in South Central Los Angeles after being removed from her home at age five, the victim of sexual abuse. In real life she is white, grew up with her biological family in an expensive suburb, and graduated from an exclusive private high school. Seltzer/Jones was exposed when the New York Times Home Section ran a profile on her house, with the idea that it would be interesting to profile someone who had been homeless for a long time and was now settled in a place of her own. The house she lives in actually is owned by her parents, so if the Times had checked up they'd have found out the book was a fabrication. They didn't, but Seltzer's older sister read the piece and called her sister's publisher. What a story there must be behind that! Did Cyndi Hoffman, the sister, know all along that her sister was fabricating a life story? Or did she only find out when she saw her sister's picture in the paper? Did she call her sister up? Their parents? Or just go directly to the publisher? I'd love to know the details.

I've certainly known people who misrepresent themselves and their history, both irl and on the 'net. I would guess most of my flist does, too. I've generally chosen not to reveal the inventions. Of course none of them have been on the scale of Margaret Seltzer. Most just make themselves a little more successful, having overcome a little more in the way of challenges, have a little more experience that makes their opinions credible than they do in reality. And, on lj and other internet communities, I think chances are anything I know others have as well. So unless true damage is being done by the deception I mostly let lying dogs sleep. Perhaps I'd feel differently if it were a relative and a published memoir...

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From:roxymissrose
Date:March 24th, 2008 11:22 pm (UTC)
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I've known people who fabricate the most outrageous lives, full of excitement, major celebrities, danger and what not. There's something about the really incredible lies that leave you kind of awe-struck. I've never said to anyone that they were full of crap--I just assumed they knew I knew and we were just doing...performance theater? It's such an odd thing. But as you say, as long as no real damage is being done, I'd rather let it go.
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2008 10:49 am (UTC)
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My first foray into online community was in parenting communities, particularly attachment parenting and breastfeeding. We were infiltrated by a man who liked to pretend he was a breastfeeding mother for fetishistic purposes. He got to a point where he was really disruptive and I was on a team that rooted him out (he had a few personae on a few lists). Before that, some folks had suspected but hadn't said anything. I think we did right to step in when we did, but it's a tough call. The end result was tightening up on membership requirements on all the lists, which was a mixed bag...

Edited at 2008-03-28 08:03 pm (UTC)
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From:lilacsigil
Date:March 25th, 2008 03:08 am (UTC)
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The damage that I worry about is to the people who do genuinely have those experiences - there's real child Holocaust survivors and real LA gang members who were sexually abused at home. Why aren't they interesting? Why are not just their very real stories but their actual lives the subject of white fantasy and appropriation?

An Australian author (Helen Darville/Helen Demidenko) managed to write an anti-Semitic screed in her prize-winning novel while claiming that it was a historical representation of the feelings of her Ukrainian immigrant family, and no-one had a right to challenge that. Not only did she not have any Ukrainian ancestors, she represented Ukrainians as naturally and ahistorically anti-Semitic. And she plagiarised, too.

Two more ambiguous examples are Roberta Sykes and Mudrooroo, both of whom thought they had an absent Aboriginal father and based their identities on that (and were in fact considered Aboriginal and persecuted for it). Roberta Sykes' father was probably an African-American sailor; Mudrooroo's turned out to be Sri Lankan. There was no deliberate deception, and yet they used identities which were not, in fact, true. I really don't know what I think about these circumstances, of accidental misrepresentation, but of a group of people to whom family, place and bloodlines are extremely important.

(edited for annoying typo)

Edited at 2008-03-25 03:09 am (UTC)
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2008 10:58 am (UTC)
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Those are all interesting examples. FWIW I think there's a really strong current of anti-Semitism in Ukrainian history. One can challenge the beliefs without challenging the history.

In any event I do think that publishing frauds should be exposed - sorry if that wasn't clear. In the more personal situations, I think it's sometimes a little more morally ambiguous. The interesting thing about the Margaret Jones one, to me, was that it combined personal and public. Her sister in this case decided to call the publisher. Someone else might have felt that she would get exposed eventually and that it didn't have to be her turning her in. And we don't know if her sister called *her* first and asked her to come clean or went straight to the publisher. Which is why I think there has to be an interesting family story there, too.
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From:tobias_cur
Date:March 25th, 2008 04:34 am (UTC)

Oh No They Di'nt!

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I recall reading the headlines for the Seltzer/Jones fiasco, but I admit that I rolled by eyes, and didn’t bother to read further. I certainly know people who have altered or invented parts of their personal histories in real life – heck most resumes are part fiction – and certainly some amount of deceit is inevitable on the internet where anonymity rules supreme. People claim to be the gender they are not, to have qualifications they do not, and to have special expertise that only some kind of savant might posses. I too am more than willing to allow those inconsistencies to continue provided they don’t actually hurt me or anyone I care about.

That said, an author crosses a line (that shouldn’t be crossed) when they publish a book and claim it is autobiographical. Some details in non-fiction may allowably be embellished or altered to protect individual identities etc. but what the author is in fact saying is “this happened, it is fact, I know because it happened to me, and these were the people, places, things, ideals that were involved.” Readers do, I think, expect some incongruities between fact and the authors perception within an autobiography, humans being imperfect as we are, but there is a huge leap to be made between misinterpretation of events and a complete fabrication. At some point a deliberate choice was made, and I do feel strongly that those who chose the path of public deception should be punished.

