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Modern Problems, or, The Week in Fabrication

March 4, 2008

The Simply Embarrassing

Motoko Rich, “Author Admits Acclaimed Memoir Is Fantasy“. New York Times, 3 March 2008.

In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.

Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed.

Riverhead Books, the unit of Penguin Group USA that published “Love and Consequences,” is recalling all copies of the book and has canceled Ms. Seltzer’s book tour, which was scheduled to start on Monday in Eugene, Ore., where she currently lives ….

…. Ms. Seltzer’s story started unraveling last Thursday after she was profiled in the House & Home section of The New York Times. The article appeared alongside a photograph of Ms. Seltzer and her 8-year-old daughter, Rya. Ms. Seltzer’s older sister, Cyndi Hoffman, saw the article and called Riverhead to tell editors that Ms. Seltzer’s story was untrue ….

…. Sarah McGrath, the editor at Riverhead who worked with Ms. Seltzer for three years on the book, said she was stunned to discover that the author had lied.

“It’s very upsetting to us because we spent so much time with this person and we felt such sympathy for her and she would talk about how she didn’t have any money or any heat and we completely bought into that and thought we were doing something good by bringing her story to light,” Ms. McGrath said.

“There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one,” she said.

No, there is no punch line coming. No condemnation, no hammer and nails. No wondering what Christmas dinner must be like. In truth, this phenomenon escapes my comprehension, and for the simplest and most obvious reasons. How do people not expect to get caught?

It strikes me that there is, in that context, a story in there somewhere. And it can only be a tragedy.

• • •

The Spectacularly Embarrassing

Lindesay Irvine, “Nazi flight memoir was fiction, author confesses. GuardianUnlimited, 3 March 2008.

Misha Defonseca, whose bestselling account of a childhood flight from the Nazis was made into a feature film and translated into 18 languages, has admitted that her memoir is a work of fiction. Surviving with Wolves, her story of a 1,900 mile trek across Europe, living with a pack of wolves and shooting a German soldier in self defence, is now said to bear little resemblance to any real course of events in the author’s life.

Defonseca, a Belgian writer who now lives in Massachusetts, was contacted by her own lawyers in the wake of research published in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir questioning her story. The 71-year-old author, conceded that she was not Jewish and confessed that she had fabricated the story.

“Yes, my name is Monique De Wael, but I have wanted to forget it since I was four years old,” she said in a statement from her lawyers obtained by Associated Press. “My parents were arrested and I was taken in by my grandfather, Ernest De Wael, and my uncle, Maurice De Wael. I was called ‘daughter of a traitor’ because my father was suspected of having talked under torture in the prison of Saint-Gilles. Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish.”

Perhaps the one thing Ms. Seltzer had going for her amid collapsing literary ambitions this week is that her fall from grace will be overshadowed by an episode of legendary notoriety. While Love and Consequences crumbled shortly before its publication, Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years hit the shelves in 1997 and, more recently, was the subject of a legal dispute with Defonseca and her ghostwriter accusing Mount Ivy Press of various wrongdoing that resulted in a $32.4 million judgment against the publisher. According to a background summary released by Sullivan & Worcester LLP in the wake of the decision, “Without money, facing the loss of her home, she maintained her courage and dignity and refused to allow Mt. Ivy to take that, which undisputedly was hers: her story.”

The irony is nearly toxic.

• • •

Reflections

Over at GuardianUnlimited, Claire Armistead blogs a few words on “making up memoirs“.

-bd

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One comment

  1. Spitzer and Seltzer

    After 20 years as a shrink, I was reminded today by perhaps my favorite and certainly most intelligent client that the only logical reason for Governor Spitzer’s behavior was that he wanted to be caught–so goes Seltzer.

    -michael



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