News & Politics

Literary Frauds Strike Again ... and Again

A Valley Girl masquerades as an L.A. gangster and a Catholic woman says she's a Jew raised by wolves. Why do people keep falling for such frauds?
Say you meet me at a party and I tell you that when I was 7 years old, I killed a full-grown military officer, then ran off and was nurtured by a pack of wolves. Would you believe me or begin edging away quietly, keeping the snack table between us at all times?

Or say I'm a healthy-looking, articulate young white woman, and I tell you I used to work for the Bloods in L.A. -- a full-time gun-strapped gangbanger. Would you believe me or laugh in my unbruised, orthodontured face?

If you said you would believe these stories, then please stand by -- the process of natural selection will be along for you in a moment. More likely you scoffed at the idea you'd fall for such obvious crap.

But hordes of otherwise intelligent readers did believe those ridiculous stories, as told in two recent "memoirs" later shown to be invented: Misha Defonseca's Surviving With Wolves features a child killing an SS officer and being saved by wolves, and Margaret B. Jones' Love and Consequences is a gang "memoir" by a white girl from a nice, stable family. "Misha Defonseca" was born Monique de Waal, a Belgian Catholic girl. "Margaret B. Jones," supposed author of Love and Consequences, is actually Margaret Seltzer, a white woman who grew up with her intact biological family in California's San Fernando Valley. She has none of the Native-American ancestry she claims, nor did she grow up with the black foster brothers she describes in her book.

The way Seltzer's hoax was revealed shows the gap between mainstream and literary value. When Seltzer's sister read about these claims to infamy in Love and Consequences, she was outraged and started phoning everyone she could to reveal that it was all lies.

She considered her sister's claim an insult to the family. Only within the world of the self-serving memoir is a background in violence and petty crime a thing of value. And this value is quite real, as shown by the huge success of Janet Fitch's novel, White Oleander (1999), which tells a very similar, ostensibly autobiographical story of a white L.A. girl drawn into the underworld.

Of course, when you see a picture of Seltzer's notably white face, your natural reaction is to ask, "And people believed she was a Blood? How could anybody fall for such nonsense?"

People fall for literary forgeries for several reasons, all of which are very embarrassing to the victims (which is why there's always such rage against the poor forger). Improbability is crucial to these stories, a glamorous improbability, with heroes or heroines who survive exotic forms of suffering that people do not, in fact, survive.

The first ingredient is exotic, glamorous pain. We all suffer, but most suffering is not glamorous. Audiences don't want to hear about the kind of suffering they actually endure. So to a medieval peasant sufferings like cold, vermin, beatings and plague would not have been exotic or saleable. Those people wanted stories about what they didn't have, like enough to eat or a warm palace to sleep in. They told tales of palaces that fell into the possession of plucky orphans and magic tables that always overflowed with food.

If you read their stories, you'll find the suffering in the first paragraphs: "So-and-so was an orphan who was beaten every day and fed on what the pigs left. Then one day, she found a magic (noun of choice here) ...."

Fast-forward a few hundred years and you find us, the doughy descendants of those wretched peasants, so stuffed with food that we obsess on losing weight. Magic tables constantly filling with roasted goose are the last thing we want to hear about.

Only now do stories about cold and hunger without happy magical endings become popular, because that form of suffering is, for most of us, a nice distraction from the actual sufferings we undergo.

So naturally, writers, always desperate and cunning, start thinking: wouldn't it be great to make myself the hero(ine) of a story of modern suffering that was no fault of my own? That'd really have them sobbing at my feet and bring in the money too.

Jones and Defonseca found different but similar routes to a solution, fixing on suffering that was glamorous, familiar and yet exotic to their office-bound readers: the Holocaust and the L.A. gangsta life.

It's important to realize here that the "suffering" of these stories is erotic to the reader, just as the vision of a magic table always full of food was erotic to a medieval audience. And by looking at what forgers feed their gullible readers, we can see how cultures change.

