Behind the Curtain at TMM

More on 'Love and Consequences' ...

I am driving to work this morning at the crack of dawn (late, not trying to lie about it ... visits every three hours from small people with demands for more milk, for an escort to the potty, will do that to you), when the phone rings. It's production associate Arwa Gunja informing me that the book we planned to talk about today, Love and Consequences, by Margaret B. Jones, a book she and I both devoured and adored, is a complete lie.

Huh?

Front page of The New York Times?

Huh?

I shake off the cobwebs and ask, "did you call her? ... What did she say? ... I know it's early in the morning (before 7 a.m.), but we have her phone number, so let's use it. Ask her what all this is about?"

Margaret does not answer. No surprise.

When I get to the office, my jaw drops even further as I read that Margaret, whom I'd interviewed last week, is a complete liar. She is not half-white, half-Native American, as she claims. She was never in foster care. She never lived in South Central Los Angeles.

Her real name is Margaret Seltzer, and she was raised in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles (where the Jackson Five moved after leaving Gary, Ind.). And while she claimed the book was based on her knowledge of the lives of friends in gangs, it is most certainly not her personal story.

She never even graduated from the University of Oregon.

The book (we received an advanced copy) was just published. It turns out that a lifestyle piece in The New York Times, not the original rave review a week earlier, was her undoing. Her "real" sister saw it and blew the whistle.

I noticed that a lot of people are pursuing interviews with people connected to the publisher, but I am more interested in her. Why did she do it? How did she think she could get away with it? Did she think her biological family would never tell? ... That they would disown her? ... Adopt her lie as their own?

I also want to tell you how utterly convincing she was. How she completely inhabited this character she obviously created, and how she even explained her composite characters to me. For example, a scene in the convenience store she told me about "Niecy."

Is this mental illness? ... Ambition?

I have no idea, but I do know that she is right about one thing. If she had called this the novel it is, I would never have talked to her. I just would not have. In fact, I received a publisher pitch from another woman who wrote a novel "based" on her experiences in an inner-city neighborhood. I passed on it, in part, because I feel there are too many "real" stories that are not being told.

So, you'll note that we brought you our interview with Jimmy Breslin this morning. We'd planned to air it next week, as part of a complement of stories about gang life.

Jimmy is beloved in New York, where I am from. I think his work stands up over time. His book, The Good Rat, is based heavily on court records, so I don't have any fears about this one.

On the Scouts ...

We had different views about Boys Scouts and Girls Scouts expressed this morning. I want to point out a book written by Texas Gov. Rick Perry that defends the Scouts position opposing gay troop leaders. Check out his book and an interview with him a week or so ago in The New York Times.

I need coffee now. My head hurts thinking about all the talented people who have been undone by big lies — James Frey (A Million Little Pieces earned the wrath of Oprah for presenting his fake memoir as true), Jayson Blair (New York Times reporter fired in disgrace for plagiarism), Stephen Glass (formerly of the New Republic, fired for fabrication), David Brock (former conservative attack dog journalist, now dedicated to liberal causes), Janet Cook (the former Washington Post reporter forced the paper to give back a Pulitzer Prize for fabricating a story), Misha Defonseca (her Holocaust Memoir was shown to be a hoax).

There's really only one question: why?

Will we ever know?

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I had to go back and re-read the NY Times article. She gave a quote that is really coming home to roost:

"There is no greater sin in war than ignorance. Never speak or act on anything you aren't 100 percent sure of, or someone will expose your mistake and take you down for it."

Rather prophetic in hindsight.

Sent by Michael | 9:41 AM | 3-5-2008

Mental illness? Sometimes. Ambition? A lot of the time. Greed? All the time. People are greedy. Who wants to be a millionnaire? Your roadmap to millions. Make millions in your bunny slippers. Get rich on the Internet in a 4 hour workweek. Make a living without having a job. Buy a mansion with bad credit and no money down. (Well, that was last year.)

With messages like these all around us, it any wonder that some people feel like life owes them millions? That making money is more important than earning a living and making a genuine and lasting contribution to the world?

The love of money is indeed the root of all kinds of evil.

Sent by Donna Maria Coles Johnson | 11:04 AM | 3-5-2008

I do not understand the pathology of lying but I think that if these authors that fabricate such terrific traumas had really lived the lives to pretend is theirs they would hopefully have more respect for the hard lives some have to endure. I am working on a memoir about growing up in a domestic violent household and I would hate for my mother's story to be diminished in any way because of people who lie for profit. Her's is a story that really should be told.

