Mike Daisey had a link to the following story today:
In "Love and Consequences," a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.
The problem is that none of it is true.
Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all
white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had
I turned on the radio when I went out to lunch, and at the end of the 11 o'clock hour Tom Ashbrook apologized to listeners, but he also added a statement that is really pertinent:
"With the recent issues, going forward we will have to really take discuss the issue of how we deal with memoirs." He then added that really the entire industry will have to take a look at this.
I think the fault really lies with the publisher, but how are reviewers, or hosts like Tom Ashbrook supposed to deal with sketchy memoirists? Up to now, I guess they have been relying on some apparently non-existent vetting processes in some of these publishing houses. Are reviewers supposed to now become investigative reporters?
I probably wouldn't have posted about this, but having heard the author on the radio, talking and telling these stories, and then finding out that she was a complete fraud was a little weird.
We all build in a calculation for the bullcrap effect. We so deeply expect, for instance, that people exaggerate stories or embellish the edges of experience, that we don't even give it a thought. Why? I think it is because we have in our DNA something that so deeply loves a good story.
I once had a friend who told a story about how he was drunk one snowy night. After his girlfriend dumped him he was stupidly driving drunk when, on the way home, his car broke down. He started to walk down the road looking for help, but it was really cold. He spotted a fenced in lot with a fleet of school buses in it and he went in to seek warmth in one of the school buses. After getting inside, he saw the keys were in the bus. In his drunk and despairing state he decided he would drive the schoolbus to the nearest service station to get help. He started up the school bus and tried to ram down the gate, which he did and then drove out onto the snowy road. The bus got stuck about the same time the police arrived. They chased him through the snow and some backyards until finally subdueing him.
Now, I have told you the outline of his story, but to hear him tell it is an enjoyable experience. I am leaving out many details, and even some plot points that, well, pretty much seem to stretch belief. At these particular points in the story it is not uncommon for a member of the gathering to say: "No!" "No...they didn't!" or "You didn't?!"
These questions are not thrown out as accusations, but as almost joyful encouragements to continue.
Now, I am sure that my friend's actual experience was not as he had perfected it over numerous tellings. But would people really care that much if they knew that he never got the bus out of the parking lot before the cops showed up, and that his chase lasted about 50 yards before he stopped and let the burly cops wrestle him to the ground? Probably not. They might care though if they found out that all or some of the core facts were completely made up. Or that the incident never happened.
Then again, would some of those who loved hearing his tale even want it to be revealed as total falsehood? After all, we're all suckers for a good story.