The success of Jones' and Defonseca's books suggests that, to a modern American book buyer, it would be glamorous to be a gang member or be raised by wolves. This is a very recent change; wolves were the villains of the older European folk tales. People who lived in the Northern forest were scared to death of wolves. As people concentrate in cities and wiped out the wolves, wolves become glamorous; glamour and scarcity, linked as always.

The ethnic background concocted by "Misha Defonseca" is also very revealing of social changes. Very few Europeans pretended to be Jewish before 1945. It was, indeed, rather more common to pretend not to be Jewish. The fact that Misha, born into a Belgian Catholic family named de Waal, lied to make herself Jewish reflects the impressive success of American Jews in the latter half of the 20th century and the special status accorded to the Holocaust and its survivors. What's truly remarkable about the author's ethnic shift is that Monique de Waal's parents were in fact heroic Resistance fighters and really were murdered by the Nazis. But "Misha" decided that Belgian Catholic resistants were not saleable and made herself a Jew.

Misha's publisher, Jane Daniel, said, "It's almost impossible when you are up against a Holocaust survivor. That mantle became a bullet-proof vest or a Teflon coat with an assumed air of moral superiority."

Of course Daniel is hardly an innocent herself. In fact, she's the defendant in a huge lawsuit brought by Monique de Waal, or whatever you want to call her, claiming that Daniel cheated the writer and failed to honor her responsibilities as publisher. Don't expect good guys or innocents in stories about literary fraud. There are none. Everyone, even the reader -- especially the reader -- is complicit in such frauds.

But Daniel is right about the dangers of doubting any claims by Holocaust survivors, or even people who tell stories on their behalf. When Steven Spielberg was asked what right he had to make Schindler's List, he flat-out lied and said that he had been persecuted for being Jewish at his high school in Saratoga, California. When journalists went to Saratoga to follow up on this claim and came up empty, they didn't call Spielberg on it -- they just dropped it. Cultures tend to punish harshly those who puncture sacred narratives and reward those who buttress them, no matter how flimsy the claim or unqualified the storyteller.

So you'll always find the sleazy literary forger being blessed by the most sanctimonious priests, secular or religious, in any culture. Take Oprah, who famously canonized forger James Frey on her show, then excommunicated him for lying to her. She was apparently scheduled to interview the author of Misha before the charade collapsed. Oprah is to the contemporary dullard what the religious hierarchy is to most earlier cultures; she separates the wheat from the chaff, the worthy from the unworthy.

Until the 20th century, many forgers exploited the religious hierarchy in the same way Frey exploited Oprah. One hilarious example is of a cunning French impostor who landed in London, hungry and penniless, in the early 18th century. Quickly sizing up the possibilities for a glib liar, the new arrival claimed he was "Psalmanazar," a Taiwanese refugee. "Psalmanazar" was actually a young man from the South of France, one of those European drifters who, like the young Rousseau, traveled the continent exploiting the missions of one or another Christian sect. When he reached England, he cleverly put his "Taiwanese" act to work by having a well-timed epiphany upon hearing the central tenets of Anglicanism.

Psalmanazar must have enjoyed hamming it up as he pretended to listen to the tedious quibbles that validated the Anglican creed over Catholic and Calvinist "heresies," but he pretended that the light of natural reason had shone clearly on the version espoused by the state church of his new homeland. He made quite a nice living off that little testimonial and was even hired to teach the Taiwanese language -- of which he knew not one word -- to Anglican missionaries.

Forgers are always there to prop up wobbly yet precious beliefs. But as the audience's desires change, the particular beliefs and stories forgers tell change too. Take James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. When this silly tale of drugs, rehab and redemption came out in 2003, I was the first reviewer to call it a tissue of lies.

It wasn't that I'm such a clever critic; it's just that I'm one of the few Americans willing to say out loud that I love drugs, have used lots of drugs and had a great time on them. So, as an outsider, I could see how cynically Frey's story was designed to reinforce the popular lie that drugs always lead to destruction. We have all known lots of successful, functioning drug users (though many are still closeted), but almost all of us have learned to blank out that knowledge when we sit in front of the TV and listen to another sermon on the evils of drug use. So a writer who invokes "drugs" as the villain of the piece is almost as safe as one like Misha, who invoked the most villainous villains of all, the Nazis.