Sent by Andrea Roach | 11:15 AM | 3-5-2008

I'm sorry to say this, but I think NPR really set itself up for this by your eagerness to romanticize such stories and by your complete lack of skepticism. This story had something for everybody: blacks, whites, native americans, the impoverished, gang members, and even gullible suburban whites. Something about that should have indicated to you that the story was impossible.

Sent by William Huff | 12:00 PM | 3-5-2008

First off, I heard that show and fell victim also, although I do not feel victimized. I think we all should have hope that someone has escaped a terrible situation that was portrayed on that show. But how can you interegate a person, telling their story,in order to prove their story is genuine,without them feeling insulted. If a person wants to deceive others, they can and will do it. I do not condone what the author did, but one way or the other, it is a true story for so many and gives a little hope to them. I don't take this personal and I will still enjoy your program. Thank you

Sent by Pete from New Haven | 12:28 PM | 3-5-2008

Just to comment on all these fabricated books. Just a few insightful questions would have exposed these people. I think of the story of the 5 year old heroin addict years ago, who can really believe a five year old is capable of shooting heroin????? Is it really feasiable that a girl can live with wolves in Eurpoe? The question I ask, why are we, the public, so quick to swallow these stories. And saying you would hve never spoke to hear if it were presented as fiction, well. there in lies the motivation for her deception. But I tend to have a keen insight for fakes, I always knew Milli Vanilli was lip-syncing and were fakes.

Sent by Anne K. | 12:43 PM | 3-5-2008

Thanks a lot, Margaret Setzer. You've just given the genre of memoir and creative non-fiction another black eye. You've just made it that much more difficult to publish good works of memoir.

Sent by Paul E | 1:49 PM | 3-5-2008

Sorry, I have to push back on some of this.

First, the listener who claimed there is an "eagerness to romanticize these stories."

Who says?

I read the book, and there is nothing romantic about it. It's very light on the ghetto fabulousness, very heavy on the small details of how poverty wears you down.

And while we're contemplating the whys of human behavior, maybe we can spend a minute on why people love to feel smug about other people's mistakes.

What is it about people that calls forth this "I knew it all along" business when it just isn't that simple? I can't speak to the Holocaust survivor in the woods business -- I never even heard of that book until the scandal -- the book sold very little in the U.S. ... And about the Jimmy story -- about the boy who was supposedly shooting heroin -- by Janet Cook, your facts are off. The boy was supposed to have been eight, not five, and he did not shoot himself up.

Remember, I was at The Washington Post then. In that case, A LOT of people tried to speak up about that story, they were not listened to.

A very different scenario.

Sent by Michel Martin, host | 2:35 PM | 3-5-2008

I can't relate to the false Holocaust memoirs, or memoirs that are putting pain to an identity, but I can relate to the Jayson Blair, "do it because I can" mentality. I am Indian American (of the subcontinent) and was born in California. My parents moved to the US 12 years before I was born. I have only been to India a handful of times, and only as a visitor. I haven't studied India in school, nor do I know that much factual information about it. Still, many many people I know ask me about it, and take my word as gospel. I take care to note that India is a country of one quarter of the world's population, but they don't seem to care that I speculate and generalize about such a vast population. I often think about how silly it seems that no one takes any more care to examine what I say, and often makes me want to say extreme and untrue things, just because I can. More fool you.

Sent by Nisha Bhatt | 2:42 PM | 3-5-2008

If we are gutwrenching honest, we'd admit that her "life" provided a level of entertainment (distraction from workday boredom, etc.). Listeners should quit playing the victim and have a little personal responsibility in the matter. You invested yourself poorly. It happens. It still served its lesson to educate. Perhaps not how we expected, but educate it did at the very least to the importance of integrity and the dangers of blind faith.

Sent by Stephanie | 3:01 PM | 3-5-2008

First, let me say I don't condone what Margaret Selzer did but I really want to know why her sister snitched. Seriously! What was the motivation for the sister not to confront the new toast-of-the town author personally for her embellishments, but relish the opportunity to give her over to public scorn?

Is it only me that thinks that maybe this kind of dysfunction with their sibling relationship might be a reason the author embodied another persona in her so called "memoir?"

Second, what about the publishing house? That's the entity that folks anger should really be directed especially just two years after the James Frey incident. The publishing houses are the ones that are more quick to stamp a new book as "memoir" to generate more sales especially for a new author than give a truly talented writer a chance for a work of fiction.

Sent by Moji | 3:56 PM | 3-5-2008

Could someone please do the investigative reporting and follow-up on this story that should already have been done by now?

1. Is the girl pictured in the NYT Home & Garden piece Seltzer's daughter? Does Seltzer have a daughter?

2. What was her relationship and history with her real family? Was she estranged from them? Was there any basis for her to believe that no one would recognize her photograph? Did anyone in her real family, or any of her friends, know of her deception?

