Topic: Business & Commercial

Fake Memoir Ethics: Of Seltzer, DeWael, and Wolves
(3/21/2008)

After Richard Frey embarrassed Oprah Winfrey by deceiving her, book critics and many thousand of readers with his moving, inspirational, and almost completely made-up personal memoir "A Thousand Little Pieces," there was considerable public debate over how accurate an individual's recollections of his or her own life had to be before they turned a "memoir" into a novel. From an ethics point of view, it's not much of a debate. If a memoir leaves out embarrassing incidents or misrepresents facts and event because the writer sincerely recalls them imperfectly, that is acceptable; a memoir, after all, is interesting precisely because it is a particular individual's reflections on his or her own life, not an impartial history. When a writer intentionally makes up incidents or distorts facts to deceive the reader, as Lillian Hellman famously did in her memoir "Pentimento," that's lying. To the extent that the lies make more people buy the book (a movie, "Julia," was made out of Hellman's fake memories), it is fraud.

That's not so hard, is it? All of the excuses made for Frey, with pundits "explaining" that the memoir is some kind of fiction/non-fiction hybrid, were rationalizations. Did the author believe what he or she wrote when he or she wrote it? To listen to some of Frey's apologists, one would conclude that when the "J. Peterman" character on "Seinfeld" paid others for the rights to their life experiences so he could put them in his memoir as his own, he wasn't doing anything unusual or deceptive.

Now two more writers of celebrated memoirs have admitted that they are really novelists practicing fraud. Riverhead Books, a unit of Penguin Group USA, had to recall all copies of "Love and Consequences" and cancel the planned book tour of its author, Margaret Seltzer. Writing under the pen name of Margaret B. Jones, she had written about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up as a foster child in South-Central Los Angeles, running with the street gangs. None of it was true. A profile of the author was seen by Seltzer's older sister, who called the publishers and enlightened them about the book's fabrications. (She has taken a bashing in some circles for being disloyal. Ethics Tip: if a family member is engaging in a national scam and you know it, blowing the whistle is the right thing to do. Do alert the family member before making that call, though.)

Seltzer had to come clean, and admitted that the personal story she told in the book was entirely fabricated. She also invoked the spirit of Seinfeld's "Peterman" by emphasizing that many of the details in the book were based on the experiences of close friends, as if that makes her dishonesty more forgivable. It doesn't.

Belgian writer Misha Defonseca had a different set of excuses a couple of weeks earlier, when she finally admitted through her lawyers that her international best-selling 1997 memoir, "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years," was completely made up. She wasn't a Holocaust survivor who lived with a pack of wolves to escape a Nazis death camp. Nor did she wander thousands of miles across Europe in a heroic and desperate search for her parents, killing a German soldier in the process. She's not Jewish, and revealed that her name isn't Misha: it is Monique DeWael. She is, however, rich, thanks to her phony memories being bought by gullible readers in 18 languages and being made into a popular French film.

"This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving," Defonseca said. Translation: "My way of surviving is to trick people into buying a cheesy novel because they think it's an amazing true story."

It is time to hold publishers accountable for their roles in these frauds. They are evidently only too happy to take an author's word that a book is a memoir, no matter how unlikely the story (living with wolves, huh?), because all that matters to them is whether the book makes money. Jane Daniel ushered DeWael's book through the publishing process after hearing her tell the fairy tale in a synagogue. She now says she didn't check the facts because "there was nothing to research;" wolves keep such awful records, you know. Yet Sharon Sergeant, a genealogical researcher in Waltham, Mass., became suspicious about Defonseca/DeWael and tracked down her real identity after a couple of months of sleuthing. Daniel could have hired Sergeant, or someone like her. She had an obligation to do so.

When a publisher advertises a memoir as a true story, the book-buying public assumes that it is doing so based on more than a stranger's unsubstantiated assurances. The publisher is vouching for the truth, or at least the sincerity, of what has been published, and cannot ethically do so on faith---or greed---alone. Fakes and liars like Frey, Seltzer and DeWael can't defraud readers out of their hard-earned cash if publishers do sufficient fact-checking, including tough interviews and research, before allowing fabricated memories land on the book shelves. Lawyers call this "due diligence." Ethicist call it "responsibility" and "accountability."

And not doing it, when publishing fantastic memoirs is involved, is what Kevin Costner would call "Dancing with Wolves."

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