The Literary Life

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This Really Happened . . . Sort Of

Perpetrators of fake memoirs are getting smarter as the stakes get higher.

There's an unspoken bond of trust between reader and author. If it's in print, we think, it must be true. But that's not necessarily so. Literary hoaxes have been foisted on us since the 5th century BCE, when 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. These days, the motive behind literary hoaxes is usually money.

One literary form in which fakery has been especially rampant is the memoir or autobiography. This is my life, an author says, and who's going to say it isn't? But readers, perhaps jaded as a result of having been tricked so many times before, no longer take memoirs at face value, and a number of them have been proven to be partially or wholly untrue. In some cases, even the author doesn't exist. Here's a list of our top confirmed modern-day memoir hoaxes.

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Mafia Misinformation

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.

Deception Down Under

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.

Satanic Silliness

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.

Traumatic Youth

Memoirs of harrowing upbringings are a popular subgenre in the world of faux memoirs. 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, purported to be the book's "editor," Beatrice Sparks, 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 claimed 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 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.

Native American Nonsense

In 1976 a writer named Forrest Carter published The Education of Little Tree, an account of growing up among the Cherokee Indians. As it turned out, the author was actually Asa Earl Carter, a former white supremacist.

Approximately 25 years later 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 Dössekker who had fabricated his Holocaust-survivor past.

Misha: A Mémoire 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.

Misery Lit

Oprah was also taken in by James Frey's hugely successful A Million Little Pieces, the author's grueling memoir of drug addiction and recovery (including root canals without anesthesia for fear of an addictive reaction to Novocain). When it was revealed that Frey had exaggerated many of the book's key elements, Oprah had both the author and his editor, Nan Talese, as guests on her show. She blasted them. David Carr wrote in The New York Times: "Both Mr. Frey and Ms. Talese were snapped in two like dry winter twigs."

Fictional Friend

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.

Exclusive Access

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. Later Irving published a book called The Hoax in which he detailed his and Suskind's scheme in detail. In 2007 a film version of The Hoax was released, starring Richard Gere as Irving, Alfred Molina as Suskind and Marcia Gay Harden as Edith.

No one will argue that the authors of these fake or partially fake memoirs aren't talented writers. Each of the books above will provide you with hours of lively entertainment. Just keep in mind that for the most part, they're pure fiction.

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Evan Marshall is the president of The Evan Marshall Agency, a leading literary management firm that represents a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors.

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