3. Where did she get the money for her house? Does she really own it? Did a 4-bedroom house in Eugene really only cost $400,000?

4. What has happened to her agent, editor, and publisher, the NYT book reviewer, the NYT reporter who interviewed her, and WBUR's interviewer, Tom Ashbrook? Is anyone examining the conflict of interest that arises from the fact that these frauds, even after they're exposed, often sell books at a spanking rate, largely because of all the name recognition they gain from the controversy? Is everyone taking the agent, editor and publisher at their word that they really had no idea about the fraud? (Yes, of course the publisher is withdrawing the books and offering a refund. But I wonder about who's meeting with Seltzer now to start work on the memoir-about-the-memoir, a potentially lucrative product.)

5. What's going to happen next for Seltzer? Is she going to repay her advance? Is the movie deal over -- or are they going to turn it into a movie about the fraud, as they did with the JT Leroy movie, Sarah?

6. Considering the profit incentive, and the conflict of interest, how are we going to prevent publishers to turn a wilfully blind eye to future frauds, as they did here?

Sent by JMB | 7:25 PM | 3-5-2008

JMB...Ask further along the lines of what Faye Bender was thinking when she setup the International Brother/Sisterhood website back in the end on 2007 in anticipation for the publication of this book.

These players all started with an ending and filled in the spaces as they went along. But then again, that's a nothing unique for fiction writers.

Sent by Kevin Fitzroy | 1:30 AM | 3-6-2008

Good Morning,
I am just as confused as to the lies that were told to get 15 minutes of fame or is that 20 in the publication of "Love & Consquences". Enough attention has been distracted from our real problem in the streets today facing our youth.
I thought she was such a courageous person for coming forward as I tuned in to the interview and even telephoned in an attempt to let her know that to be so courageous in the name of saving lives
was just--well--I don't really have the words for this now. It leaves me thinking of the book "Thank You God For The Morning". This is a true publication and one I recommend.
Now for my second cup of tea. =)

Sent by Mary Lou Ferro | 9:42 AM | 3-6-2008

In Thomas Rick's excellent book on Iraq, "Fiasco," he makes the point that the military has a tradition of looking at its mistakes, and trying to formulate better strategy and tactics for the next war, but that the media rarely does. Ironically, he cites the New York Times as perhaps an exception to this, with the role of the "Public Editor," and their reexamination of the Judith Miller "fiasco." Yet the NYT's has clearly done it again, in spades.

JMB, above, raises some excellent questions. Could NPR take a break from "Hillary says this," and "Obama says that" and answer all of JMB's questions? I have some more, not so much on Seltzer herself, but the issue of the media coverage:

1. How do media organizations as diverse as the NYT, NPR and the news blog "Truth Dig" all decide at the same time that this book is newsworthy?
2. How do the critics -- the name should imply some sort of critical thinking -- all get snookered by this fraud, when at least 5-10 enormous red flags are flying? Why, oh why do we have to rely on a heroic sister who has gotten her share of abuse for being "disloyal," and accused of perhaps being the real reason for the Seltzer fraud?
3. Why do so many people think that even though it is "fiction," we will still be able to obtain insights into the South Central ghetto when the book contains lines like: after my first drug sale, I purchased a cemetery plot?
4. Like the officers who study the mistakes of the last war, will one media source take, as an act of atonement, the task of uncovering the next fraud -- and they are certainly out there -- and not rely on a sister to do it?

Sent by JPJ | 10:32 AM | 3-6-2008

I realize I'm weighing in on this a bit late, but I just listened to the episode and feel compelled to write. I want to reiterate Mr. Lane's assertion that, regardless of their motives, these fraudulent writers can cause very real harm.

There is no way we can measure, for example, the number of drug addicts and alcoholics who were tragically influenced by James Frey's false paean to self-reliance in "A Million Little Pieces." It is difficult enough for addicts -- and especially young addicts -- to admit they have a problem and seek help. The exposure Frey received with publication and subsequent praise in reviews and on Oprah's show for his "courage" only reinforced the notion that treatment centers and/or 12-step programs were bogus and anti-individual (Nurse Ratched, anyone?). The wrong that Frey had already done could have at least been somewhat mitigated had Oprah not concentrated on what she perceived as a personal injury to herself and her audience, and instead devoted that time to an exploration of the book's misrepresentation of these avenues of recovery and the real help available to suffering addicts and alcoholcs.

