Literature of lying: the cover is blown on yet another tall story

Margaret Jones's poignant memoirs told of a deprived gangland childhood and her struggle to escape her upbringing and win a place at university. The publishers loved it. But there was just one snag, reports Andy McSmith...
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We all have our fantasies about the lives we might have lived if we had been someone more interesting than we actually are.

Some of us even go so far as to invent or embellish a tale about something that almost happened to us. But it takes a kind of mad commitment to invent an entirely new life story for yourself, with a new name, a new family background, perhaps even a new nationality or religion, and be prepared to face an audience and carry a false life story with you everywhere you go.

Impossible though it may seem to most of us – a devastating indictment, no doubt, of our lack of imaginative powers – there are nonetheless exceptions: people who not only tell tall tales about themselves but write them down in exhaustive detail and disseminate them around the world by means of best-selling books.

The latest case of fakery causing waves in the American publishing industry involves a work that came out last month called Love and Consequences, by a 33-year-old single mother, Margaret B Jones, who claimed to have escaped a gangland childhood to achieve a university degree and a place in the middle class. The publishers, Riverhead, a subsidiary of Penguin Group US, were understandably delighted with the book, which fitted into a burgeoning genre of "misery memoirs" – people in the tradition set by writers such as Frank McCourt who can write lucidly about their troubled childhoods. It was also a gangster memoir, but with a difference: the first insider account of the criminal fraternity written by a woman.

She was, she claimed, half white, half Native American, and had been fostered at the age of eight by a black family linked to the Los Angeles Bloods. She was drug running before she reached puberty until a sympathetic high school teacher set her straight and helped her win a place at Oregon University. The book was lauded in last Thursday's New York Times as "an intimate, visceral portrait of the gangland drug trade of Los Angeles".

But the giveaway was the set of photographs of the author and her eight-year-old daughter that accompanied the New York Times review. After they appeared, the publishers received a telephone call from a woman named Cyndi Hoffman, to say: "That's not Margaret Jones – that's my sister."

The entire story, it turned out, was phoney. The woman posing as "Margaret Jones" was actually 33-year-old Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in a prosperous Los Angeles suburb, had no native American blood, had never been fostered, never dealt in drugs, and had not even graduated from Oregon University. Almost the only thing she had not lied about was her age.

Her publishers have pulped the entire print run of Love and Consequences, and cancelled her speaking tour. Sarah McGrath, of Riverhead, who worked on the book for three years, described the deceit as "a huge personal betrayal as well as a professional one." She added: "It's very upsetting to us because we spent so much time with this person and we felt such sympathy for her and thought we were doing something good by bringing her story to light."

An unkind reaction might be that the world of publishing has been asking to be taken for a ride by someone like Margaret Seltzer for a very long time. Ever since McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize more than 10 years ago for his childhood memoir Angela's Ashes, the doors of publishing houses have swung open to more and more people with personal stories to tell about bad things that happened to them when they were young.

This genre is booming as other aspects of publishing are struggling, and now have spawned three sub-genres – memoirs you can rely on, memoirs that are a bit dodgy but still a good read, and memoirs that are a pack of lies.

The "dodgy" category includes A Single Step, written by Heather Mills, before she married Paul McCartney. One of her claims was that, in 1976, she and the child next door were kidnapped and held captive for three days by a paedophile who later killed himself. She was sued by Margaret Ambler, who had lived next door to her and was sexually assaulted as a child. Mrs Ambler said there was no kidnapping and the assailant did not commit suicide, and Mills was never a victim.

Also in the "dodgy" category is A Million Little Pieces, published in 2002, a first-person account by James Frey, a young drug addict in Chicago, which was denounced three years later as being "a million little lies". Frey admitted it was partly made up, and opinion polarised around whether he had cheated the public or written a good book that should never have been mistaken for the literal truth.

Last month, Misha Defonseca, a 71-year-old Belgian living in Massachusetts, admitted through her lawyers that her acclaimed memoir, Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, published in 1997 and translated into 18 languages, was a fake. In it, she claimed to have lived with wolves after her Jewish parents were abducted by the Nazis, and she claims to have killed a German soldier. Her parents were not Jews, but Belgians; whatever mistreatment she received in childhood came from relatives who took her in when her parents were killed.

You might think that publishers had learnt to treat Holocaust memoirs with special caution after the affair of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose book Fragments: Memoirs of a Childhood first appeared in German in 1995.

