Mo (mofic) wrote,
Mo
mofic

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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    I finally saw it this past weekend (HBO on Demand) and just loved it, so I thought I'd squee a bit here. I only wish I had seen it on a big screen.…

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