I'm afraid I'm not as generous as your commentators were in their analyses of possible motivations for these writers. As a believing reader who never "sees it coming," I've only thought of them, once they've been exposed, as self-serving. Now, after listening to the commentators, it's nice to think that there may be better motivations. But unfortunately, intentions don't erase the fact that more ammunition has been given to the ranks of denial -- whether it is in the mind of a single drug addict, or -- far more tragically -- in the agendas of those who would bury the horrible truth of the Holocaust and the ongoing acts of genocide that continue today. That's where the harm of co-opting another's truth really lies, and as long as we continue to financially reward these writers after the fact, it's a wrong for which, ultimately, we are all answerable.

Sent by Martha Attisano | 12:44 PM | 3-6-2008

I love novels, especially first person narratives. I am always suspect of memoirs and autobiographies. The authors are giving you the view they want you to see. We may want to believe that this is truth (with a small t or a capital t) more than the author is trying to portray it as truth. It is memory. And there are those who clearly believe that truth/memory is more powerful than a well told story. I am not sure what goes on in the mind of the person who takes this to the extreme and creates the memory in order to make the good story. Knowing absolutely nothing about this young woman or the others doesn't lead me to want to psychoanalyze her or judge her too harshly. We want and they give.

On the other hand, the follow up story you did with the authors who specifically study these hoaxes was FASCINATING. You may not be able to give us all the follow up that one of the commenters called for (though I would enjoy that as well), I truly appreciate the analysis!

Oh, and I also appreciate you putting the interview up. I think it was a testament to your bravery and integrity to give us the inside scoop on both her presentation of herself and the way you felt about the book (and her). Listening to it after knowing the truth was also fascinating. Now that's real life drama I can get into.

Sent by Anna | 1:23 PM | 3-6-2008

One thing I'm wondering: With the apparent hostility between Margret Seltzer and her sister, her own story may just be more entertaining than the one she concocted. Who will ever know?

I abhor these types of fantasy autobiographies.

My wife is an English teacher and a great writer, and has had a very unusual life. She grew up in Singapore and Jamaica and then was sent to a boarding school in the U.S. before going to college at Northwestern.

We just went through some boxes and discovered a bunch of letters, diaries, photos and other information from the mid 50s to the late 70s.

I've been suggesting that she write her memoirs for some time. She wrote a short autobiography for a workshop that we attended, and it was so beautifully written and read by her that people were weeping. And it didn't concern death, poverty, drugs and murder.

It's my guess that it's going to become a lot more difficult for legitimate authors to publish truthful, interesting autobiographies in the future due to these types of cases.

Sent by Mark Terry | 12:44 AM | 3-7-2008

I find the whole affair fascinating. Unlike Frey who was a "lite" version of the guy in his book, Seltzer created a whole fictitious self. I have many questions: Was her editor/friend in on it? She must have been. What was Seltzer's relationship with her real family? And so on. This is what tickles me: My "real life" was similar to Seltzer's fictitious one. I was lucky enough to go to a public high school in a wealthy suburb of Boston, and then went to Smith College. Despite rotten grades, I was accepted, in part by "native intelligence" (Ha!) and because of my background. I wanted nothing more than to be like my classmates - big houses, skiing trips sailing, intact families. Most of my friend's parents we academics at elite colleges, such as MIT. The kids I knew, some of whom are still my friends, had everything. Well, except for one thing: street cred. What makes this so appealing? White people want to be black people. Nobody hit this American phenomenon on the head like Albert Murray, I think. (btw, I'm Irish Catholic.) Sure, Seltzer did it for the money, but also because there are many white Americans who are "informed" by black culture. (Sorry, the designated African American doesn't roll off my tongue or spring easily from my keyboard, as black culture is an international phenomenon. ) The reason Seltzer painted herself as half Indian is how could she ever pass as black? I had not read the book, and wondering if I will find it. One review said she portrayed the poverty and desperation of her characters well. Why do white people always focus on things like this when they consider non-white culture? It's like describing a pretty girl, and focusing on a few pimples she might have. There's a whole lot of reverse minstrelsy going on, I say.

Sent by Diane Gordon | 7:41 AM | 3-7-2008

P.S. Another thought after I posted. Shouldn't a work stand on its own? Not all writers, or artists for that matter, are people you'd want to sit next to on a plane. Yes, she lied about who she is, but so what? William Styron caught a lot of flak for his Nat Turner book, yet won a Pulitzer for it. From my perspective, the "story" of Seltzer dreaming her alt.homie life is a story in itself.