Forgers count on a gullible, pious audience, though the pieties invoked may not be explicitly religious. Often, they're broader, older patterns of myth that we know at heart aren't true but want badly to believe. Misha's story, for example, clearly plays on the old nonsense that good will triumph over evil, even when "good" is a 7-year-old child and "evil" a full-grown SS officer. In a fight like that, it's not hard to see what would happen: child dies horribly, so is in no position to write her memoirs.

Frey's story of (fake) debauchery redeemed by stern self-discipline confirms Americans' beloved, fatuous beliefs that people change in mid-life and that self-discipline can overcome anything.

That's all most readers of such tripe care about: the cultural bottom line, the ideology the story backs up. I discovered this when I tried to point out that Frey was a lousy writer who knew nothing about the drug world. Nobody responded to those arguments. The only thing that interested either his supporters or his detractors was whether Frey's claim to have redeemed himself without the help of Alcoholics Anonymous was helpful or destructive. Pro-AA readers excoriated Frey for leading readers from the True Path; advocates of the old bootstraps approach thought Frey was preaching the true gospel. The fact that he couldn't write and didn't know shit about drugs didn't matter to anyone.

Of course, some forgeries change the mix of ingredients: a little more erotica, a little less propping up of tenuous tribal myths. Margaret Jones' lurid stories of the wild life among the L.A. gangs focused mainly on telling the horrible details of this "suffering" in such detail that her more timid, office-slave readers could salivate over them at leisure. And at the same time she helps prop up the culture's cherished myth that drugs equals death, with lines like this: "One of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot." And by displaying her own unmarred face on the book jacket, she tells readers, as did the equally unscarred James Frey, that with enough gumption the protagonist can not only escape the life of sin but erase the marks it tends to leave on everybody else who goes through it.

And along the way, ah, what an opportunity for extended, voluptuous descriptions of sin, glorious sin! Of course this has always been a common feature of preaching; it was pretty much the only way the prim Victorian audience could get its verbal pornography without guilt. Only the nature of the sin changes. When preaching to an audience truly familiar with a life of nonstop violence and treachery, most writers move quickly over the details. They know their listeners are all too familiar with them and don't really want to hear more than they need to sweeten the coming redemption.

But to a middle-class readership so timid it's afraid of second-hand smoke, caffeine and sex outside of marriage, la vida loca is pure erotica. "Oh, tell us at length about how you wallowed in such career-risking sin!" As wolves get scarce, they get sexy; the same thing applies to guns and cocaine. We live in a remarkably fogey-ish era, and the stuffier we get, the more we need to hear about people who snort, fuck and shoot without thought of what it might do to their permanent record.

This is the key: the life we actually lead, the life shown only in rare moments of brave art like the TV series The Office. This new kind of indoor suffering, which does not involve physical violence or privation, is the suffering that drives authors to go to the huge effort and risk of making up tales of more glamorous forms of suffering. They do it because their kind of suffering is not recognized yet: the suffering of not being famous in a culture that values only a few famous people, with the rest reduced to adoring, starved spectators. The suffering of being one of those slavish spectators will be understood, I suspect, a century from now. People of the 22nd century will look back, shake their heads and wonder how lives like those lived by the cast of The Office could be borne at all.

And when they do, their culture's desperate literary entrepreneurs will come up with their own forgeries, exploiting this older, more glamorous and scarce form of suffering. They will write fake memoirs with titles like I Was A Claims Adjuster in Tacoma or Three Years in a Tract Home Near Dallas. And their audience will shiver with horror and settle down for a nice, long read.
John Dolan is an editor of the Moscow-based English-language alternative paper The eXile. He is the author of, most recently, Pleasant Hell (Capricorn, 2005). This article has been corrected.
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