Five reasons why you should not write a fake memoir

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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

Consequences
, 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 Amazon.com.

You can read the Love and

Consequences
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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