Sent by Diane Gordon | 8:09 AM | 3-7-2008

I think that there are more literay hoaxes published about Native American people because non Natives cling to the racist stereotypes about us that they contain. Lynn Andrews, Carlos Castaneda, Hunbatz Men, Mary Summer Rain, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Vincent La Duke (Sun Bear)The Education of Little Tree, Nasdijj - all these authors concocted elaborate literary hoaxes and yet they are are still more popular among non Natives that all the works of serious scholarly Native authors combined. The Nation tried to psycho-analyze Jones, other papers blamed everything on economics - not having enough money to check the facts.
Do some deeper analysis and address the institutionalized racism in the white dominated publishing industry. Why does white American love the lies better than the truth? Why weren't there any Native American staff around this publishing house that could have exposed this obvious hoax before it went to print? Jones knew to peddle the stereotypes that her white college educated peers expected to hear. Why has there been no discussion of the institutionalized racism in the publishing industry that makes it easy for authors to create these hoaxes? Is there even a single Native American employed in any position of authority in the publishing house that printed this collection of stereotypes?

Sent by Danny Lopez | 9:06 AM | 3-7-2008

I agree with Danny Lopez. Let's have an NPR story on:
"Do some deeper analysis and address the institutionalized racism in the white dominated publishing industry. Why does white American love the lies better than the truth? Why weren't there any Native American staff around this publishing house that could have exposed this obvious hoax before it went to print? Jones knew to peddle the stereotypes that her white college educated peers expected to hear. Why has there been no discussion of the institutionalized racism in the publishing industry that makes it easy for authors to create these hoaxes? Is there even a single Native American employed in any position of authority in the publishing house that printed this collection of stereotypes?"

Sent by WT | 12:57 PM | 3-7-2008

I listened to the show regarding this book and I generally agreed with what was said however, I disagree with a comment about American Indians as a population that is suffering, poor and unable to help themselves.
American Indians are a resilient population in North American. They have survive genocide by the american government.

Sent by sandi | 12:22 AM | 3-8-2008

WT: Wow, good point - very likely that Seltzer wouldn't have passed the "sniff test" if a publishing employee had some real life knowledge of the world she wrote about. Remember Eddie Murphy's "White Like Me" skit? As soon as the bus is all-white, he discovers the drinks come out, and everybody starts to party. Consider how many businesses are like this, including publishing. Consider also, no publicity is bad publicity - any possibility that even the tattle tale sister was in on it? My daughter goes to a small school that is intentionally very multicultural. (Beyond the student body, one of her profs is from Iraq, another from Nicaragua, and her linguistics prof is a world wide authority on Mohawk language, etc.) There is so much talk about "white guilt." Until there are some changes that the previous commenters speak of, white people will have this uneasy love/hate relationship with non-white cultures. Let's say the book people believed Seltzer - then she got to "pass" and was therefore trusted. This happens - Jamaica Kinkaid, if you remember, was married to the son of the editor of the New Yorker, and even before that, sucked up to the rich well-connected white boys at Franconia College, so she got an exemption. (I know because I was there.) Most people out of the club will not get an exemption, and so their voices will never be heard, unless it appeals to the white folks. Ironically, the more the white people are "spanked" (did you read "A Small Place?") - the more they like it. Any solutions to institutionalized racsim/segregation? Pointing to the exceptions to this rule doesn't help the rest.

Sent by Diane Gordon | 12:59 PM | 3-8-2008

To answer WT's question, there probably isn't a Native American person in the the house that published this book. Isn't Margaret Seltzer writing this story (with the bundle of money that comes with it) a little like Paul Whiteman getting all the high paying gigs that Duke Ellington's band could easily have played? Problem being, of course, that the high society gigs that Whiteman's band played didn't hire anybody who wasn't white. Same old thing, I'd say.

Sent by Diane Gordon | 10:15 PM | 3-9-2008

I met Peggy while attending U of O, when she was a Starbucks employee whom a friend supervised there. She was known as a compulsive liar who spoke at length about her Native American heritage and her ethnic studies major, and had a white fluffy dog. Seems like she opted for the ghetto version of her so-called life experience in order to sell books, and traded in her wimpy dog for a pitbull -- what a metaphor.

Sent by angie | 3:01 PM | 3-10-2008

She has caused plenty of damage. In Eugene she built a following of naiive young adults with her romantic tales of life in "da hood". Kids would sit at her feet and listen to her spin tall tales. Even now they are in denial that she lied.

She has followers in Eugene who believe that it is Peggy/Seltzer/Jones biological mother who has tried to sabotage this book.

It's a strange cult.

Sent by Paul Hopkins | 7:24 PM | 3-14-2008

On the credibility of the publishing company: With all their failings to account for, now they must add lack of knowledge of English grammar. The SVP states "We feel bad for our readers....".

Sent by Helen Robison | 7:22 PM | 3-21-2008

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