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November 30, 2023


Always Be Healthy

Memoir Madness

8 min read

I have an idea for struggling bookstores. Right next to the Memoir section, create a new section called Fake Memoirs. Trust me, the books in the Fake Memoirs section would sell far better. After all, if nothing else, these books are guaranteed great reads. There certainly wouldn’t be any problem filling the Fake section. Phony memoirs are appearing fast and furiously–so much so that one wonders whether it’s possible editors aren’t wise to what they’re publishing. Could they really be that dumb? Perhaps.

Faux memoirs are nothing new. In the 5th century BCE, Dionysius the Renegade wrote a play called Parthenopaeus and passed it off as the work of Sophocles. Dionysius’s motive was to make a fool of his rival, Heraclides. When Heraclides dismissed Dionysius’s claim that the play was a fake, Dionysius revealed acrostics he had hidden in the text. One read: “An old monkey isn’t caught by a trap. Oh yes, he’s caught at last, but it takes time.” Another said simply: “Heraclides is ignorant of letters.”

These days, the motive behind literary hoaxes isn’t spite but money. So rampant is the fake-memoir phenomenon that it’s even the subject of a recent play, A Lifetime Burning by Cusi Cram. The play’s heroine, Emma, in reality a well-to-do woman of Irish heritage, weaves a life story full of lies. She’s part Inca, a former crack addict.

Emma knows “misery lit” sells. So did James Frey, whose hugely successful A Million Little Pieces, a grueling memoir of drug addiction and recovery (including root canals without anesthesia for fear of an addictive reaction to Novocain), completely took in Oprah Winfrey. When it was revealed Frey had exaggerated many of the book’s key elements, Oprah had both the author and his editor, Doubleday’s Nan Talese, as guests on her show. She blasted them. As David Carr wrote in The New York Times: “Both Mr. Frey and Ms. Talese were snapped in two like dry winter twigs.”

Ersatz memoirs of harrowing upbringings are nothing new. They should perhaps have their own subsection in the Fake Memoir department. One of the best known is Go Ask Alice by Anonymous, published in 1971. It’s supposedly the diary of a 15-year-old girl who died of a drug overdose in the late sixties. The author, Beatrice Sparks, purported to be the book’s “editor,” certainly had the world fooled. The New York Times called the book “a document of horrifying reality and literary quality.” But in a later interview, Sparks stated Go Ask Alice had been based on the diary of one of her patients but that Sparks had added material based on her work with other patients. To this day, no one claiming to have known the real “Alice” has ever been found.

In another famous false youth memoir, a girl who is part Native American and part Caucasian writes of growing up as a foster child in South-Central Los Angeles. In Love and Consequences, published in early 2008, Margaret B. Jones writes that she ran drugs and carried illegal guns for the Bloods; her brother was shot to death by the Crips. The New York Times called the book “humane and deeply affecting.” That may have been true, but it was also completely made up by one Margaret Seltzer, a young white woman who grew up with her natural family in affluent Sherman Oaks. In radio interviews she spoke in African American Vernacular English, referring to her alleged gang buddies as her “homies.”

In the mid-nineties a teenage boy known as JT (for Jeremy “Terminator”) LeRoy gained attention by publishing short stories and communicating with older writers by fax, email and phone. JT was a transgendered, homosexual, drug-addicted teenager who had been forced by his abusive mother into prostitution. In 1999 he published a novel called Sarah. A critical success, the book gained him celebrity friendships. However, almost no one had actually ever seen JT, and those few encounters were always very short-attributed to JT’s extreme shyness. Around 2001 he began appearing in public, but he wore a hat, wig and dark sunglasses. More books appeared. One of them, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, was being turned into a film.

Then a writer named Stephen Beachy published an article in New York Magazine asking whether JT LeRoy was a real person, and proposing that he was in fact the pseudonym of 39-year-old woman named Laura Albert, who had supposedly taken JT off the streets and let him live with her and her husband. Invariably she was with JT at his appearances, and JT’s earnings were always paid to members of Albert’s family.

But who was the person appearing as JT in public? More damaging pieces appeared, including one in The New York Times exposing the public JT as Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Laura’s ex-husband. Laura was revealed as the real author of the JT LeRoy books. In 2007 she was convicted of fraud and ordered to pay reparations for signing legal documents in the name of her fictional persona.

Not long ago an author named Nasdijj published The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams and two other novels recounting details of the author’s life: his Navajo heritage, his abusive parents, and growing up to become the father of an adopted child with fetal alcohol syndrome and another who is HIV-positive. “Unfailingly honest and very nearly perfect,” Esquire called The Blood Runs. But honest it was not. The author, real name Timothy Patrick Barrus, had made it all up.

Holocaust Horrors

Another popular subgenre of made-up memoirs are those set against the ghastliness of the Holocaust. In 1996 Shocken Books published Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood by Binjamin Wilkomirski. “Stunning,” The New York Times called the book, which received major literary prizes in the US, France and Britain. In the book the author writes of internment in not one but two concentration camps. In the late 1990s a Swiss journalist exposed the memoir as a fake by a man named Bruno Dossekker who had fabricated his Holocaust-survivor past.

Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years was published by Misha Defonseca in 1997. In it the author tells the story of walking nearly two thousand miles across Europe in search of her deported parents, killing a German officer in self-defense and being adopted by a pack of wolves. The bestseller was translated into 19 languages and made into a film. But in early 2008, after much speculation as to the book’s authenticity, Defonseca (real name Monique de Wael) admitted publicly that the memoir was made up. The story, she said, “is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving.” There were moments, she said, when she “found it difficult to differentiate between what was real and what was part of my imagination.”

Finally, there is Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived by Herman Rosenblat. In it he tells of his imprisonment in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and of a nine-year-old girl on the outside who would throw him food over an electrified fence. Years later they would meet accidentally on a blind date and marry. Rosenblat appeared twice on The Oprah Winfrey Show; she called Angel at the Fence “the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on the air.” However, shortly before the book’s publication, its main events were discovered to be false. Publication was cancelled. Ironically, though Rosenblat’s story of the apple girl was invented, he is an authentic Holocaust survivor.

Classic Fakes

Another shelf might be devoted to Classic Memoir Hoaxes. Take, for instance, 1969’s Papillon, convicted felon Henri Charriere’s account of his adventures in prisons and penal colonies in and around French Guiana. It was a runaway bestseller around the world and became the famous movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. What readers and viewers didn’t know was that Charriere originally wrote the book as a novel. It was his publisher, Robert Laffont, who convinced him to peddle it as a memoir.

Was any of the story true? Yes; Charriere had been convicted of murdering a friend, had escaped from the French Penal Colony in French Guiana, had been banished to solitary confinement on the island of St. Joseph and had eventually escaped to Venezuela. But that’s about it. In truth, Charriere was a model prisoner. But model prisoners don’t sell books.

Another classic fake came to light when a German magazine journalist named Gerd Heidemann claimed to have rescued from a plane wreck the personal diaries (62 volumes!) of none other than Adolf Hitler. Supposedly, the plane had been carrying Hitler’s personal belongings, and that when he learned of the crash Hitler cried, “In that plane were all my private archives that I had intended as a testament to posterity. It is a catastrophe!” Experts confirmed The Hitler Diaries as authentic. Major magazines including Newsweek and Parismatch backed Heidemann’s story. Then West Germany’s Federal Archives declared the diaries expert forgeries by one Konrad Kujua, who specialized in creating fake Nazi memorabilia. Heidemann and Kujua were both convicted of forgery and embezzlement and served 42 months in prison.

No Guts, No Glory

Purveyors of fake memoirs are nothing if not gutsy. In 2001 Simon & Schuster published a book called The Honored Society by a man calling himself Michael Gambino and claiming to be the illegitimate grandson of Mafioso Carlo Gambino. In the book, the author writes of his life as a gangster, including twelve years in prison for murder, bribery, pimping, gambling, extortion, kidnapping and money laundering. Carlo Gambino’s real grandson Thomas exposed the book as a fake written by a man named Michael Pellegrino, who had earlier served time for theft and impersonating an FBI agent.

In her runaway bestseller Mutant Message Down Under, Marlo Morgan wrote of time spent with Aboriginals in Australia. Various Aboriginal groups protested and claims were made that Morgan may never actually have set foot in Australia and had made up large portions of the book. Now the book is clearly marked as fiction.

In the late eighties, a memoir called Satan’s Underground by Lauren Stratford told of the author’s upbringing in a Satanic cult. She was a breeder, producing babies who were murdered in snuff films and sacrificed by Satanists before her eyes. After investigators dismissed her claims as complete fabrications, Stratford (real name Laurel Rose Willson), undaunted, reinvented herself as Laura Grabowski, a survivor of Mengele’s experiments at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Norma Khouri cashed in on the world’s growing interest in the Middle East when in 2003 she published Forbidden Love (also published as Honor Lost), the purported story of her best friend, Dalia, a Jordanian woman who fell in love with a Christian soldier. When Dalia’s Muslim father learns of the relationship, he stabs Dalia to death in an “honor killing.” A year after publication it was discovered that Khouri had made the whole story up. Khouri, however, still insists her memoir is true.

Perhaps the best-known memoir hoax is the one perpetrated by Clifford Irving and Richard Suskind when they created a fraudulent autobiography of the reclusive Howard Hughes. The two men believed Hughes would never draw attention to himself by denouncing their book. Irving forged letters from Hughes and used them to convince publisher McGraw-Hill to offer a hefty contract. But Irving and Suskind had been wrong about Hughes. He went public, saying he had never even met Clifford Irving. Irving, his wife Edith and Suskind were indicted for fraud. Irving spent 17 months in prison, Suskind five months.

I’m telling you–you can’t make this stuff up.

Well, actually, you can.

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