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.
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.”
4. The Autobiography of Howard Hughes by Clifford Irving
Writer Clifford Irving had already received a $765,000 advance and had delivered his manuscript of The Autobiography of Howard Hughes to publisher McGraw-Hill by the time the billionaire industrialist finally came forth to sue the publisher, saying that he had never met with Irving or given his approval for the project. Irving had gambled badly that the reclusive Hughes would never surface to denounce the hoax. By forging letters and setting up phony interviews, Irving had convinced the publisher and several key experts that the autobiography was authentic. He’d also managed to obtain a copy of a manuscript about Hugh’s right-hand man, which gave Irving’s work its remarkable detail.
After the swindle unraveled in 1972, Irving spent 17 months in prison. His book on the experience, The Hoax, was made into a film starring Richard Gere in 2007.
5. The Hitler Diaries
In 1983, the German magazine Stern published excerpts from some 60 volumes of Adolf Hitler’s diaries that had allegedly survived a crash near Dresden of a transport plane carrying the Führer’s personal effects. The sheer scope of the diaries, spanning 1932 to 1945, and their banal detail had persuaded British historian and Hitler expert Hugh Trevor-Roper of their authenticity. But Stern’s desire for secrecy on their sensational scoop had held it back from seeking more authoritative testing. Comprehensive analysis revealed historical inaccuracies in the text and inks and paper that dated after World War II.
The editor at Stern who had instigated the deal and the diaries’ forger were sentenced to four and a half years in prison for duping and defrauding the magazine, which had paid the equivalent of roughly $3.5 million for the counterfeit journals.