Revealed: The Cartoonishly Racist Faked Memoir That Duped the NY Times
Last month, it was revealed that the New York Times and Manhattan publishing world were deceived by Love and Consequences, a faked memoir by a white girl who claimed to live the life you only hear about in Dr. Dre songs. The damage control was so good, the book never saw daylight, and we never knew how big of an embarrassment this cartoonishly racist gangster fantasy should have been. But last week a copy arrived at my doorstep.
Supposedly written by gangsta moll Margaret B. Jones, Love and Consequences turned out to be the work of middle-class liar Margaret Seltzer. She had invented the tale behind a laptop at Starbucks, tricking not only her publisher, but also her fans at the Times, which graced the memoir with repeated coverage.
After it was revealed her work was a forgery, the damage control was swift and successful. On March 5, with the book just out the door, the New York Times revealed the hoax, if not just how bad it was. Her agent, Faye Bender, told the paper, reassuringly, that "there was no reason to doubt her, ever." And that set the tone for the coverage. Love & Consequences, wrote the L.A. Times, must have seemed "edgy, sexy, cinematic."
Except it's not. As a true story, this book would have been less about "love" and more about crude racial stereotypes. As a hoax, it reads as easily the laziest forgery ever to receive a six-figure advance and a rave review in the Times.
In an important sense, the real scandal was never discovered. Thanks to the book's speedy recall, we missed what should worry everyone: the catastrophic failure of the New York Times's B.S. detectors, which we thought they tuned up after the twin factual fiascos of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller.
Copies are going for $78 online, but one slipped through the blockade. So here, for the first time, are the Cliffs Notes.
Chapter One: Lost
Year: Unknown. Margaret B. Jones watches her friend, "Kraziak," bite the dust in a hail of AK-47 bullets. This is what we call in media res-opening mid-story.
In this passage, which the Times excerpted, Seltzer places herself in a ghetto battlefield that could have been a video game mission in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. "We were smoking niggas," she concludes, after spilling a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor for a dead comrade, "sending them to heaven every day."
Tipping the 40: almost every under-35 hipster, stoner, or frat boy on a liquor run has at one time trivialized important social problems by joshing about this fabled street rite. Here this Caucasian joke is made flesh, as the amber liquid burns Jones' throat. A "big homie smiled at me," she recalls, "and then slipped the remaining cups over the neck of the Hennessey bottle ..."
Easily the strongest writing. From here on it speeds downhill, and the story becomes less believable.
Chapter Two: The hand you are dealt
Flash back to around 1979. Jones is an innocent toddler in foster care who loves Make Way For Ducklings but is shell-shocked from dimly described sexual abuse. The transition into G-life is hazy. Here she introduces a major theme, an excuse for the oddly psychologically flat tone of the book, its lack of introspection. Turns out she has PTSD, and is too stunned by life! "If I couldn't feel it," she writes, "it couldn't hurt me."
Chapter Three: Start from scratch
1982. Margaret ticks off L.A. highways as she's driven to her new home in the vicinity of Slauson and Central avenues, but the journey sounds more Mapquest than memory. Then, with the arrival of Margaret's new caretaker, Big Mom, the narrative detours from N.W.A.'s Greatest Hits territory into the world of Aunt Jemima fantasies. It doesn't take an African-American Studies major to get bad vibes from the stereotypical treatment of the saintly mammy. Big Mom has no interests of her own; she wears an austere white dress on the book cover, calls everyone "child," and asks the Lord: "I know you don't give me more than I can handle, but please, sweet Jesus, help me with these youngstas."
Everyone else speaks in what Times critic Michiko Kakutani called "colorful, streetwise argot": nigga this, you'ze a punk-ass that. Kakutani also called the book "humane and deeply affecting."
By now, even on the book's own terms, it's barely working as a memoir, in which someone thinks about their life. Instead it's like a doll's house of African-Americans, displayed for us in supposedly authentic glory.
One night Margaret has been having a cutesy conversation with God, when gunshots wake her! Outside she sees a guy covered with blood. Not knowing why, she finds herself writing, in crayon, the words "South Central." Poor, unsuspecting Margaret!
Chapter Four: Conceptions of shade
1983. Margaret discusses skin color with adopted brother Terrell, in what is supposed to signal an Autobiography of Malcolm X-style dawning awareness of racial consciousness. "Living here," she observes, "white seemed to mean rich people who didn't understand or care." Another insight: Turns out black people don't even want to be white!
A false note is struck as we see Taye, another kid, playing the old Atari Combat tank game, and yelling at the TV, "Bam, nigga, take that. Yea, nigga, what now?" First of all, Combat was paced like molasses. Second, this is a good place to mention that aside from that Atari 2600, authentic '80s flavor is conspicuously AWOL from the setting and slang. It all feels very modern. Sure, some words have been around forever. But where's "sucka"?
