The Fake Memoirist's Survival Guide
How to embellish your life story without getting caught.
The past month has not been kind to literary fabricators. The self-proclaimed half-Native American/foster child/South Central gangster Margaret B. Jones turned out to be Margaret Seltzer, a white girl from the leafy suburb Sherman Oaks. Misha Defonseca confessed that her Holocaust memoir, in which she traversed Europe, escaped Nazis, and lived with a pack of wolves, was a fantasy. Both revelations recall the fallout after James Frey's 2003 addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces turned out to be partially fabricated.
Lying to readers and editors is shameful, to be sure. But the real embarrassment is that these writers got caught. For all their celebrated imagination, fabulists too often do a shoddy job of covering their tracks. Examine the trajectories of disgraced memoirists and you start to see some patterns that could, if studied closely, help avoid future literary humiliations. To that end, here are a few tips for aspiring fakers to keep in mind, lest they get caught in fabricante delicto.
Specificity is your enemy. Write with passionate vagueness. Avoid precise dates; don't get more exact than the year if you can help it. Better yet, the decade. One scholar challenged the authenticity of Misha Defonseca's memoir based on her claim that her family was deported from Belgium in 1941—in reality, the Germans didn't deport Belgian Jews until 1942. Frey was undone when the Smoking Gun discovered he had spent only a few hours in jail, not three months. When in doubt, go with "awhile."
Write what you know—but no one else does. Stick with obscure locations, cultures, and subject matter. The second you start treading turf where there are "experts," you might as well surrender. Norma Khouri wrote the best-selling 2003 book Forbidden Love, which recounts the honor killing of her best friend in Jordan. She was outed when a Jordanian reader spotted blatantly ahistorical details. For example, the unisex hair salon where much of the story takes place could not have existed by law in the mid-1990s. While reading Defonseca's memoir, a scholar pointed out that, among other errors, wolf saliva does not actually work as an antiseptic. A tube of Neosporin would have been far more believable.
Be a victim. Holocaust survivor, recovered addict, former prostitute, child soldier, Native American. Better yet, some combination thereof. This way, you'll make people nervous about doubting your testimony. Practice looking offended in the mirror.
Check your paper trail. Khouri was done in by passport records. Defonseca's elementary school register gave the lie to her scribblings. JT Leroy, who claimed to have been a cross-dressing teenage truck-stop prostitute, was exposed as Laura Albert after the advance for Leroy's first book, Sarah, was traced to Albert's sister. Again, siblings can be trouble. Maybe best to be an only child?
Don't leave witnesses. Margaret Seltzer did a nice job of making her imaginary siblings hard for a meddling reporter to track down. In the New York Times' review of her memoir, we learn that her brother Terrell was "killed by the Crips at 21" and her youngest sister, NeeCee, "killed herself three years ago." Unfortunately, her real sister, Cyndi Hoffman, is very much alive. When she saw Seltzer's photo in the Times, Hoffman phoned the publisher and outed her. Warning: If your sister was always tattling on you as a kid, address this problem before the profile in the Times House & Home section.
Don't leave clues! This should go without saying, but fake memoirists have an embarrassing penchant for leaving fingerprints all over the murder weapon. The epic quest to undo Defonseca received a boost when sleuths noted that the U.S. edition of Misha mentioned the author's real name, Monique De Wael, and the U.K. edition included her date of birth. An equally dumb move exposed "Forrest Carter," whose "autobiography" of a Native American child, The Education of Little Tree, became a phenomenon in 1976. Carter, it turns out, was actually a white supremacist and former Klansman named Asa Carter. The evidence that brought him down? A copy of the book inscribed by "Forrest (Asa) Carter."
Don't tell anyone—especially your biographer. Another point that should be obvious. But none other than Nadine Gordimer made the mistake of confessing to her biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, that she had fabricated parts of an autobiographical essay published in The New Yorker in 1954. She hasn't denied his account but accused Roberts of a breach of trust. Ahem.
Beware of blurbs. Defonseca's memoir raised the eyebrows of two scholars who were asked to blurb her book. They warned the publisher that it was fantasy, but the book hit shelves—and, this year, theaters—anyway. If you made up your story, don't ask scholars to blurb it. That's just playing with fire.
When cornered, confess. There's nothing sadder than a fabricator railing against indisputable evidence. (Exhibit A: Norma Khouri.) Acknowledge your sins. Feel free, however, to insist that you're telling the "emotional truth." The details don't matter, as long as you're painting an accurate picture of how you felt—real truth is for stenographers. When needed, scapegoats can include childhood trauma, a breakup, drugs, or gender confusion. Worst-case scenario: long, tearful, Oprah-assisted soul-searching. Best-case scenario: another book deal.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.