Personally I find that fiction written in ‘first person’ can be powerful, revealing, and poignant without taking the unnecessary step of claiming that evens in the story actually happened. Nor, in my personal opinion, does it detract from a story if I know the events are ‘made up.’ Isn’t it a fiction writer’s job to refine lies until they resemble the truth? Making the claim that fictional events are real seems like a deliberately crafted fraud to sell more copies of a book by pushing the title into a more widely read genre or possibly two genres at the same time, or by falsely billing the book as non-fiction. I have no proof that autobiographies and non-fiction books have a wider reader base; it is, I’ll admit, complete supposition on my part when I try to imagine some benefit that would make an author take the considerable risk of publishing fiction as if it were fact.

The unconscious idea (in my opinion) that we treat real life events with greater reverence than fictional events might cause an author to make that leap, if that author wanted their work to be given more consideration, or perhaps to belay any disbelief or objections a reader might have in the material itself if the reader knew in advance that the events were purely fictional. I’d love to claim that it’s a trick employed by poor writers but in truth the stories – as evidenced by the controversy - are so well crafted that the public and book industry alike embrace them as entirely true.

Anyway, it’s certainly interesting to think about.

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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2008 11:01 am (UTC)

Re: Oh No They Di'nt!

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In the "Margaret Jones" case and also James Frey, apparently the books were originally written as novels and no one was interested, which supports your idea that real life events are treated with greater reverence. Carcaterra did something sort of in between. He published it as a novel but said that it was true and he just changed names and identifying details - sort of trying to have it both ways.
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From:truwest
Date:March 25th, 2008 08:02 am (UTC)
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Well, the in-person situation is a tricky one. When somebody is telling a story that sounds like a fabrication and they're telling it as true, it's very awkward to intervene - to say "oh now, that sounds like a crock" or to say baldly "that's a lie." So yes in in-person situations, people tend to keep their mouths shut and let the liar piffle on.

But in that instance, awkward silence in the presence of the liar *does not* necessarily imply tolerance or support -- only conflict avoidance. Often when the liar isn't present, the person who knows the truth will inform others that the story was a fabrication. Thus you end up with the strained situation where everybody in the audience knows the liar is lying, but nobody wants to be aggressive and confrontational and tell the liar that s/he is full of it.

But I do believe (in personal life and with published memoirs) that there is real damage done when people tell outrageous lies about their lives.

First off, there are people who believe that this is the truth and who are being deceived; that's immoral and wrong, even if those people never realize they were lied to. The sense of betrayal and deception is usually pretty strong in people who find out that they were lied to, esp on deeply personal things (and most false memoirs are about deeply personal things).

Then there's the "misappropriation of someone else's reality/story" -- often these liar memoirs claim that the author is from an ethnic minority, or a victim group (sexual abuse survivors) or some other group, when in fact they are not. So the liar via their story/memoir is mispresenting themselves as an example or spokesperson for that disadvantaged group, on false pretences. Their lying, esp when publicly exposed, can give an aura of discredit to the whole group. A sense that "you can't believe what *those* people say, because it all turns out to be BS in the end."

Finally, there's the damage that's done when the liar is exposed. There's already so much lying and manipulation and BS in the world. People are already cynical and distrusting, because they're tired of being scammed all the time.

But society needs a level of trust to function. So people who damage social trust by blatantly lying to others -- big lies, not the little white lies that we all tell to spare people's feelings -- can undermine the basic fabric of a socially supportive society. And that in and of itself is morally reprehensible.

If people get the impression that "you can't trust anybody, the world is full of liars" -- then those people are less likely to give to charity, for example, or to be welcoming to a stranger, etc, because they've come to believe that the world is full of lying manipulative nasty people. YMMV of course.
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2008 11:05 am (UTC)
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Those are all good points. I do think - in the personal exaggeration situations, as opposed to the publishing fabrication ones - that there's often something going on that isn't lying, manipulative nastiness. Sometimes it's just kind of wish fulfillment, particularly on the 'net. Someone can be a successful actress/model/writer or even just a man when she isn't any of those things irl...
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From:thinking_lotus
Date:March 25th, 2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
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ah, the issue of when it's OK to be fictional and when it's not. I think that a lot of fiction has been published on the web that has not ever been properly identified as such. I tend to look at the whole thing as a giant novel. I was interested, when I went back and read my 11 year old email travel diary (the link is in the most recent post on my lj, if you haven't seen it already) how much I didn't fictionalize and leave out, compared to how I handle it now. I think because back then I really hadn't been on many mailing lists and hadn't realized how much these things can get passed around. Also now I feel like I have to protect my husband and son since there are people online who know them.

What is my point? Oh, you are interested in how these things get revealed; I'm more interested in how they are perceived to be true in the first place. Because when you look at many of them they seem, frankly, implausible. What is it about these narratives that makes people want to believe them. Why do cons and swindles work? Because people want to believe in them.
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2008 02:28 pm (UTC)
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What is it about these narratives that makes people want to believe them. Why do cons and swindles work? Because people want to believe in them.

Yes, that's another interesting aspect of the whole thing. Certainly there's something uplifting in believing in a pack of wolves saving a little girl. And in some cases the narrative is disturbing and disgusting and appalling and if you're reading fiction you might feel some trepidations about enjoying something disturbing and disgusting and appalling. But if you believe it then maybe you *need* to know.

I'm kind of pathologically honest. I can - and often do - not say things, including not answering questions I don't want to answer. But I'm no good at fictionalizing when talking about my life (although I'm quite good, I think, at incorporating real life dialogue and other autobiographical elements into my fiction). When I started writing slash I used a pseudonym because I didn't want anyone to know, but everything I said about myself to readers was true, anyway, and ultimately I decided I didn't need to be anonymous...

And, actually, I find that most people I've met online are pretty much who they say they are.
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