During his world tour, Wilkomkirski reduced his audience to tears with accounts of his infancy in the concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz – until a suspicious journalist whose father had been interned in Auschwitz demonstrated that Wilkomirski was not a Latvian Jew, as he claimed, and had spent the entire war in an orphanage in Switzerland.

Australia was similarly taken in by Helen Demidenko, a 20-year-old, who wore Ukrainian folk dress, drank vodka heavily, and wrote a best-selling account of how her father and uncle had turned into Nazi collaborators after witnessing the destruction of their homes in the Stalin era.

She won several literary prizes before it emerged her real name was Helen Darville, and no one in her family was Ukrainian.

"There has been this incredible boom in 'misery memoirs' over the past few years," said Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller. "It's almost like the readers become immune to each new low, so in order to get impact you have to push to more extremes.

"These are Joe Ordinaries with rags to riches tales, or rags to slightly better rags, and that makes their stories difficult to check against any published record. There has always been an acceptance that a level of creativity goes into some of these works but what is different is when you get a con artist selling a whole life story that is different from reality. Getting caught like that is very grim for any publisher."

So what drives people to invent entire histories for themselves? One thought is that they are mentally deranged, like Anna Anderson, a German woman who spent most of her life masquerading as Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, until she was interned in an asylum.

Another possibility is that they are coldly in it for the money, because there is serious money to be made from fake memoirs. Defonseca, for example, successfully sued her publishers for $22.5m (£11m)in unpaid royalties, a judgment that was upheld by a Boston court as recently as 2005, before her exposure.

But Oliver James, the psychologist, believes that Margaret Seltzer and others like her are not mad, but neither should they be thought of as con artists who lie for the cold-blooded purpose of cheating others out of money.

"I suppose most hard-headed readers of The Independent will say, 'Oh come on, she was in it for the money' but actually I think it's more complicated than that. I don't think anybody has gone to those lengths purely for money. When Heather Mills pretended to be somebody else, she wasn't doing it for money," he says.

"At one extreme, you have schizophrenics, who have no sense of their own self and may really believe they are somebody else. At the opposite end of the scale, you have someone like Tony Blackburn who, when I interviewed him, said he wished his whole life could be a radio broadcast because he feels most real when he is being a radio personality.

"Somewhere along that scale you have people who have a weak sense of self and only feel real when they are pretending to be someone else."

And, judging by the way these people react when caught out, it often seems that, in a parallel world of their own making, their invented stories are somehow true. Poor Binjamin Wilkomirski had a complete breakdown when he was exposed as a sham, as if life as an abandoned Swiss orphan had no meaning for him. Helen Darville, by contrast, has found another outlet for her talent for telling a convincing story, by retraining as a lawyer.

Margaret Seltzer insisted she had meant no harm, and believed her attempted deception might do some good for people she had known in Los Angeles who did come from gangland backgrounds. "I was in a position where people said, 'you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk'," she said. "Maybe it's an ego thing – I don't know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it."

Whatever her intention, she wasted three years on a book that is never going to sell and has brought her public humiliation.

Five more literary liars

Thomas Chatterton; The Rowley Poems

Rowley, it was said, lived in the reign of Edward IV, and was the author of a lot of romantic poetry. In fact, he was a teenage poet from Bristol named Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide in 1770, aged 17. The "Rowley" poems were collected and published in 1777. Chatterton was not identified as the author until years later.

Misha Defonseca; Surviving With Wolves

The account of a small Jewish girl taking to the woods to escape the Nazis was translated into 17 languages. Last month, Defonseca was forced to admit she had made it up. She says her real name is Monique de Wael, and her parents were resistance fighters killed by the Nazis.

Helen Demidenko; The Hand That Signed The Paper

This 20-year-old Australian, real name Helen Dale, or Darville, claimed her family were Ukrainians whose experience of Stalinism made them Nazi collaborators. Being exposed made her more right-wing, she said, because progressive opinion inAustralia was more outraged than the right by herdeception.

James Frey; A Million Little Pieces

Frey wrote a brilliantly lucid account of a 23-year-oldaddict's three months in jail, describing his lover's suicide, and his rebirth in a treatment centre, which sold more than two million copies. But counsellors who worked at the rehabilitation centre in Minnesota said it was fake, and under questioning, Frey seemed unable to recall very much of his former life.