Telling the unvarnished truth in an autobiography or memoir is no small feat. The urge to slip in embellishments or heighten a dramatic arc through exaggeration can be hard to resist, especially when aiming for a compelling life story. But the past few decades have seen an increase in an entirely different category of memoir—the hoax, where the truth, if it’s even present, is of little consequence. Here are five stunning examples of literary fraud.
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1. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
The 19th-century American humorist Josh Billings once said “There are some people who are so addicted to exaggeration that they can’t tell the truth without lying” His observation might well have described writer James Frey, who fabricated large parts of his so-called memoir, A Million Little Pieces, a gritty account of his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. Though to be fair Frey had presented the book initially as a novel, publishers only developed interest in it after it was described as a true story, looking to meet the reading public’s hunger for hard-luck memoirs.
The 2003 memoir became a huge bestseller after Oprah Winfrey selected it for her TV show book club in 2005, but quickly turned into a major literary scandal that next year. As allegations grew about its many inventions and falsifications (Frey claimed he had spent 87 days in jail when he had been imprisoned for only a few hours), Oprah had the writer back on the show to castigate him for lying. In 2008, Frey made a literary comeback with his best-selling novel, Bright Shiny Morning.
2. Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones
After the uproar over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, publishers would have been well served to vigorously vet memoirs, but this 2008 account about a part American Indian foster child immersed in gang life in South Central Los Angeles managed to reel in both its publisher and glowing reviews before it was discovered that none of it was true. In reality the author Margaret Seltzer, who had used the pseudonym Margaret B. Jones, was white, grew up with her biological family in Sherman Oaks, an affluent Los Angeles neighborhood, and had attended private school.
Seltzer’s sister revealed the Love and Consequences memoir as a phony, after seeing a profile about Seltzer in the New York Times. Seltzer later justified her deception, “I thought it was an opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.” The publisher recalled the 19,000 copies of the book.
3. Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca
In her 1997 book, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, Belgian-born Misha Defonseca described how she set out alone, at age 7, to find her Jewish parents who had been deported by the Nazis. Walking 1,900 miles across Europe, over the course of five years, she spent time in the Warsaw Ghetto, lived with wolves and killed a German soldier in self-defense. The book had limited success in the United States but became a best-seller overseas and was translated into 18 languages and made into a French film.
In 2008, eleven years after the book’s publication, an American genealogist unearthed Defonseca’s baptismal certificate, indicating she was Catholic, as well as evidence that she had attended school in Brussels during the time she was supposedly on her trek. The Nazis had executed her parents who were members of the Belgian resistance. Defonseca confessed in a statement that “Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish…. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.”