Margaret tries to use Terrell's afro pick, in a moment of adorable ethnic tourism. We end on a note of cheap fatalism that will define the rest of the book. What critics mistook for fresh pathos was a sentimentality stolen from airbrushed T-shirt art memorializing the slain rapper 2Pac. "A nigga didn't choose this, it chose me," a voice echoes in Seltzer's head. "It ain't my fault the streets was kalling."
Chapter Five: God's favorites
Terrell is committing crimes, applying to be a gangster. Seltzer presents this as a methodical process, almost like applying for advanced placement tests. "Everyone had a rank ... and everyone else knew what it was ... Others had failed to prove themselves and were known as as 'punks,' 'marks,' and 'bustas,' unable to raise themselves above the ruins they had become ..."
Loads of bad "street" dialect: "[G]o ask this nigga some shit ... Easy kome up, feel me? [...] So homie walk up to the nigga and ask him some bullish ... that kinda shyt ... [etc.]" (An author's preface reproaches us lest we take offense: "Please do not confuse the use of slang and my replacing c's with k's as ignorance or stupidity." OK.)
Taye confronts Big Mom: "Where exactly is ure God? ... God is jus like everyone else. He jus don't give a fukk."
Just as Big Mom begins thrashing Taye for this deist rant, Seltzer lectures us in a high-school-paper tone on "the tradition of beating children in the black community." She's trying to cover her sociological bases, so she also takes us into the doors of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the rock of the community. She describes it in an awkward aside that sounds like Wikipedia.
And you're wondering, where are the moments that feel spontaneous, like life? All that time at church, and Seltzer will only say of it: "The pastor was well aware of the interconnectedness of the community's people, and it was reflected in his sermon, which seemed to speak directly to me and the things going on in our family."
Then, on the way out of church, everything turns into a Shaft movie for a second:
I walked beside Mother Evans, carrying her Bible ... I smiled back, but then, before I could say anything, a man came around the corner of the building and grabbed Mother Evans by the arm.
"Gimme the purse, ol' lady." His head looked nervously from side to side. "And the diamond ring, too."
Mother Evans shook her head ... She reached slowly toward her bag, but then, instead of taking the bag from her shoulder, she reached into her coat and pulled out a small pistol and turned back on the man.
"Punk ass mothafukka," she said, pointing the pistol in his face. "Git up on outta here, you ain takin shyt. Punk mothafukka." The man looked shocked for a minute and then took off ...
Mother Evans tucked the pistol back into her jacket and opened her door as if nothing had happened.The rest of the book
Sad to say, it just gets worse. Instead of providing a believable arc by which snow-white Margaret Jones becomes an "Original Gangsta" -- fanatically devoted to dealing drugs for the Bloods, but somehow able to leave it for college -- the book disintegrates into a series of juvenile episodes.
Margaret Jones goes to McDonald's ... her friend makes life hard for caricatured Korean store owners ("You no touch, you no touch!") ... a guy named Rodney barricades himself against the LAPD ("This is your last chance to do this the easy way, Rodney") ... she visits a black prison inmate in the Central Valley of California, whose whole schtick seems ripped off from Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour Of Chaos," being that he, like rapper Chuck D, resents a female corrections officer. Oh, and Margaret screams "Nooooo" as the cops kill her dog, Bitch, who then bubbles over with blood and twitches for two pornographic pages.
By the last chapter, "The Last Threads Of Innocence," she will have overcome her blind hatred for the Crips -- the reason she doesn't use the letter "c" -- and, to her surprise, fall in love with one. And she will have learned the code of the streets from a drug dealer Slikk. We can forgive Seltzer for falling short of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, but when she recalls such advice to young Gs as "in war, strive for rendering the enemy harmless," you wonder why gangsters would bother drawing up a code at all. That code also advises the G to strike with the force of a "vicious act of terrorism." That line is also an uncredited swipe from the Wu-Tang Clan album Enter the 36 Chambers, which wouldn't have been released yet.
Slikk insists she attend college. But she protests: "I am L.A. I'm-a-die in this bitch." But when she gets in, she makes Big Mom so very happy ... Another chapter begins with a dead giveaway to any native Los Angeleno. An August day is being "cooled" by a "touch of Santa Ana wind." I can understand why a New Yorker would miss it. But as we know out here, these "devil winds" are hot. They "make your nerves jump and your skin itch," Raymond Chandler once wrote, and "every booze party ends in a fight." Now that's what an L.A. underworld should sound like.
In the world of Internet fan fiction -- in which amateur fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other shows imagine new adventures, they have a derisive term, the "Mary Sue Story," for wish-fulfillment that crosses the line. That's when a certain kind of fan breaks the rules and makes herself the hero, fascinating everyone, saving the world.
This story, about a white girl who makes black people happy by escaping from their ghetto, is a Mary Sue story about race. And people ought to be upset that it passed for realism.