Five reasons why you should not write a fake memoir


It’s been a bad week for fake
memoirists. The other day, Margaret B. Jones‘ “memoir” about
her troubled youth as a drug runner in South Central L.A., Love and
, was exposed as pure fiction.

It seems that Jones is actually
Margaret Seltzer
— a privileged, white Valley Girl who never lost
foster brothers to gang violence or purchased a burial plot with drug
money. Oops.

Days earlier, Misha Defonseca‘s
1997 memoir, Misha: A Mémoire of the Hollocaust Years, was unmasked as a fiction.

Defonseca’s story was even
more outrageous than Seltzer’s tale of urban gang life. She claimed
that as a Jewish Belgian child, she traveled 1,900 miles in search of
her deported parents. Along the way, she killed a Nazi soldier, ended
up in the Warsaw Ghetto and was adopted by a pack of wolves. As it turns
out, she did survive the arrest and murder of her parents by Nazis,
but she never left Belgium, never killed any soldiers and was never
adopted by wolves. Oh, and she’s not Jewish.

Now, I generally try to avoid
giving unsolicited advice, but I’m going to break that rule here: If
you’re ever inclined to write an inspirational memoir about your life,
base it on your actual life. If you’d rather make it all up, call it
fiction. I think that’s good advice. And here are my reasons why.

1. You will
probably get caught.

The internet makes it really
easy to check facts these days. Remember when James Frey got busted for fabricating and embellishing many
of the more dramatic elements of A Million Little Pieces? And
Oprah Winfrey
and his publisher and everyone who previously supported
him were really embarrassed? Well, add two new high-profile fakes to
the mix, and editors are probably going to start checking stories a little
more carefully.

Of course, the fact that the

Misha publishers failed to seriously question the “raised by wolves”
claim does make me think that perhaps I’m wrong about this.

2. Oprah
might yell at you on national television.

So far this has only happened
to James Frey.

But it had to be really embarrassing.

3. Your siblings will have
the opportunity to exact revenge for all the things you did to them
as a child.

Margaret Seltzer’s sister was
the one who ratted her out, saying “It could have and should
have been stopped before now.” And “I don’t know how [the publisher]
do[es] business, but I would think that protocol would have them doing
fact-checking.” (I would think so, too.) Ouch.

So if you’re tempted to write
the great fake memoir, remember when you refused to let your little
sister play Atari. And when you told on your brother after he held you
down and spit on you. They might finally have the perfect opportunity
to laugh the last laugh.

4. People will write really
mean things about you in the reviews section of

You can read the Love and
comments here. And the Misha comments are here. They’re not very nice. And it’s not
fun to read the comments of people who don’t like you or your writing.

5. You’ll forever be known
as “the person who wrote the fake memoir about being raised by wolves.”

In all fairness, you’d have
to write a memoir about being raised by wolves to get this moniker.
(But I imagine you could get a number of other similarly embarrassing
titles, many of which would include “liar” and perhaps “pants
on fire.”)

Now, I honestly don’t want to
dismiss or disparage Misha Defonseca’s clearly traumatic childhood.
Violently losing your parents at a young age must be horrifying, and
I can appreciate that a child would construct a heroic fantasy life
to deal with the trauma. But publishing a memoir that claims you were raised
by wolves? That is, perhaps, taking things a bit too far.

So, when you sit down to write
your memoir, unless you actually were raised by wolves, you might want
to stick to the more boring, but true, stories that probably won’t actually
get you a book deal.

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